(L. to r.) Earl Bernard, Nyema Tubman, Richelieu Dennis, Nubian Heritage management team.
Richelieu Dennis and Nyema Tubman started as street vendors, selling incense and oils on the sidewalks of 125th Street. They now own a city block in Harlem that’s home to their flagship lifestyle store.
At 64,000 square feet, Nubian Heritage’s commercial buildings span the length of Fifth Avenue between 125th and 126th streets in New York City. Its flagship store, opened in 2004, features a café, a flower shop, an aromatherapy area, a bath and beauty products department and a leased cosmetics section on the ground floor. Upstairs is a partially constructed high-end day spa that will soon provide pampering services to Harlem residents.
For Richelieu Dennis and Nyema Tubman, former college roommates and owners of Nubian Heritage, the acquisition of this concrete mammoth is a testament to their tenacity, determination and perseverance. In fact, it was only three years ago, under the auspices of the National Black Theatre, that the buildings were in receivership. To both save the edifices and preserve the African-American cultural institution, Dennis, 36, who is responsible for Nubian Heritage’s business development, and Tubman, 36, chief financial officer, formed a partnership with the National Black Theatre and bought the buildings, now valued at more than $14 million, out of foreclosure.
“We wanted to create something that would be a showcase of our Black culture and that would be an embodiment of us all—Africans, African-Americans and Caribbeans,” says Dennis of their decision to purchase a Harlem landmark.
Ken Knuckles, president and CEO of Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Corp. (UMEZ), says cultural economy is the centerpiece of his company’s investment strategy. To assist Nubian Heritage in developing its Harlem retail space as well as expand its Internet distribution-based center, his organization provided the company with a total of $1.4 million in capital from 2003 to 2005.
“We think [Nubian Heritage is] a very prominent presence in Harlem. The café and store represent another choice for Harlem by having another retailer that sells quality goods to consumers from which they could choose,” says Knuckles.
Dennis and Tubman facilitated their vision of business ownership soon after they graduated from Babson College in Massachusetts. After he was fired from a sales job at a fragrance company in 1991, Dennis hit upon the idea of making his own bath and body creations. “From the very beginning we started making our own products. We bought the formulation and contracted with perfumeries that pointed us in the right direction,” says Dennis as he tells of his early days testing products in the apartment he shared with Tubman.
But the duo’s dreams of entrepreneurship did not include hawking incense, body oils and shea butter on the bustling sidewalks of Harlem. “I needed money. I didn’t have any,” says Dennis of his decision to set up tables outside to sell their wares.
Because civil war had broken out in Liberia, their homeland, Dennis and Tubman were unable to return home upon graduation. Explaining the difficulties he faced living in the United States with his partner after leaving school, Dennis says the war destroyed all of their family’s personal possessions and resulted in the tragic loss of family members. Yet, much was gained from those hardships that helped foster their entrepreneurial mission. In their first year on the streets they earned $100,000 and a priceless commodity—direct contact with their customers.
By the second year, Dennis and Tubman had started manufacturing their products in a 3,000-square-foot manufacturing plant. Instead of selling just incense and oils, they were now able to mass-produce body products, such as lotions and soaps. In addition to moving products on the streets through wholesale distribution to street vendors, they also started selling to convenience stores, health food shops, gas stations and beauty supply retailers.
By the mid-1990s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s crackdown on street vendors and outdoor markets had forced many Black self-employed individuals off the sidewalks of 125th Street. This action also caused Dennis and Tubman to reevaluate their distribution channels. Although they had a strong network of street vendors, to make their brand viable they needed a storefront. In 2000, with money saved from their earnings, they opened their first Nubian Heritage store on Fulton Street, a commercial strip bordering the Fort Greene, Brooklyn, downtown area.
In the window of their original storefront they placed a large sign that read “Buy Black.” That sign still exists today.
By incorporating the double-duty dollar doctrine, which promotes the concept of simultaneously buying a reputable product and advancing the cause of Black-owned businesses, Nubian Heritage was able to tap into the sentiment of maintaining a strong ethnic economy in the Black community.
“‘One hundred percent Black-owned’ (a phrase that appears on some of the Nubian Heritage packaging) says very clearly that we’re proud of what we’re doing. We’re proud of trying to foster Black businesses. We’re not trying to take money out of the community. We hire people from the community. We train people from within the community,” says Dennis, citing his creative director, Jullanar Barron, who started out as a summer intern in 2000 and now oversees interior design and product packaging for all of the Nubian Heritage stores as well as the spa.
Dennis says Nubian Heritage’s product mix is reflective of the ongoing changes in the neighborhoods in which the stores exist. As such, they now carry more multicultural books and home décor items. “We’re an inclusive business. We enjoy relating to people, and with new people, we have to make sure we welcome them,” Dennis says.
For a business that was launched by two twenty-year-olds selling incense and oils on the streets of Harlem, Nubian Heritage has come a long way. The company currently boasts 75 employees, five stores in the surrounding New York City area that sell its incense, oils, and proprietary brand of bath and beauty products, and a 50,000-square-foot manufacturing plant that churns out a line of skin care products as well as beauty treatments for retail and wholesale distribution. Among its customers are high-end luxury destination spas for which Nubian Heritage creates private-label beauty concoctions.
Because of the company’s rapid growth, in May 2005 Dennis and Tubman brought on a partner, Earl Bernard, 41, a Black Belt in the Six Sigma Belt System of quality management and former assistant project manager for Bechtel, who now serves as Nubian Heritage’s chief operating officer. Spearheading the reorganization and restructuring of the company, Bernard also oversees day-to-day manufacturing operations. His primary focus is on process improvement.
“Rich and Nyema have done well, but one of the challenges we have is making decisions by the seat of our pants—because I think it’s the right thing to do, instead of based on data that can help to cut costs and enhance productivity,” says Bernard.
With sights set on duplicating the Nubian Heritage concept in other predominantly African-American markets throughout the country, and expanding sales via the Internet, Tubman says Nubian Heritage is more than just a store.
“It’s a whole lifestyle. We’re making our people feel good about themselves and respecting their culture,” he says