In an ideal world, we would all enjoy the same access to opportunities and resources, irrespective of skin color, but we do not live in an ideal world. From a lack of mentorship, to difficulties in raising startup investment, black entrepreneurs face disproportionate challenges in terms of trying to get their businesses off the ground.
In this article, we look at the inspiring stories of seven black business leaders who rose to the top of their respective industries despite the difficulties they faced.
1. Janice Bryant Howroyd
Janice Bryant Howroyd is one of the most successful business leaders of any race or gender in the United States today. She is the founder of ActOne Group, the first African-American female-led US business to bring in an annual revenue of more than $1 billion.
Howroyd started the enterprise in 1976, with just $900 to get her business up and running. Based in Los Angeles, ActOne has grown from humble beginnings to dominate the recruitment industry.
As of 2020, Janice Bryant Howroyd had a reported net worth of approximately $285 million.
2. Wally Amos
Amos worked for the prestigious William Morris Agency. He was the first black talent agent employed by the Saks Fifth Avenue-based firm. Amos worked with Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Sam Cooke, and he is credited with discovering the legendary singing duo Simon and Garfunkel.
In 1967, Wally Amos relocated to Los Angeles, where he tried to establish his own agency. The business sank further and further into debt. Amos fell back on his Aunt Della’s chocolate chip cookie recipe.
With financial backing Marvin Gaye and other stars, Amos embarked on an innovative marketing campaign. Opening his first cookie store in Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles in 1975, Amos quickly opened two more West Coast franchises, as well as supplying the New York department store, Bloomingdale’s, becoming “Famous Amos.”
3. Berry Gordy
Prior to finding his niche in the world of entertainment, Berry Gordy had a somewhat eclectic career. It was comprised of stints in the US army, professional boxing, record store ownership, and working on a factory assembly line.
Berry Gordy is perhaps best known for founding of the Motown Records label. He was also a gifted songwriter, writing and co-writing several Jackie Wilson hits, including “To Be Loved,” “Lonely Teardrops,” and “Reet Petite.”
Gordy invested considerable time and effort into developing the performers signed by Motown, working with numerous headlining musicians, including Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, and Marvin Gaye. Berry Gordy sold the Motown Records label to MCA in 1988 for a reported $61 million.
4. Daymond John
Daymond John’s legendary entrepreneurial skills started in the school playground, where he began selling customized penicils to his first-grade classmates. He is the creator of the FUBU clothing brand, increasing the company’s exposure by lending apparel to popular musicians who wore his clothing in music videos.
Today, Daymond John is perhaps most well-known for serving as a judge on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”
5. David L. Steward
David L. Steward is the founder of World Wide Technology, an organization that employs more than 5,000 people and has an annual revenue of over $10 billion. World Wide Technologies is one of the largest private companies in America today.
The company, which he founded in St Louis, Missouri in 1990, is a long way from the poverty and discrimination David L. Steward experienced as a boy. The entrepreneur, who is today worth an estimated $4 billion, says he vividly remembers segregation in schools and movie theaters, and being banned from the public swimming pool.
6. Tracy Reese
Tracy Reese is a fashion designer whose brands have been featured in Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Anthropologie, and Nordstrom.
Reese owns her own flagship store in New York. Famous for her bold, rich colors and unique prints, she has dressed some of the world’s most famous women, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Tracee Ellis Ross, Oprah Winfrey, and Michelle Obama.
Tracy Reese has served on the board of several industry organizations, including NEST Artisan Guild and the Directors of Fashion Designers of America. In 2019, she launched the Hope for Flowers label, a collection of responsibly designed and manufactured clothing. The label aims to create positive societal change, working in collaboration with artisans in Detroit and delivering arts programming in public schools to empower women and young people.
7. Madame C.J. Walker
In 1912 she gave an address at the National Negro Business League convention, explaining that she started her worked life in the cotton fields. She was promoted to laundry, and then to the kitchen. From there, Madame Walker explained that she advanced to the manufacturing of hair goods and preparations, building her own factory, on her own ground.
After establishing her factory in Indianapolis, Walker expanded her company internationally, opening new operations in Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, Panama, and Costa Rica. Madame C.J. Walker was America’s first female self-made millionaire, earning her vast fortune by developing and marketing hair and beauty products designed especially for black women.