A 2018 report by Nielsen puts black buying power at $1.2 Trillion. Not only is the African American population buying, they’re also starting businesses at a record rate. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2018 there were more than 2 million businesses in the country owned by African Americans. Black owned businesses are a vital component of the economy and National Black Business Month is a great time to reflect on some of the African American business leaders in the U.S.
National Black Business Month
August 1st marks the beginning of National Black Business Month. This observance highlights the important role of African-American businesses to the Black community as well as to the overall national economy. Historian John William Templeton and engineer Frederick E. Jordan Sr. founded National Black Business Month in August 2004 to “drive the policy agenda affecting the 2.6 million African-American businesses.“
Early Black business pioneers
Profit-making businesses were created by both free and enslaved African Americans. Early pioneers included:
Lunsford Lane - Tobacconist
Born in 1803, Lunsford Lane exhibited entrepreneurial talent and a determination to buy his freedom. He is most famous for writing a slave narrative that included descriptions of his business activities while in bondage and his troubles securing his and his family’s freedom. With the help of his father, Lane sold pipes and developed a special tobacco with a “peculiarly pleasant flavor.” By working as a tobacconist, Lunsford Lane amassed one thousand dollars, enough to purchase his freedom.
William J. Brown - Shoemaker
William J. Brown was born into a free black family in Rhode Island and faced discrimination and unethical treatment as he established his trade and career. He described his uphill struggle to find work and obtain respect from his fellow New Englanders in his autobiography Life of William J. Brown of Providence. He eventually became a skilled and successful shoemaker.
James Forten, Sr. - Sailmaker
James Forten, Sr. learned the sail-making trade after the Revolution. By developing a tool to help maneuver the large sails, Forten built up one of the most successful sail lofts in Philadelphia. He employed both black and white workers. Because of his business acumen, Forten became one of the wealthiest Philadelphians in the city.
William Johnson - Barber
After being emancipated by his master in 1820, William Johnson became a successful black businessman in Mississippi, operating a barber shop, loaning money, and acquiring real estate. Johnson bought the barber shop for three hundred dollars and taught the trade to other free African Americans.
Mifflin Gibbs and Peter Lester - Merchant
A self-taught carpenter who arrived in San Francisco with a mere 60 cents, Mifflin Gibbs got a job working at a shoe store. There, he met Peter Lester, another free black man. The two started up their own business and went on to make a fortune selling luxury shoes. Gibbs and Lester would emerge as leading activists in the local black community and Gibbs later became a businessman, lawyer, politician, and abolitionist.
Elizabeth Keckley - Dressmaker
After purchasing freedom in St. Louis, Elizabeth Keckley moved to Washington, DC, and became the dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln, producing elegant gowns for the capital's elite women. Her 1868 autobiography, Behind the Scenes, explores her enthusiasm and initiative in creating her business.
Top 15 Black-owned businesses today
Here are Black businessmen and businesswomen who have founded successful enterprises in America.
Dave Steward, Chairman of the Board and Founder
Steward is the Chairman of World Wide Technology, founded in 1990. With more than two decades of experience in the technology industry, David held various senior-level management positions with Wagner Electric, Missouri Pacific Railroad, and FedEx. Steward holds a bachelor’s degree in business management from Central Missouri State University. Steward was also awarded Honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters by Harris Stowe State University and Lindenwood University.
He’s quoted in the New Pittsburgh Courier saying,
“Our brand is the trust level we bring to the marketplace, so we must represent excellence and put a stake in the ground as to whom you will be and what you will stand for; then take a stand on your values and stay true to them.”
Robert Frederick Smith, founder, chairman, and CEO
Smith is an American billionaire businessman, philanthropist, chemical engineer, and investment banker. In 2018, Smith was ranked by Forbes as the 163rd richest person in America.
Born in Colorado to two parents with PhDs, Smith trained as an engineer at Cornell University, earning his BS in Chemical Engineering. Following his MBA from Columbia Business School, he worked at Kraft General Foods, where he earned two United States and two European patents.
He’s talked extensively about the black business landscape in America.
“African Americans, I think are some of the most interesting people on the planet. We’ve had some of the most challenging journeys, but we’ve brought so much joy. I am showing the current generations of African Americans they can do it, too. So the next generation can go even higher."
Janice Bryant, Founder and CEO
ActOne Group is the largest privately-held, woman and minority owned workforce management company in the U.S. Operating in 19 countries across the world, the business has over 17,000 clients and 2,600 employees worldwide.
Bryant is a North Carolina native who left her hometown in 1976 armed with $1500. Having grown up in the segregated South, she faced discrimination. As one of the first African-American girls in her town to attend an integrated school, her brothers had to escort her to and from school for her safety. She has now dedicated her efforts to building an organization that is committed to keeping the humanity in Human Resources.
Bryant was selected by former President Barack Obama to serve as a White House appointee, and continues to serve under the current administration, as an Ambassador of Energy. She gives generously through funding and advocacy for STEM education, particularly for women and minorities.
In a CNBC interview, she says,
“Only you can determine how you show up, and I think it’s really important to put a lot of emphasis on how you are in the moment. That includes preparation, your attitude and sometimes it’s going to include resourcing or funding [from] the simple support of whoever is helping you at home.”
Gwen Jimmere, founder and CEO
After getting laid off at her previous job, Gwen Jimmere started selling homemade products she created with items from her kitchen. Naturalicious has become one of the nation’s fastest growing hair care companies and Jimmere proudly holds a spot in history as the first African American woman to hold a patent for a natural hair care product. Rave reviews of her products have appeared in Inc. Magazine, The Washington Post, Entrepreneur, Black Enterprise, Essence, Fast Company, and Buzzfeed, to name a few.
Seen the Magazine interviewed Jimmere in 2019. Her motivating answers are a great fit for Black History Month.
“Black History Month comes around each year, and I get asked to speak at places, and it’s really cool, but what’s so fun about it for me is the fact that I’m the first inspires others to realize they can do it too. And I think it’s also because they know the story of that I don’t come from money, I don’t have a rich uncle, I did this with my time…I was a single mom so if I could do it, anybody could really do it. There’s really no excuse.”
Kayla Robinson, CEO
Green Box Shop was conceived in April 2016, out of an 800 square foot apartment. When founder Kayla Robinson couldn't find any bold social justice tees she decided to make them herself. Green Box Shop is now a growing and evolving business.
In a 2017 interview with Teen Vogue, she says,
“I do my best to stay up-to-date with current events and listen to how these events make everyone feel. I pick about 1-2 shirts at a time to sponsor a non-profit organization to offer relief to the issue at hand. My team and I have also started to do group volunteering once a month in our community of Broward County, Florida. I want people to feel powerful in my shirts. I want them to understand that their voice and their actions matter. They have the power to make an impact and they will be heard.”
John C. Merrick, Founder
In 1898, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company was founded by a group of black social leaders who pooled their own resources. They created an insurance company for the underserved African-American community. One of those founders, John Merrick, was born into slavery and then built up a successful barbershop business with branches throughout the Durham area before moving into insurance. North Carolina Mutual was the largest black-owned business in the U.S. for much of the 20th century and is still thriving today, with assets of over $160 million, according to Wikipedia.
Although there are not records of quotes from Merrick, the company website states,
“The success of this mutual enterprise was a tremendous source of pride for African-Americans in Durham and across the country in those early days of freedom.”
Andrea Jackson, Founder
With more than $250 million in annual revenue, Indiana-based Millennium Steel Service definitely belongs on a list of successful Black-owned business.
The company was founded in 2001 by husband-and-wife team Henry and Andrea Jackson, and Andrea is now running it alone since Henry’s death in 2007. Jackson also runs another thriving industrial firm, Millennium Steel of Texas (MST) in San Antonio, Texas.
According to Wikipedia:
“He remained enthusiastic even though he was discouraged on all sides from doing so. Only his mother, a woman with biblical faith and deep religious convictions, as well as a powerful belief in her son, supported his vision and allowed him to use her furniture as collateral for a $500 loan.”
Angela Samuels, CEO and founder
Samuels began Voluptuous Clothing as an initiative to empower young women through vibrant, flattering and stylish clothing. Angela hired her mother Cynthia Rowe together they took on the task of changing the views of plus-sized women. Today, as a result of her hard work, determination and the strong support of her family-run executive team, Voluptuous Clothing has a loyal customer base and continuously increasing sales. Voluptuous has tripled in sales over the past several years.
Samuels explains why she started her company:
“I saw a lot of younger girls who were bigger and I realized that they grow up thinking they're different than everyone else, that they're not a part of society because they're not a size three. I thought that if I could empower them with the self-esteem they need, maybe they would look at life differently and have a better chance to become successful.”
Daymond John, Founder
Daymond John is the founder of FUBU, a 6 billion dollar clothing company. To get his business off the ground, he mortgaged his house in Queens and made and sold his own hats with a group of friends. FUBU is now a global hip hop apparel brand. John also appears as a key investor for the popular television show Shark Tank. He says,
“If you don’t educate yourself, you’ll never get out of the starting block because you’ll spend all your money making foolish decisions I’m a big advocate of financial intelligence.”
Durell Coleman, Founder
Durell Coleman wishes, when he was a teenager, someone had told him he had the power to change the world. These days, he is busy being just that person. His firm, DC Design, is a social impact design firm dedicated to addressing pressing social challenges. He has worked to redesign aspects of the foster care system, develop new approaches to criminal justice reform, reimagine healthcare service models, create apps that connect communities, and develop new educational models for the 21st century.
Trained in mechanical engineering and sustainable design, he is a two-time alumnus of Stanford University and its Institute of Design . Durell regularly lectures on social impact design, innovation, and leadership at Stanford.
From the DC Design website:
“I launched a Kickstarter campaign to buy an industrial laser cutter for one of my projects. In 7 days, the project was funded and I used that laser to build DC Design into a contract product design and prototyping business. That year, I hired my first employee and we continued to hone our design approach: repeating what worked and learning from our mistakes.”