In celebration of Black History Month in February, Stash looked at some of the biggest challenges facing black business owners and how they are overcoming those obstacles. Here’s a look at eight African American entrepreneurs who are leaders in their individual industries.
CEO and president of FUBU
Daymond John is one of the most recognizable names in business and fashion thanks to his clothing line, bestselling books and his “shark” status on ABC’s hit show “Shark Tank.”
But he started his empire with just $40 of fabric. He mortgaged his home to create FUBU with a group of friends. The clothing retailer has since made $6 billion in retail sales.
John’s personal net worth is estimated around $300 million.
Co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts
Sheila Johnson is the first black woman to attain a net worth of one billion dollars. Johnson, an accomplished violinist and former music teacher, built BET with her then-husband in 1980 to reach black audiences. She founded the privately held Salamander Hotels and Resorts in 2005 after purchasing farm land in Virginia.
She also is the first black woman to have ownership in three professional sports teams — the Washington Mystics (WNBA), the Washington Wizards (NBA) and the Washington Capitals (NHL.) Johson is also a noted philanthropist.
Annie Turnbo Malone
Founder and owner of the Poro company, founder of Poro College
Annie Malone, born in 1869, was the first black woman in the U.S. to start a line of hair care products aimed specifically at black women. She started by creating a hair straightener that wouldn’t damage black women’s hair like other products and then expanded to other hair care and beauty products designed for and marketed to black women.
While Madam C.J. Walker, another black hair care entrepreneur and Malone’s one-time employee, is often cited as the premier black female businesswoman of her time, it was Malone who got her start first, debuting her products in St. Louis in 1902.
Malone was heavily involved in her community, founding Poro College in 1918, and used her wealth to empower other black women. She was reported to have been a millionaire by the end of World War 1.
Madam C.J. Walker
Founder and owner of Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to recently freed slaves, Walker spent her early years on a Louisiana plantation and later moved to St. Louis, Missouri with her daughter to escape a life of poverty.
She began experimenting with hair care products after a scalp condition caused her to lose much of her hair. In 1904, Walker met fellow black entrepreneur Annie Malone and joined her team as a sales agent, using and promoting Malone’s product, “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower.” Walker used $1.25 to break out on her own and launch her own line of hair products for black women. The business boomed, with a mail-order component and a large factory in Indianapolis. Her company employed 40,000 African American women and men in the U.S. Central America, and the Caribbean.
While Walker is said to be the first black woman in history to make $1 million, her net worth at the time of her death in 1919 was around $600,000. She left most of that money to charity.
Founder and owner of Harpo, Inc., media mogul
Oprah Winfrey has been a household name since 1986 when she debuted her wildly popular, national daytime talk show. Born into poverty in rural Mississippi, Winfrey rose through the ranks of local news, starting with a radio spot in Nashville, Tennessee, then becoming the first black woman to anchor the news at WTVF-TV, also in Nashville. The Oprah Winfrey Show ran for 25 years, garnering 40 million viewers.
She started O, The Oprah Magazine in 2000 and, in 2008, Winfrey launched the cable network OWN and has gone on to star in and produced award-winning movies and television shows. Her website, Oprah.com, averages 43 million page views per month.
One of the wealthiest women in the world, Winfrey’s net worth is estimated to be $2.7 billion.
Founder of Def Jam Records, rapper
The New York-born Russell Simmons is one of the most prominent black music entrepreneurs in America. A one-time gang member, Simmons began his media empire with a $2,000 loan from his mother, which he used to fund his first company, Rush Productions. In 1983, after several years of producing hip-hop artists, Simmons and three others formed the wildly popular rap group Run D.M.C. One year later, in 1984, Simmons co-founded Def Jam Records.
Expanding beyond the music industry, Simmons also found immense success in television and filmmaking. He also founded the clothing line Phat Farm and the Russell Simmons Beverage Company.
Co-founder and president of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company
John Merrick was born into slavery in 1859 North Carolina. After the Civil War, Merrick worked as a brick mason in Raleigh and as a shoe shine employee in a barbershop. By 1892, Merrick had become a barber and owned five barber shops in Durham, North Carolina, two for black customers and three for whites.
He went on to buy more properties and helped establish the Royal Knights of King David, a fraternal insurance company that was one of the only businesses to provide insurance to the local black community. In 1898, Merrick, along with several other black men, put in $50 shares to found the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, which went on to become the largest black-owned insurance firm in the U.S.
The company did $1 million in business by 1918, a year before Merrick died. North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company today has assets of $162 million.
Janice Bryant Howroyd
Founder and CEO of the ActOne Group
Janice Bryant Howroyd started her workforce solutions giant ActOne Group in 1978 with $1,500 — including a $900 loan from her mother — a fax machine and a telephone. Today it is the “largest privately-held, woman and minority-owned workforce management company in the U.S.,” according to the company’s website.
Based in California, ActOne Group has grown from that one fax machine and one phone to operations in 19 countries, with 17,000 clients and 2,600 employees.