In major media outlets and most high school history classes, we very rarely hear about all of the amazing stories behind the success of African American business people. For most of these entrepreneurs, their rise to success often started out with overcoming adversity in their childhood and rising above to make something of themselves no matter what. These 20 stories of the successful African American women and men are a true inspiration for what can be done with determination and grit.
18. George E. Johnson
Born in Mississippi in the 1920’s, George E. Johnson and his family moved to Chicago in order to have a better life. Unfortunately, his family was so poor that even as a young boy, Johnson had to shine shoes in order to make some extra cash. As he grew older, he got a job at a cosmetic company owned by S.B. Fuller. It turns out that Fuller was the richest black man in the 1950s, and he became George E. Johnson’s mentor in the lessons of success. Johnson worked his way up in the factory, so that he could fully understand every step in the process of running a cosmetic company. He started out as a salesman, and then moved on to helping to manufacture the products in the lab. He was eventually given a position as a leading chemist. With every new position in S.B. Fuller’s company, Johnson was learning everything he needed to know about running a successful cosmetic company.
At that time, African American musicians and actors usually used hair relaxing chemicals to give themselves a straight perm. People looked to these celebrities for inspiration for their own style, and taming their hair became a popular trend. Unfortunately, back in the 1950s those chemicals would burn everyone’s scalps, and it was very painful and difficult to use. This was a golden opportunity to create a new product that could achieve the same results without all the pain.
Johnson got his boss’ permission to use the chemistry lab to develop a hair relaxer that was not painful to use. He applied for a patent for the new product, and he established a company called Johnson Products. As time went on, the company grew larger and larger. One of the best products that he ever made was called Afro Sheen which became part of the culture of the 1960s. Johnson became a multi-millionaire and he even went on to establish Independence Bank. His company became the first publicly traded company on the stock exchange that was owned by an African-American. At the height of its popularity the company was making 37 million dollars per year.
Reginald F. Lewis founded a snack company called Beatrice Foods, and he used his earnings to purchase other businesses, which made his fortune grow. He became the world’s first black billionaire. The first company he purchased was the McCall’s Sewing Pattern company for several million dollars. This was at a time when women still sewed their own clothes on a regular basis, because it was cheaper than buying them from a store. So it was very popular for women to buy McCalls patterns, and the company did very well.
Lewis seemed to have a strategy to invest in products that real people actually utilized on a day-to-day basis. In 1996, the Beatrice Foods company made the most money at ever had in it’s history with 2.6 billion dollars in sales that year.
In 1950, Sylvia Robinson began her music career as a singer for Columbia Records under the name “Little Sylvia”, and she eventually joined an R&B duo called “Mickey and Sylvia”. After spending decades in the music industry, she wanted to start a record label that was dedicated to black artists.
She became the founder and CEO of Sugar Hill Records in the early 1970’s. She was a talent manager who gathered musical groups in New York City like The Sugar Hill Gang, who came out with a song in 1979 called “Rapper’s Delight” that people still listen to today. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were also under her record label, and they were a huge success well into the 1980’s. Sylvia Robinson is often remembered as “The Mother of Hip Hop”, because the majority of today’s hip hop and rap artists were inspired by the music coming out of Sugar Hill Records. She was able to make millions of dollars in the process. After she passed away, her children took over the record label. They even made a Bravo reality TV series about the Robinsons called “The First Family of Hip Hop”.
Janice Bryant Howroyd knew that industry in California was booming, and business owners needed help hiring new employees. She saw this as a golden opportunity to provide a service to entrepreneurs. Howroyd started a business with a $900 loan from her mother along with an additional $600 that she had saved on her own. With just a fax machine and a phone, she was able to start a staffing agency in the front of a rug shop. As time went on, her company, Act One Group, was able to expand the business outside of California. Today, Act One Group has business ties in 19 countries. It is now the largest staffing agency in the world, and brings in over 1 billion dollars each and every year. Janice Bryant Howroyd has a personal net worth of 420 million dollars.
You may remember that Will Smith portrayed Chris Gardner in the 2006 Pursuit of Happyness. This was based on the true story of Gardner’s incredible life. His wife abandoned him and his young son, and she had been hoarding their rent money for months in order to have enough saved to leave. Since the rent was unpaid, and the wife took all of the money, Chris and his son were forced to live on the streets. Gardner sold medical equipment, and he was able to use the money from his sales commission to pay for the basic needs for himself and his son, but it was not enough to pay rent on a monthly basis. He was forced to stand in line at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and many times, he had no option but to lock himself in the bathroom of the subway with his little boy. Despite all of these difficult circumstances, Chris Gardner was able to overcome all of it and get into an internship at a firm called Dean Witter Reynolds. After getting his broker license, he was finally able to start working and got a place to live. He worked incredibly hard to become one of the best in the firm, and would go on to broker multimillion-dollar deals. Today, he is one of the most successful African American stock brokers in history and he is a multi-millionaire.
The life of Madam C.J. Walker is a rags to riches fairytale. She grew up in a family where both of her parents were slaves, and she ended up becoming the very first self-made millionaire woman of any race. C.J. Walker was a single mother who was working hard and beginning to suffer from problems with her scalp. Her hair started to fall out, and she had bald spots on her head, and she was horrified that she might lose all of her hair.
She desperately wanted to fix the problem, so she began to experiment with chemicals to see if it would fix the problem. To her surprise, it actually worked, and her scalp was healed. Other women in town noticed that her hair had been fixed, and they asked her what was her secret. They assumed that this was a magical product that would help hair grow, but it was really just healing her scalp, which helped the hair grow. She decided that she would start to sell her chemical concoction to the women in town for $0.10 per bottle. As time went, on she expanded the business and began to hire sales people who worked on commission going door-to-door to sell her products. By the time she passed away in 1919, her company was worth over 1 million dollars which is significantly more in today’s money. She gave jobs to dozens of employees and her daughter ended up taking over the family legacy and the fortune.
In the late 1800’s, Frederick Patterson worked for his father’s business building horse-drawn carriages, called C.R. Patterson and Sons. When his father passed away in 1910, Ford was beginning to develop the Model T, and Frederick Patterson realized that soon enough, people would stop using horse-drawn carriages completely and move over to only using automobiles. He used his factory to manufacture 150 cars.by 1915, almost everyone had heard of the Greenfield Patterson automobile that was on sale for the competitive price of $850. He eventually moved on to specializing in manufacturing school buses and trucks. By arranging contracts with local school districts, he was able to guarantee the security of the company.
Today, Oprah Winfrey is known for being one of the most successful women in the world, but she came from extremely humble beginnings. Growing up in Mississippi, her family hardly had any money, and she was sexually and physically abused by her relatives. She managed to escape all of this hardship and earned her education. She went to college and became a journalist in Chicago, but she would get very upset when she would report on the stories of tragic circumstances. She had a lot of compassion for other people, and that ended up being her strong suit. She was given her own talk show called the Oprah Winfrey show. After being loved all around the world as one of the greatest hosts on TV, Oprah Winfrey was able to retire and start her own company called the OWN network. Together with money that she earned from smart investing her magazine and other products, Oprah has become one of the very few female billionaires in the world.
As a kid growing up in Queens, Daymond John was inspired by LL Cool J and other Hip Hop stars that were making it big in New York City with their music. John never went to college, and he worked as a waiter at Red Lobster while he tried to start businesses on the side. One of his first business ventures was buying wrecked cars and attempting to fix them up and resell them for profit. When that business failed, he felt defeated and went back to working as a waiter. He still loved hip hop music, so he began making his own clothes to emulate the style of all of the stars that he loves so much. When his friends saw his clothes, they loved his style, and asked if they could have some as well.
Once he saw this positive reaction, Daymond John realized that his talents lied and fashion and he decided to start his own clothing brand. He started offering New York City based hip-hop artists free clothing just so that he could have eyeballs looking at his work. This strategy worked, because having these artists wear his clothing was like a million dollars worth of free advertising. FUBU became a huge success, and he was able to expand his business empire into various ventures to grow his wealth. Today, he is best known for being one of the judges on the TV show Shark Tank.
Sheila Johnson was born in 1949 and grew up in Pennsylvania. She attended college for music, got married, and ended up co-founding the BET Network with her husband, Robert in 1979. Robert worked with the Public Broadcasting Corporation, and they were both passionate about the idea of starting a TV network with programming aimed at African Americans. Their idea became very popular, and they were able to become multi-millionaires. The couple got a divorce, and the company was later sold to Viacom in 2002 for $3 billion.
After selling the company, Sheila Johnson continued living the life of an entrepreneur. She has become the owner of several sports teams, including the NBA team Washington Wizards , the NHL team Washington Capitals, and the Washington Mystics in the WNBA.
You probably know Beyonce Knowles and her husband Jay-Z for their popular music careers both together and apart. But the couple does so much more than sing, and they find themselves at the top of the list of most influential power couples on the planet. They both have their own record label and they also have branded products that they sell. Jay-Z opened the 40/40 Club in New York, and was the owner of the Rocawear clothing brand. Beyonce has starred in several movies, and her albums always top the charts whenever she released new music. Their talents have made them the most successful African American duo in history.
Kanye West has been a hip hop artist for years, but more recently, he has expanded his talents from music to the fashion industry. When he first showed up on the fashion scene, not many people were happy to see him there, especially since Kim Kardashian insisted on taking her screaming baby to runway fashion shows that are usually very posh. He decided that if he was not going to be accepted into the old school fashion world, he would make his own pop up shops and runway shows. The Yeezy clothing line became an overnight success, and his sneaker line is now one of the most sought-after shoe brands. He also created kid’s line together with Kim Kardashian called The Kids Supply.
Before the Civil War, it was very rare for a black man to be free in the United States, let alone become successful. But Jeremiah Hamilton defied all odds, and became a millionaire in 1875. He earned $2 million, which is more like $43 million in today’s money. Others estimate that the true extent of his fortune was really closer to $250 million.
Since Hamilton could not run a business or earn money through the normal ways, he started out by working as a smuggler bringing counterfeit coins from New York City over to Haiti in a fishing boat. He was caught, and sentenced to death for his crimes, but he managed to escape with $5,000 worth of these fake coins and start a new life for himself. He held onto this money, and began making smart business investments, and learned to be a stock broker in New York.
In 1835, after the Great Fire of New York, he was able to take advantage of the disaster by buying out businesses that lost everything, and playing the stock market to his advantage. Even though plenty of other white entrepreneurs and investors had done similar things to get ahead, newspapers started calling him “The Prince of Darkness”. However, even though he had a bad reputation in some circles, he was well-respected in others, and no one could deny that he had become a success. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremiah_Hamilton
At 21 years old, Don Barden opened up a record store in Ohio with only $500. The store was so successful, he was able to buy more and more businesses, and became the first black owner of a Las Vegas casino, and he also started a cable company. His income skyrocketed to hundreds of millions of dollars per year. At one time, he planned to partner with Michael Jackson to open an amusement park, but the idea never fully came to fruition.
George Washington Carver was an orphan and a slave. He was raised by the Carver family, and as a small child he was not required to do hard labor. Thankfully he was able to go to school and he later moved to Kansas in order to work odd jobs and fund his own education. He went to college to study horticulture and art. After graduating with his master’s degree, he decided that he wanted to help former slaves become self-sufficient with their knowledge of farming.
Carter began to cart around a portable lab in order to teach black people how to grow their own produce with natural resources. He encourage them to plant peanuts since they were profitable and easy to grow. In his laboratory he figured out several different uses for the peanut including peanut butter and peanut oil. He began working with Henry Ford to develop rubber for his tires and other famous entrepreneurs at the time. This helped him become quite famous, and his peanut butter became a huge success. He was even invited to go work and Thomas Edison’s lab but he declined the offer because he preferred to stay with the African-American community and help to further their success.
They say that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. Sometimes, words can move people to taking action for a better life, and the achievements go far beyond just making money. In 1905, Robert Sengstacke Abbott started the very first black newspaper called The Chicago Defender. He started the company with just 25 cents. At that time, there was no written media geared towards African American issues, so he wrote articles about how racism in the United States needed to stop, and that black people needed to make moves to improve their circumstances.
Abbott encouraged African American families in the southern states to begin moving up north, where there were more opportunities for work in factories preparing supplies for World War I. By the 1920’s, his newspaper was circulating over 200,000 copies to subscribers all over the US, which was distributed by the black Pullman Porters. In 1929, he started The Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, which was a Chicago event that gave black children a day to celebrate their heritage.
Nicknamed “The Potato King Of the World”, farmer Junius G. Groves mastered the art of growing potatoes. Groves was born into slavery, and he was able to become free as a young child and finally go to school. After graduating, he only had 90 cents to his name, but he was able to use his knowledge to create a successful farm. The business expanded to the point where he had 50 employees, and he was making $300,000 per year in the early 1900’s, which is worth millions now. He built a 22-room mansion to live in, and died one of the wealthiest black men in the world for his time.
In the 1960s and 70s, George Foreman was famous for being a professional boxer who was nicknamed “Big George”. He won the heavyweight metal championship twice, and he also went to the Olympics and earned a gold medal. After retiring from his boxing career, George Foreman made a very interesting move to selling grills that drained the fat out of meat as it cooked. These became incredibly popular in the 1990s at a time when a lot of people were trying to buy products that were labeled “fat free”, and just about everyone knew about his commercials on TV. He eventually sold the company and today he has a net worth of 300 million dollars.