25 black businesspeople who helped shape America
Every year in the United States we celebrate the achievements of African Americans through Black History Month. Made official in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, Black History Month occurs every February and was created to teach us about the contributions Black people have made that were too often left out of the history books.
Today, Black History Month isn’t only taught inside of classrooms; many websites, publications, and media outlets use the opportunity to highlight Black individuals who have contributed greatly to American society. Adults and children alike can act as students and become educated on Black history, which is synonymous with American history.
It would be impossible to list every single way Black people have made contributions throughout the years, so we at Stacker narrowed the field a bit and focus on business. We reviewed magazines, academic journals, newspapers, and other outlets who focus on Black history to compile a list of 25 Black businesspeople who helped shape American society. Since business affects many aspects of American life, these are people who impacted not only American business but also the economy, politics, culture, and more. From slavery to the civil rights movement to today’s top earners, black people have helped to make the United States the country you see today.
In this list you’ll see some familiar faces you may have learned about in school, and business leaders who affect your daily life that you never knew about. Some you may even recognize from prime-time television. There are modern-day leaders who continue to do great things and people who revolutionized business many years ago. Although this is not meant to be a fully comprehensive list, these are 25 Black businesspeople who have helped shape America.
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Madam C. J. Walker
A staple in most school curriculums today, Madam C. J. Walker is revered as the first Black woman to become a self-made millionaire, Walker created an empire by being the sole investor in her own hair-care business. She showed that the keys to a successful business are answering a specific need and catering to an audience you know well. Today Black-owned hair-care companies are thriving and enjoying millions in revenue.
Robert L. Johnson & Sheila Johnson
Co-founders of the groundbreaking cable network Black Entertainment Television (BET)—the first network dedicated to Black culture, which also was the first business on the New York Stock Exchange to have Black owners—Robert and Sheila Johnson made history again when they became the first Black billionaires in 2001 after selling BET to Viacom. Though they later divorced, both Robert and Sheila have separately been extremely successful business people in their own rights. Robert achieved another first in 2003 when he purchased the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, making him the first Black majority owner of an NBA team. Sheila produces and funds films that highlight Black stories.
[Pictured: Robert L. Johnson (left) and Sheila Johnson (right).]
You may know him as one judge from the hit television show “Shark Tank,” but Daymond John has been an entrepreneur for many years. He founded the wildly popular streetwear brand FUBU in 1992 which revolutionized the clothing industry and brought streetwear to the masses—now most high-end brands want in on streetwear. Additionally, John has written books, won Emmys, created new businesses, and even served as Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship during the Obama administration.
Robert F. Smith
Known for being the richest Black man in America, Robert F. Smith made his billions in the finance and investment world. He is the CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a company he founded in 2000 that focuses on the software and tech world. Smith recently made headlines for his surprise generosity when he announced he would pay off the debts of everyone in the graduating class of Morehouse College during his commencement speech.
Janice Bryant Howroyd
There are few things more inspiring than achieving the American dream—turning nothing into an extraordinary business. Janice Bryant Howroyd did just that when she founded the ACT-1 Group and turned it into the first billion-dollar business run by a Black woman, an act made even more impressive as a women-led workforce management corporation.
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The second-richest African American man on our list, David Steward is well known in the tech realm for his company World Wide Technology (WWT). Another person who started from humble beginnings, Steward launched his company in 1990. He even counts the U.S. government as one of WWT’s high-profile clients.
[Pictured: David Steward and Thelma Steward.]
John H. Johnson
John H. Johnson made a huge impact on the magazine and publishing world. Best known for being the founder of Ebony and Jet magazines, Johnson’s publications were the first to cater to Black audiences and celebrate Black culture during the ‘40s and ‘50s. The legacy of these publications still exists today, with digital media continuing the work online for a new generation of readers.
An up-and-comer tackling economic issues, Chloe McKenzie founded a company in 2015 that aims to teach financial literacy to students in the most underprivileged areas in the United States. Named BlackFem, the company’s goal is to help close the wealth gap that exists especially for Black women. Through a community-centered approach, McKenzie wants young Black girls to have a leg up in society rather than start at a deficit.
Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker in 1903 became the first woman to open a bank—a milestone made more striking by the fact that her parents had been enslaved. Throughout her lifetime, Walker worked to empower Black people and encourage them to create their own businesses as she had done.
Helping to shape American entertainment culture, Franklin Leonard created a company and website called The Black List, which accepts unproduced scripts and creates a space where submitters can have their scripts read by the community and potentially sent to producers, actors, and Hollywood bigwigs. Through this method, many people have seen their movies made successfully without having to navigate the networking usually required to get the right people to take a chance on your project.
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