These seven Black entrepreneurs and business leaders redefined their industries, creating products and brands that inform our everyday lives. Here, lessons from their experience building and running some of the world’s most powerful companies in finance, media, music, fashion, and more.
The cofounder, president, and CEO of FUBU (For Us, By Us), John launched the clothing line in his mother’s house in Queens, New York, in 1992 along with three friends. They mortgaged the house to invest in the business, turning what started out as a $40 budget into a global brand worth $6 billion. As an investor on ABC’s Shark Tank, John has helped startups such as Bombas Socks and Sun-Staches grow into multimillion-dollar companies.
A self-made multimillionaire, Madam C.J. Walker developed her own eponymous line of hair care products and cosmetics specifically for Black women in the early 1900s — helping launch an industry that today is worth about $2.51 billion. Walker was a savvy marketer who used before-and-after images of herself in advertising. By 1919 she employed a network of about 25,000 active sales agents who sold her products across the country.
In 1979, Johnson and his wife, Sheila, cofounded BET, the first cable network targeting African-American audiences. In 1991, BET became the first Black-owned business listed on the New York Stock Exchange; a decade later, Johnson became America’s first Black billionaire when he sold the network to Viacomm. Today, Johnson owns asset management firm RLJ Companies.
Howroyd moved to Los Angeles with $900 in her pocket 1976. Two years later, she opened ActOne Group, an employment agency she soon built into a global enterprise earning more than $1 billion in annual revenue — making her the first Black woman to run a billion-dollar company. One secret to her success? She took the time to train prospective hires in the philosophy of the company they were applying to.
Although Combs quickly climbed the ladder from non-paid intern to A&R Executive at Uptown, he was fired from the record label in 1993. Undeterred, he founded Bad Boy Entertainment that same year, signing legendary rappers like The Notorious B.I.G. onto his label. Since then, the label has been home to artists such as Janelle Monáe and Day26. Today, the record producer, rapper, and celebrity reportedly has a net worth of nearly $900 million.
Now the chairman and managing director at General Catalyst, American businessman Chenault is known primarily for becoming one of the first Black CEOs of a Fortune 500 company. He was appointed CEO of American Express in 2001, a role he assumed prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, during which the company lost 11 employees. In the attacks’ aftermath, American Express’ travel businesses slowed significantly, so Chenault launched a series of small business services — a pivot that continues to be a pillar of the more than century-old brand today.
Talk show host and media mogul Winfrey became the world’s first Black female billionaire in 2003. Her broadcasting career took off when she became the host of People Are Talking in 1976, a show that moved from last to first in rating during her eight years as host. She went onto host The Oprah Winfrey Show for 25 seasons before launching the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) in 2011. In 2013, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.