Happy Black History Month! This month we celebrate triumphs, sacrifices and struggles of leaders in the black community. I’m inspired by their talent, dedication and hard work, and I’m grateful to get this chance to celebrate them. As I do with Pride month, I want to highlight some people who have been especially inspirational to me and show gratitude for the influence they’ve had on my life.
No surprise here, right? I’m a bit obsessed with Oprah. I was lucky enough to see her show live five times. I’ve watched her 20th Anniversary DVDS too many times to count. And I still fantasize about sitting down with her some day for a Super Soul Sunday. Why is she so important to me? She went from growing up poor in rural Mississippi to becoming a media mogul worth an estimated $2.9 Billion. Of the 2,043 people who made the 2017 Forbes List of World Billionaires, she is one of ten black billionaires, one of three women and the only African-American woman. Her accomplishments are too numerous to list here, but I admire the way she has used her media platform to teach others to align their money and their values and find a way to truly live a passionate, authentic life.
Before there was Oprah, there was Madam CJ Walker. Growing up in Indianapolis, I’d seen the Madame Walker Theater many times, but it wasn’t until college that I learned her amazing story. She was one of the first black millionaires and first the American woman (black or otherwise) to become a self-made millionaire — and she did it in the early 20th century. In 1905, in order to heal her own scalp disease, she invented a line of hair-care products that she then promoted to other African-American women by traveling the country giving lectures and demonstrations. The product became so successful she soon had a team of women selling it. She later expanded her empire and owned several factories that manufactured her product and trained beauticians. She was also known for using her money to fight racism and promote black education and advancement. She funded campaigns and scholarships for the NAACP and made one of the biggest donations ever to the Indianapolis YMCA. When she died in 1919, her business was valued at over $1 million and her personal fortune was estimated at $600,000 to $700,000. I’m in awe of the ingenuity and courage it must have taken to create a million dollar business, in spite of the rampant racism and sexism of the time.
I was born in Lansing, Michigan in 1979, the year that Magic, Greg Kesler and the rest of the Michigan State basketball team won the NCAA championship. Both of my parents went to Michigan State, so I heard about Magic Johnson a lot. I followed his career as an aspiring basketball player myself, and I still remember where I was (7th grade basketball tryouts) when I heard he had HIV and was suddenly retiring from the game. Not knowing much about the disease (and originally having internalized HIV and AIDS as a “gay disease”), I closely followed his journey of living with HIV. He not only survived but thrived. He’s created a huge business empire that includes real estate and athletic team ownership. I find it especially inspiring that he’s developed movie theaters, Starbucks and other franchises in underserved communities. Yet another example of using money for a greater good.
From an early age, I remember watching Black Entertainment Television (BET). My dad loooooveed the TV show Video Soul. (I was especially fond of the channel because we had the same initials.) BET’s Bob Johnson, who co-founded the company with his wife Sheila, turned the network’s success into a fortune. BET was the first black-owned company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2001, Viacom bought BET for $3 billion, making Johnson the first African-American billionaire. He was also the first African-American majority club owner of a major American sports team with his 2002 purchase of the Charlotte Bobcats (which he later sold to Michael Jordan). Johnson’s current venture is in the private equity world, where his company RLJ Equity Partners focuses on generating long-term capital appreciation by investing in profitable and growing businesses.
I’ve always found representation so important. And for me, being able to see people who look like me doing the things that I wanted to do has given me the confidence to keep pursuing my dreams. Once of those people is Chris Gardner, who wrote the “The Pursuit of Happyness” (which later became a movie). Gardner came from humble beginnings, and struggled with homelessness while raising a toddler son. Eventually through tenacity and hard work, he became a successful money manager at Dean Witter. In 1987, he founded his own firm, Gardner Rich here in Chicago, which reportedly has $1 billion in assets under management (AUM). He sold his shares of the company in 2012 and now travels the world as a motivational speaker.
I’m so grateful to all of these people who’ve helped paved the way for me and many others. Who’s on your list of influential African Americans? Share your thoughts and stories at the links below.