Think about a great American entrepreneur. Who do you see?
Maybe it’s someone from history like Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, or Sam Walton. Perhaps it’s someone more contemporary like Bill Gates, Arianna Huffington, or Mark Zuckerberg.
That roster is incredibly impressive but it lacks a certain, ummm, diversity.
Black entrepreneurs have had a huge impact on business in America, but their contributions are often overlooked.
So, in honor of Black History Month, let’s meet three black entrepreneurs who’ve made their marks on business in America.
Daymond John: From FUBU to the Shark Tank
Notable ventures: FUBU (clothing brand), The Shark Group (consulting firm).
Claim to fame: Lead investor on NBC’s Shark Tank.
Lesson: Never stop hustling.
Long before starring in NBC’s Shark Tank, Daymond John was just like many of us – scratching out a home-based business by creating and selling apparel.
Passing time in his childhood neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., John saw street vendors selling wool ski hats for $20 each. Rip-off, right? He asked his mother to teach him to sew and soon he had 90 wool ski hats for sale at $10 each.
He sold out of his first run in one day and FUBU was born.
To support the brand as it grew, John worked at Red Lobster to make ends meet and he and his mother mortgaged their house to raise capital. This was before ecommerce, obvi, so orders slowly increased through selling on the street and through consignment stores.
Then, in the early 90s, LL Cool J and other local celebrities began sporting the FUBU logo and the company took off.
Today, FUBU has sold more than $6 billion in revenue and John makes or breaks the next generation of entrepreneurs inside the Shark Tank.
Robert L. Johnson: Serving an Under-Served Market
Notable ventures: BET (cable network), Charlotte Bobcats (NBA franchise).
Claim to fame: Widely considered America’s first black billionaire.
Lesson: Find an under-served market and sell to it.
One of 17 (!) children born to a schoolteacher and farmer in rural Mississippi, Robert L. Johnson spent several years working for the man before striking out on his own.
Johnson saw that African-American interests were under-represented in the media. Recognizing a market opportunity, he launched Black Entertainment Television in 1980. At first, the cable network aired just two hours of programming per week but its under-served audience eventually tuned in.
By 1985, BET had turned a profit. By 1991, it was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
When Johnson sold BET to Viacom in 2001, he became America’s first black billionaire. This allowed him to diversify into a variety of businesses from real estate to auto dealerships to the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats (now the Charlotte Hornets).
It’s unclear whether he named the team the BOB-cats after himself. Hey, when you’ve got a few billion lying around, you do whatever the hell you want.
(Speaking of under-served markets, we’d be remiss if we didn’t shout out unrelated John H. Johnson. After founding Ebony and Jet magazines for African-American readers, he became the first black entrepreneur on the Forbes 400 in 1982.)
Oprah Winfrey: The Queen of All Media
Notable ventures: The Oprah Winfrey Show (talk show), Harpo Productions (media company).
Claim to fame: She’s Oprah f*#$ing Winfrey.
Lesson: Fight through adversity.
Many of America’s most successful black entrepreneurs rose to prominence first as entertainers – either through athletics like Magic Johnson or music like Sean Combs.
However, no black entrepreneur has more successfully navigated that path than Oprah Winfrey.
And few entrepreneurs of any race, ethnicity, gender, or nationality can match her story of overcoming personal adversity. The Queen of All Media was born into poverty, was molested in childhood, and lost her first child in infancy when she was just 14 years old.
(That sure makes our small business problems seem minor, right?
Winfrey couldn’t be stopped. She leveraged her personal history and experiences into the intimate format of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The talk show served as a springboard to a multimedia empire that has included television and radio shows, a cable network, two magazines, movies, and more.
Today, she is considered the richest African-American and was America’s first black multi-billionaire.
Damn, you go, Oprah!