Highlighting 6 Black Entrepreneurs - Among Many
February 15, 2021
How often have we read about entrepreneurs in history books, listened to lectures about inventions conceived of and made by Americans? How often have these creative individuals been Black? While we did not learn about many Black entrepreneurs and inventors the pages of our history books, that does not mean they did not, or do not, exist. In fact, many items we use on regular basis were conceived of and created by Black entrepreneurs, such as the refrigerated truck, caller ID, automatic elevator doors, the mailbox, and the three-way stop light – to name a select few. In this week’s blog, I am highlighting six Black entrepreneurs who so aptly demonstrate what it takes to be embrace one’s creative spirit, take chances, embrace failure, and succeed.
James Forten was born in Philadelphia to his Free Black parents in 1766. As young as eight, he worked alongside his father at the Robert Bridges sail loft. After the death of his father, at the mere age of eight, Forten continued to work to support his family while also attending a Quaker School. He was almost sold into slavery after his ship was caught by the British, but instead became a companion to the Captain’s son. He eventually made his way back to Philadelphia and returned to work at Robert Bridge’s sail loft. Bridges decided to retire in 1798, asking Forten to run his company and eventually loaned Forten the money to purchase the business. Forten paid off his loan and then in the early 1800s, he developed a sail that allowed ships to be nimbler. James Forten began to amass wealth and lived a luxurious lifestyle. He also used his newfound financial freedom (about half of his wealth) to purchase freedom for slaves and operated an Underground Railroad station in the basement of his Lombard Street home. Not only was he vocal about ending slavery, he also heralded other causes such as women’s rights and temperance. He was the epitome of civically engaged within the Black community and throughout Philadelphia until his death in 1842.
Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 to Louisiana sharecroppers who had been slaves. While she was their fifth child, Sarah was the first born after the Emancipation Proclamation. But tragedy came at the tender age of six when she was suddenly orphaned. By age 14, she was married to Moses Williams. By age twenty, tragedy struck again when she became a widow with a two-year-old daughter. The two moved to St. Louis where she met Charles Walker. After losing much of her own hair to a scalp condition, her husband Charles encouraged her to start her own haircare collection. That collection became known as the Walker System. It involved scalp preparation, lotions, and iron combs. She was the first Black woman to create hair care products for Black women. She effectively created a home-based sales system with a growing number of Black women, known as “Beauty Culturists,” selling the products door-to-door. She moved to Denver in 1905 and Charles followed in 1906 where he initially helped her with marketing and mail orders. But they soon divorced. She moved her production to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and then eventually settled in Indianapolis where the C. J. Walker Company employed over three thousand people, mostly Black women, who sold her projects door-to-door and she became known as Madam C.J. Walker.
Morgan DeBaun is a GenZ entrepreneur who in 2014 successfully launched Blavity, a leading media company focused on Black culture for the millennial generation. Blavity was conceived at WashU in St. Louis with three of her friends. The name is the “fusion” of Black and Gravity. Since 2014, she has led this multi-million-dollar company to acquire Travel Noire – a digital travel platform for Black millennials and Shadow And Act – a Black entertainment news platform. But DeBaun has not stopped there, she has also launched M. Roze Essentials, a natural skin care line designed to help diverse skin types and tones find their glow. Her line offers gluten free, paraben free and vegan options. And she also launched Worksmart, a business advising program built on five pillars of success: self-management, efficient team growth, data driven decisions, diverse revenue streams, and fail fast to grow fast. Finally, she has created a “Growth Notebook” designed to help users create their vision.
Kezia Williams is just 38 years old and already listed as one of The Roots top 100 most influential Black people. She is the CEO of Black Upstart, an organization designed to empower Black entrepreneurs and build generational wealth through training programs, bootcamps, and “popup” schooling. She also started #MyBlackReceipt. This initiative seeks to highlight Black-owned businesses that have been “disproportionately affected” by the pandemic. As part of this initiative, consumers were asked to upload their receipts for purchases from Black-owned businesses. This culminated in #BlackoutDay2020 on July 7th in which spending came to an abrupt halt to showcase the importance of Black economic power within our economy.
Daymond John is someone you may be familiar with as he is one of the sharks on the popular ABC Television show, Shark Tank, where he funds the entrepreneurial endeavors of some of the show participants. He has also created a step-by-step guide known as “Daymond on Demand” to help entrepreneurs achieve their dreams. As an entrepreneur himself, he started FUBU (For Us By Us) with just $40 and turned that meager investment into a $6 billion fashion line. In addition to using his marketing and influencing skills to grow FUBU, he is a New York Times best-selling author and a motivational speaker. He also sits on the board of PetCo, the UTSA Foundation, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship and is a Global Citizen for the Global Poverty Project. Daymond John grew up in Queens, he was a strong STEM student, but struggled with writing and reading and was later diagnosed with Dyslexia. He never let his learning difference stop him and began his career making tie-top hats. He gained needed exposure when friend LL Cool J wore one during a GAP commercial. He has received numerous awards and distinctions, including being labeled as the “Godfather of Urban Fashion.”
I end my list with one of Drexel’s own – an MFA student, and Philly resident, Jeannine A. Cook. She grew up in Virginia and came to Philadelphia as a college student, studying media arts and communication at University of the Arts. When asked in an interview about why Philadelphia appealed to her, she talked about an appreciation for blackness in the city. Life almost derailed her plans when she got pregnant during her sophomore year. University of the Arts, however, didn’t let her pregnancy get in the way of her schoolwork, allowing her to bring her new son to every class. Along with fellow art students, she started a program to help people in her neighborhood use equipment they were provided. It was through “Positive Minds” that she realized there was a need to do more. She opened a bookstore but suffered a setback when the building burned down. Then last year, just before the pandemic hit, she opened another bookstore in the Fishtown neighborhood. Harriett’s Bookshop, named after Harriet (with one t) Tubman because Cook herself has a rebellious spirit. Harriett’s features titles from a wide array of diverse authors and is open to the public daily.
Each of these entrepreneurs shows us that life interrupts and life is not fair, but they also show us that grit, resolve, agility, and creativity is crucial to an entrepreneurial spirit. Some of the older entrepreneurs shared in this post, may not have been celebrated in my history books, but I have no doubt the newer ones will become, if they have not already, household names associated with innovation, tenacity and the epitome of an entrepreneurial spirit. They are true models of inspiration, showing us what it takes to succeed.
Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Dean, Graduate College
Assistant Clinical Professor & Dept. Head, Goodwin College
ABC Shark Tank