BBR USA - Let's celebrate by looking at some examples of successful black-owned businesses. 

This list of black-owned businesses will showcase the contributions of the black community in the business world, and the stories of the black entrepreneurs featured here may also give you some inspiration to start a business of your own.

In this roundup, we’ll look at successful companies and their owners and founders from around the world, from large, historic companies to fast-growing small businesses run by young black entrepreneurs. 

David L Steward WWT Founder and Chairman
David L. Steward, WWT Founder and Chairman. Image source: WWT press kit

If we’re talking successful black-owned businesses, it makes sense to start with the IT behemoth World Wide Technology. With more than $10 billion in annual revenue and over 5,000 employees, WWT is one of the largest private companies in the U.S.

David L. Steward founded the company in St Louis, Missouri, back in 1990, and he’s still its chairman today. The company’s success is a long way from the poverty and discrimination he grew up with:

“I vividly remember segregation—separate schools, sitting in the balcony at the movie theater, being barred from the public swimming pool.”

Today, his net worth is estimated at almost $4 billion, and his company topped this year’s BE 100s list of the nation’s largest black-owned business

2. North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company

John C Merrick
Company founder John C. Merrick. Image source: Wikipedia

Since this is Black History Month, let’s go back in time now to 1898, when North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company was founded by a group of black social leaders who pooled their own resources to create an insurance company for the underserved African-American community.

One of those founders, John Merrick, was born into slavery and then built up a successful barbershop business with branches throughout the Durham area before moving into insurance.

North Carolina Mutual was the largest black-owned business in the U.S. for much of the 20th century and is still thriving today, with assets of over $160 million, according to Wikipedia.

Blavity founder Morgan DeBaun
Blavity founder Morgan DeBaun. Image source: Press kit

OK, let’s switch gears again and go to a recent startup that’s been making waves in the media world since its founding in 2014. Its rapid growth has attracted the attention of venture capital firms, who have invested almost $10 million in the company. 

Here’s Blavity’s mission statement:

“Our vision is to economically and creatively support Black millennials across the African diaspora, so they can pursue the work they love, and change the world in the process.”

And here’s more detail from founder Morgan DeBaun:

As promised, we’re not sticking to the U.S. for this list. So let’s head to Nigeria, where industrial conglomerate Dangote Group pulls in over $4 billion in annual revenue and employs 30,000 people.

Company founder and CEO, Aliko Dangote, was recently ranked by Forbes as the richest person of African descent in the world. His entrepreneurship started young:

“I can remember when I was in primary school, I would go and buy cartons of sweets [candy] and I would start selling them just to make money. I was so interested in business, even at that time."
Gardner Rich founder Chris Gardner
Gardner Rich founder Chris Gardner. Image source: Angela George via Wikipedia

If you’ve watched the 2006 Will Smith movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, you know about Chris Gardner, founder of brokerage firm Gardner Rich. (If you haven’t seen the movie, you should definitely watch it!)

The movie tells the true (well, only slightly adapted) story of Gardner’s struggles to become a stockbroker while battling homelessness and taking care of his young son. Having achieved great success with his firm, Gardner has since sold his stake to concentrate on philanthropy.

With more than $250 million in annual revenue, Indiana-based Millennium Steel Service is a worthy entrant on this list of black-owned business. 

The company was founded in 2001 by husband-and-wife team Henry and Andrea Jackson, and Andrea is now running it alone since Henry’s death in 2007. In 2014, President Barack Obama paid a visit, a sign of the firm’s success. Jackson also runs another thriving industrial firm, Millennium Steel of Texas (MST) in San Antonio, TX.

Ebony and Jet are two of the most famous magazines for the African-American market, and both were created and published by the Johnson Publishing Company

John H. Johnson founded the firm in 1942, after working his way out of poverty via a stint as an office boy at an insurance firm. Johnson’s first publication, a magazine called Negro Digest, was an unexpected hit. According to Wikipedia:

“He remained enthusiastic even though he was discouraged on all sides from doing so. Only his mother, a woman with biblical faith and deep religious convictions, as well as a powerful belief in her son, supported his vision and allowed him to use her furniture as collateral for a $500 loan.”

We all know that Oprah Winfrey is a popular media personality, but what made her into a billionaire was her business savvy and her company, Harpo Inc.

It was through Harpo that Winfrey managed to take control of her own show instead of having it owned by the network. Instead of being paid talent like most TV personalities, she was getting a large slice of the show’s considerable profits.

Harpo has since branched out into other media such as magazines and its own network, and although the Oprah Winfrey Show is a thing of the past, the business success of Winfrey and Harpo continues stronger than ever.

Atlanta Life founder Alonzo Herndon
Atlanta Life founder Alonzo Herndon. Image source: Wikipedia

Another long-lived African-American-founded insurance company, and the story here is very similar to that of North Carolina Mutual. 

Like John Merrick, Atlanta Life founder Alonzo Herndon was born into slavery, and he got his first break in business by owning and running several barbershops in Atlanta before starting up an insurance firm.

That was in 1905, and since then Atlanta Life has expanded into asset management as well as insurance, and it’s still a black-owned business. 

After growing up as one of six children in a rough district of Toronto, Angela Samuels found work as a plus-size fashion model and achieved success, working with some of the biggest names in retail, like Sears and Wal-Mart. But then, while working with young offenders as a youth care worker, she said:

“I saw a lot of younger girls who were bigger and I realized that they grow up thinking they're different than everyone else, that they're not a part of society because they're not a size three. I thought that if I could empower them with the self-esteem they need, maybe they would look at life differently and have a better chance to become successful.”

So Samuels founded Voluptuous Clothing, and it grew into a thriving plus-size online clothing store, with sales tripling in recent years.

South African investment company Peotona Capital was founded in 2005 by four women—three black, one white—and now runs a successful portfolio of investments.

But the investments aren't only about making profit—the company also invests in people and in the development of South Africa, both through partnerships with the firms it invests in and through its own mentorship programme, which currently provides individual mentoring and support to 66 young black professionals.

Not many investment firms have a vision that includes things like:

  • “Leaves sustainable footprints in communities”
  • “Contributes to the development of women in business”
  • “Is a model for empowerment in South Africa”

So Peotona is on this list not just a black-owned business, but as an example of a different way of doing business.

FUBU founder Daymond John
FUBU founder Daymond John. Image source: 4hourworkweek via Wikipedia

As the company website puts it:

“Daymond John has come a long way from turning a $40 budget into FUBU, a $6 billion fashion game-changer. “

He achieved that, in part, by mortgaging his house in Queens to raise the money to make and sell his own tie-top hats with a group of friends. FUBU is now a global hip hop apparel brand, and its founder has expanded into consulting, speaking, a TV role on the business show Shark Tank, while still remaining as CEO of FUBU.

Nigerian oil company Famfa Oil has been so successful that its vice chair, Folorunsho Alakija, temporarily unseated Oprah Winfrey as the richest woman of African descent in the world in 2014.

Famfa is a family-run business, with Alakija’s husband, Modupe, as the chairman and other family members as the directors. It aims “to be the leading indigenous oil and gas exploration and production company in Nigeria.”

DC Design founder Durrell Coleman
DC Design founder Durell Coleman. Image source: Company website.

This list of black-owned businesses isn't just about the biggest firms or those that have made the most money. It’s also about young black entrepreneurs who are doing interesting or innovative things in the world.

That description certainly applies to Oakland-based DC Design, which describes itself as:

“a social impact design firm focused on solving the world's biggest problems through human centered design.”

One example of what that looks like in practice is designing products to aid in the mobility of people with disabilities, and teaching high school students to design their own solutions to problems associated with health and disability. DC Design also works with everyone from government agencies and large companies like Sony and Oracle to refugees and low-income communities, with the same aim: solving problems through human-centered design.

No, Oprah Winfrey wasn’t the first African-American woman to be a billionaire. That distinction belongs to Sheila Johnson, founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts.

She made much of her fortune as cofounder of cable TV network BET, and used some of it in 2005 to found Salamander, which runs not just the luxury Salamander Resort & Spa in Virginia but also a whole range of hotels and resorts.

If you want some inspiration combined with solid business advice, check out Rebecca Enonchong’s Medium article, //" style="box-sizing:border-box;color:rgb(0, 133, 182);text-decoration-line:none;outline:none;border:none">How I built a global tech business with no funding .   In it, she talks about how she set up AppsTech in 1999 to provide enterprise software solutions, going up against some huge, powerful competitors: 
“I started with literally no money and despite my best efforts, never raised any funding. I was a woman tech founder. I was a Black woman tech founder. I was a Black African woman tech founder.”

The article lays out some of the obstacles she faced and how she overcame them to build a company that, 20 years later, has offices in three continents and a client list that includes some of the biggest corporations in the world.

Michael Pugh CEO of Carver Federal Savings Bank
Michael Pugh, CEO of Carver Federal Savings Bank. Image source: NatalieRoss via Wikipedia

Back in 1948, Carver Federal Savings Bank was founded in Harlem to serve African-American residents and businesses who were shunned by many of the existing banks at the time. 

Seven decades later, Carver is the largest African-American operated bank in the United States. It’s still based in Harlem, and it still thrives by supporting the local community it serves:

“Eighty-three cents out of every dollar of Carver’s deposits are invested in the communities we call home.”

There are some companies that you’ve never heard of, even though you’ve probably done business with them before.

One of those is Manna Inc., which is ranked at number 7 on the BE 100s list of black-owned businesses, with an impressive $875 million in 2017 revenue and 19,500 staff.

The company was run for years by former NBA basketball player Ulysses L. Bridgeman, Jr., before he passed the reins recently to his son Ryan. The reason you’ve never heard of Manna but probably done business with it is that it acts as a franchisee, running hundreds of fast-food restaurants for well-known brands like Wendy’s and Chili’s.

The company itself keeps a low profile, with even its website giving little information, but those sales figures speak for themselves.

Sinclair London website
Image source: Sinclair London website

Savile Row is known as the snooty London home of traditional bespoke tailoring for men. Alicya Sinclair turned that upside-down by becoming “the first Savile Row trained female to launch a women’s only tailoring brand in 2013.”

Sinclair and her firm have since won awards, and their designs have been showcased at some of the biggest fashion events in London.

This last one is a reminder that most black-owned businesses, like most businesses in general, aren't glamorous or well-known, but they can still be very successful.

SEC bills itself as “a leading provider of electrocoating and related services to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), as well as stamping, machining, and other metal manufacturing job shops.”

To anyone outside the industry, that description may not mean much, but the company has thrived under CEO Toni D. Cooley, working on major contracts with auto giants like Nissan and Toyota. 

Cooley says the company also works to help other minority-owned businesses succeed:

“Since our inception, we’ve worked in the arena of minority business development and training, helping others as a consultancy. We want to spend as much money as possible with women- and minority-owned businesses.”

This diverse selection of successful black-owned businesses has shown how much is possible across a range of different industries. If you're inspired by what you've seen, why not read some of these articles on how to start your own business:

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