Black people in America face barriers to success in numerous arenas—from racial wage and racial wealth gaps, which limit their earnings and ability to accumulate wealth, to higher amounts of student loan debt and racial bias in medical care, which can have long-lasting effects on Blacks' financial and physical well-being.
Despite these barriers, the 11 Black entrepreneurs profiled here have triumphed over the odds, thanks to their determination, perseverance, intelligence, talent, and skill—among other qualities. They are among the most successful Black entrepreneurs in American history. All are legendary, not just for their business success, but because of the barriers they’ve had to overcome to achieve it.
It’s traditional to start a list like this one with Oprah because she is arguably the most recognizable Black woman in the world, known to many by just her first name. Born to a single mother in rural Mississippi and having been told early in her career that she was “unfit for television news,” she proceeded to forge a media empire with herself at the center.
A full list of Oprah’s achievements and roles would fill many pages, but here's a quick summary: Following her early and huge success as the host of The Oprah Winfrey Show, she went on to become the chairperson of Harpo, Inc., her privately held multimedia company. In 2000, she launched her own magazine, O, and in 2011 she introduced her own TV network, OWN. She is also a philanthropist, a 60 Minutes contributor, and a brand ambassador for Weight Watchers, in which she owns a 7% stake.
All of this success and ambition is reflected in her net worth. According to Forbes, she is the richest Black woman in the U.S., with a personal net worth of $2.7 billion.
Daymond John rose to public prominence as a judge on ABC’s "Shark Tank," but he was famous in investment circles far earlier than that. In fact, if the rumors are true, he started very young, selling customized pencils to his peers in first grade.
John’s road to real success started in 1989, when he founded streetwear clothing company FUBU. By lending clothes to popular musicians and building brand recognition through the videos they appeared in, he eventually built the company into a major success. The challenges of his early experiences make him keen to educate younger entrepreneurs about the importance of hard work and perseverance when it comes to building their own companies.
Today, John is involved with various companies—he is the CEO of Shark Group, a brand consultancy, and in 2017 co-founded Blueprint + Co, a co-working space in NYC. Estimates of John’s personal wealth put his net worth at approximately $250 million.
Michael Jordan’s story is one of determination. A devoted basketball player from a young age, he was told as a teenager that he was too short to play the sport professionally. Fortunately, he ignored this advice and went on to play 15 seasons in the NBA, becoming the most recognizable basketball player in the world and racking up an impressive record of points, wins, and awards.
His playing days over, Jordan has pursued a number of brand partnerships and lucrative business licensing deals. For instance, Nike’s Air Jordan line is widely known, but few are aware of the sheer size of the brand, which is a billion-dollar business. And it doesn’t stop there. Jordan’s list of partnerships reads like a Who’s Who of the biggest brands in America, from Coca-Cola and Gatorade to Chevrolet and McDonald’s.
These partnerships have been extremely lucrative for Jordan. In December 2017, he was named the world’s highest-paid athlete ever at that time, with an estimated net worth of $1.65 billion.
Robert L. Johnson and Sheila Johnson
Robert L. and Sheila Johnson might not be as well known as Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey, but they have had as big an impact on the media in the U.S., albeit from behind the scenes.
Robert Johnson is the founder of BET, the Black Entertainment Television network. When he founded the network with his wife, Sheila, they were joint owners. After many years of increasing audience numbers and media reach, Viacom bought the company in 2000 for $2.9 billion, making the Johnsons the first Black billionaires in America.
In the two decades since then, the couple have diversified their business interests widely. They are the owners—either together or singularly—of sports teams, investment firms, digital-content distributors, video-streaming services, a film festival, and a venture-capital incubator.
The number of Black billionaires in the U.S. in 2020, out of a total of 614.
Janice Bryant Howroyd
Although Janice Bryant Howroyd isn't well known to the general public, she is one of the most successful businesspeople—of any race or gender—in America today. Her firm, the ActOne Group, was the first African American female-led company to bring in more than $1 billion in annual revenue.
ActOne is primarily an employment agency and consultancy based in Los Angeles. It has grown to dominate one of the most lucrative markets in the United States—and from very humble beginnings. As Howroyd herself tells the story, she moved to LA in 1976 with just $900 and marketed her company through word of mouth for much of the following decade.
Howroyd has a clear point of view about appearing on lists like this one. Upon receiving a business accolade a few years ago, she told CNBC that “being the first African American woman to achieve anything in 2016 is not an accomplishment…the best thing I can be applauded for is simply being a woman building a great business.”
You probably know who Sean Combs is, but you might not know him by that name. Has also gone by Puff Daddy and P. Diddy.
Though best known as a recording artist, Combs has built an impressive business portfolio over the past two decades. While producing his own music, he quickly rose through the ranks within Uptown Records and then launched his own label, Bad Boy Entertainment, in 1993. Since then, he’s also built a cable music network, Revolt, and has invested in many restaurants and food businesses. He owns 50% of Cîroc vodka, for instance; DJ Khaled owns the other half.
All of this success has made Combs a rich man. Forbes has consistently named him the richest person in hip-hop, with a personal net worth of $740 million.
Jay-Z and Beyoncé
Jay-Z may be the archetypal example of a musician-turned-businessman. He founded his first company way back in 1995 and has set an example that has since been followed by a large number of hip-hop stars. In the past two decades, Jay-Z has acquired or founded a number of companies in a wide range of sectors and markets. His companies produce clothes (Rocawear), own restaurants and bars (40/40 Club), and produce records (Roc Nation).
Beyoncé, Jay-Z’s wife, is a very successful entrepreneur, too. She owns, with her husband, the Tidal streaming service and has endorsed many products throughout her career. In addition, she also founded a fashion line with her mother (House of Deréon) and owns athleisure brand Ivy Park. One of her most recent acquisitions has been watermelon-water company WTRMLN WTR.
Between them, Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s net worth is estimated at more than $1.4 billion. Forbes assesses Jay-Z’s wealth at $1 billion and Beyoncé's at $420 million.
George Foreman was an icon in the 1990s, after becoming the oldest person, at age 45, to ever win a heavyweight boxing belt. He quickly turned this public recognition into private success, through a variety of business ventures and an unusual approach to marketing.
The most recognizable of Foreman’s business ventures is the George Foreman grill, a plug-in grill that became a sensation in the late 1990s. Although Foreman no longer owns the rights to the grill that bears his name—manufacturer Salton bought it from him in 1999 for $137 million—he retains a well-balanced business portfolio.
Foreman’s investments include a gym brand, EverybodyFights, and a number of product endorsements. He now manages these businesses in partnership with his son, and together they have been highly successful. Estimates now put Foreman’s net worth in the region of $300 million, not including the capital he has invested in his brands.
Madam C. J. Walker
Born Sarah Breedlove, the child of former slaves in Louisiana, Madam C.J. Walker (1867–1919) was one of the first successful Black businesspeople in the U.S. and has become known as much for her determination as for her charitable endeavors.
Walker’s first success was a classic example of finding a gap in a market that had been overlooked by the business elite of the time. Walker suffered from hair loss due to a scalp condition, and she began to make cures for herself. She recognized an opportunity in the lack of hair products for African Americans on the market at the time. Walker traveled the country with her husband for many years, promoting the “Walker Method” of hair care, and became very successful, later expanding into cosmetics.
Walker would eventually come to own a major corporation, Madam C.J. Walker Laboratories. Under its auspices, she trained hundreds of beauticians. The company became an icon in Black communities across the country.
Walker also shared her success with her community. Toward the end of her life, she stepped back from the everyday management of her companies and undertook charitable tours. She visited the Caribbean and Latin America and donated a sizable portion of her wealth to charities working both within and outside the United States.
Most of these Black entrepreneurs are well known in the popular culture. But there are countless others who helped set the scene for them and inspired other Black Americans by example. Among these are:
- Robert Gordon was born a slave, but he eventually purchased his freedom and moved to Cincinnati. There, he bought a coal yard and ran it so successfully, he was able to overcome attempts by his competitors to drive him out of business.
- Annie Malone was one of the first Black women to become a multimillionaire thanks to the businesses she started at the beginning of the 20th century, including a hair product line for women and other cosmetic products.
- Lewis Temple, a former slave from Virginia, worked as a blacksmith and used his skills to invent several products, including an improved iron harpoon for the whaling industry.
Of course, these names are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to entrepreneurship as a whole. But some of the details of their lives suggest the hurdles they had to overcome to be successful. As such, their achievements are even more worthy of celebration.