More Perspectives: Earl Graves, Sr. on Black Entrepreneurship

Beyond Self-Employment. Earl G. Graves, Sr. Black Enterprise. August 2011  

Earlier this year, much was made—by everyone from the Obama administration to minority business advocates across the country—of the amazing growth in the number of businesses owned by African Americans. Indeed, the numbers are impressive: Black-owned businesses grew faster by numbers (60.5%, to 1.9 million) and revenues (69%), and employed people at a higher rate (22%) than non-minority-owned businesses between 2002 and 2007, the most recent years for which U.S. Census figures are available.

However, black-owned businesses still make up only 7% of U.S. businesses, although African Americans constitute 12% of the population. Of the 1.9 million businesses owned by African Americans, in 2007 only 106,824 had paid employees. Average receipts for black-owned employer companies came to $925,427; for the remaining 1.8 million black-owned non-employer businesses, receipts came to $21,263—not enough to keep a family of four above the poverty line. And let’s not forget that these figures precede the Great Recession. With the resulting credit crunch, lack of access to financing, and decline in consumer spending, there’s little reason to believe that those numbers haven’t worsened over the past four years. Now, put those figures alongside these: While national unemployment stands at about 9.2%, black unemployment is 16.2%. It’s 17% for black men.

If it sounds as if I’m trying to provoke a sense of urgency, I am. It’s not enough to just create self-employed black entrepreneurs; we must build more black-owned employer businesses that create jobs.

Now, the government has a role to play in this, as well as the large multinational corporations that have shifted much of their job creation power to foreign markets, where, not coincidentally, they are achieving much of their revenue growth. Initiatives such as the Urban Entrepreneurship Summit held by the White House and the Startup America Partnership in Newark, New Jersey, in June, should be supported, expanded, and applauded. But before we look to others for solutions, we need to check our own mirrors and challenge ourselves to set our sights higher.

Only a few generations ago, when intrepid black entrepreneurs such as John H. Johnson, Madam C.J. Walker, Arthur G. Gaston, and others built business empires in the early to mid-20th century, they did not have access to higher education, senior management experience in corporate America, or training in the financial markets of Wall Street. They were locked out of doing business with city, county, state, and federal governments. They had no hope of landing a contract with the large corporations of their day. They were almost totally limited to selling to black consumers at a time when the income level of that market, hardly a generation removed from slavery, was paltry compared with African American income levels today.

And while they were largely barred from competing for the business of white consumers, white-owned industry could compete in and even dominate the black consumer market with impunity. There was no Minority Business Development Agency, no minority vending programs, or diversity initiatives. Instead, there was Jim Crow, and lynching and race riots were constant threats to black entrepreneurs and business communities (such as “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma) that were deemed too successful. Yet Johnson, Walker, Gaston, and countless other black entrepreneurs built businesses that created jobs, and even helped to create other employer businesses.

Can we do no less in 2011? No matter what challenges we face today as entrepreneurs and aspiring business owners, we cannot. We must focus more attention on building scalable, black-owned businesses in industries that are most likely to create jobs for people who are disproportionately unemployed, such as African Americans, particularly in urban areas. Self-employment is not enough.
Good Entrepreneurs Make Money. Great Ones Make A Difference. Earl G. Graves, Sr. July 1, 2011

…I passionately believe that with success comes the opportunity, if not the obligation, to respond to the needs and enable the aspirations of others, ranging from family and friends to entire communities, the nation, and even the world. I am always stunned and disappointed by the attitudes of those who achieve wealth and status yet show little or no regard for others—and I am never surprised when their success ultimately proves to be unfulfilling or short-lived. When you reach the top of a mountain, you should not be extending a foot to kick others back, but offering a hand to help lift them up, just as you needed someone to assist you during your climb to the top—and will again, if you are to reach your future goals or maintain your current level of success.

Fortunately, most of us respond positively and enthusiastically to the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. We remember that others—the teachers who encouraged, the relatives who prayed, the mentors who advised, or friends who invested—did the same for us to help make our dreams and goals a reality. The truly successful business person constantly invests in others: helping that young person find a summer job or internship; making a key introduction on behalf of a promising new business owner; providing graduate school recommendations; making the much-needed investments of time, tithes, and talent to help others prosper. You need look no further for numerous examples than this issue of Black Enterprise, which features our 39th annual listing of the BE 100s, the nation’s largest black-owned businesses.

Each of our 2011 be 100s Companies of the Year has a long track record of creating jobs, uplifting communities, and creating opportunities for other professionals and entrepreneurs. ….

…You may not command a seven-figure income, and your business may not be of the size and scale of a be 100s company, but you can still do your part as a successful entrepreneur or business professional. Go out of your way to create at least one internship position—arranging for students to get credit toward their degree if you can’t pay them—at your small business. Get to know your employees well enough to know when to offer assistance, such as helping with expenses related to the death of an immediate family member, or providing recommendations for their children’s college applications. If you meet a promising job seeker that you’re not in a position to hire, make the extra calls and work your network to get him or her hired elsewhere. Take a good look at the community in which your business operates, and you’ll no doubt find unmet needs. Lead, use your influence, and work with others to help provide solutions and create opportunities. Set aside 1% or 2% of your annual profits or salary so that you can meet emergency requests from friends, family, associates, or the community at large. If you don’t have money, donate time (say, a day each month), or be prepared to donate your company’s goods, services, or expertise to a worthy cause. When requests for favors come—and believe me, they will—you’ll be prepared with ways to help.

The bottom line is this: Excelling in business goes hand in hand with excelling at creating opportunities, recognizing and meeting needs, and yes, doing favors—both large and small—for others. Any good entrepreneur can make money. The very best, including those leading our 2011 be 100s Companies of the Year, make a difference. …
To Build Our Businesses, We Must Leverage Our Relationships. Earl G. Graves, Sr. Black Enterprise. March 2011

…For me, our Entrepreneurs Conference represents a principle of business success that I have promoted and seen demonstrated throughout my lifetime as a business owner: We cannot build businesses of size, scale, and significance in the global marketplace without aggressively and effectively building and leveraging our relationships with others.

In fact, isolation is the enemy, helping to kill off hundreds of thousands of businesses each year. Especially if you are a black entrepreneur, or aspire to be one, you need to establish mutually beneficial relationships within your industry, with customers, suppliers, other business owners, bankers, lawyers, financiers, and corporate managers to grow your business. It is simple common sense that if you are in business, the more people you know, the more business you can attract and the better informed you will be to succeed as an entrepreneur. Networking often seems an overused and outdated term. But make no mistake–it’s still how business gets done.

Of course, true networking is about far more than meeting in hotel conference rooms to push business cards on each other, or even connecting on your favorite social media platform. It’s about forming authentic relationships based on a mutual desire to help each other and a genuine willingness to contribute and bring value to the table. Simply put, in order for black businesses to become full participants in the global economy, we have to be able to count on each other as vendors, customers, investors, and partners in joint ventures and strategic alliances.

A great example of this can be found in the story of Carol’s Daughter, the haircare and beauty products company founded as a mail-order and online business by Lisa Price in the ’90s. Price, who started out by experimenting with homemade fragrances and bath products in her kitchen in Brooklyn, has grown her company into a nationally recognized brand with a flagship store in Harlem and retail partnerships with the likes of Sephora, Macy’s, and Home Shopping Network. A key turning point in the success of her business: connecting with music industry executive Steve Stoute, who so believed in the potential of Price’s business that he organized an investment group, including celebrities Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, to finance expansion and a national advertising campaign. Stoute announced the deal at the 2004 Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference, in an effort to inspire other black businesspeople to come together to do such deals in increasing numbers and size….
They Made History–And So Can You. Earl G. Graves Sr.  Black Enterprise. February 2011.

We have a saying at my company: At BLACK ENTERPRISE, every month is Black History Month. That’s because our Wealth for Life mission calls for us to chronicle African American progress and celebrate black achievement year-round, not just during the month of February. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t take Black History Month seriously, particularly when it comes to recognizing outstanding entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Unfortunately, when celebrating the contributions of black people to our nation and the world, our legacy as business achievers too often takes a back seat to our accomplishments as athletes, civil rights activists, political leaders, and entertainers. To the casual observer, it would be easy to believe that such a legacy does not exist. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our rich history of achievement did not begin with Russell Simmons and Oprah Winfrey. It began long before the founding of BLACK ENTERPRISE more than 40 years ago. We all need to know about the thriving black business districts that evolved in segregated communities across America, including Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street”–which was utterly destroyed by racial violence in 1921. We need to know about black haircare products pioneer Madame C.J. Walker, first black female bank president Maggie Lena Walker, and Birmingham millionaire Arthur G. Gaston Jr., who built business and financial institutions long before terms such as equal opportunity and supplier diversity became part of the lexicon of American business. More recently, we need to know and celebrate the stories of groundbreaking black business leaders such as TLC Beatrice International CEO Reginald E Lewis and Act-1 Group Founder and CEO Janice Bryant Howroyd. And this is just a small sampling of our rich legacy in business.

Knowing and appreciating our history is about more than celebrating the past for posterity’s sake. We must draw on Black History Month as inspiration for the present and hope for our future. Simply put, once you know how history was made, you can make it yourself, benefiting from the lessons and building on the accomplishments of those who came before you. Standing on the shoulders of giants enables you to lift your sights beyond self-limiting doubts, obstacles, and excuses, to see what’s truly possible for you. This is of critical importance for those of you who will brave new frontiers as entrepreneurs and professionals in 2011.

Knowing and appreciating history is what allows you to see the possible beyond the impossible. It’s the kind of vision it took for Madame Walker to become the wealthiest African American and first female self-made millionaire in 1919. It’s what it took for John H. Johnson to launch Ebony magazine in 1945. And it’s the kind of vision it took for Barack Obama to become President of the United States in 2008. They made history–and so can you….
We Must Never Surrender Our Hope. Earl G. Graves Sr. Black Enterprise. December 2010. 

Since I founded my company, Earl Graves Ltd., more than 40 years ago, there have been seven recessions. In fact, the first issue of Black Enterprise was published in August 1970, during the first of those recessions. Only three years later, our young company and our country would face another, more devastating, recession. This one, marked by rising unemployment, funding a war in Vietnam, and skyrocketing oil prices (sound familiar?), lasted from the fall of 1973 through the winter of 1975—almost as long as our most recent Great Recession, which started in December 2007 and officially ended in June 2009.

How did I, as a young black entrepreneur, manage to get my business off the ground during a recession? How did Black Enterprise survive an even more devastating economic downturn before we even made it to our fifth anniversary? And how did we make it through five more recessions, including the one we as a nation are fighting to recover from now?

It boils down to this: faith. We never give up. We never stop believing that we will not only survive adversity, but we will conquer it, becoming wiser, stronger and better in the process. We refuse to surrender our hope.

As we close out our yearlong celebration of the 40th anniversary of Black Enterprise, I never forget that the history of our company—and that of African Americans in general—has been no crystal stair, to paraphrase the great poet Langston Hughes. We’ve made it this far not because we’ve traveled an easy road, but because we are a tough, resilient, determined people who’ve already overcome more than our share of daunting obstacles and demoralizing setbacks over the centuries, only to stand triumphant and full of hope in the end. Many of my proudest moments as the founder of Black Enterprise have come during the most difficult times. It’s our track record of surviving adversity in the past that we must focus on to maintain the confidence and determination to thrive in the future, no matter what challenges lay ahead.

I exhort you to do no less. Many of us are discouraged and frustrated because economic relief has been too slow in coming for too many people. The distress is real and legitimate; Americans of all races and economic backgrounds are under tremendous pressure as a result of an economy that continues to struggle. However, this is when we must remember that we’ve come through much worse, as individuals, as families, as a people, and as a nation. And from that we can draw new strength, renewed confidence, and faith—not just hoping we can succeed, but knowing that we will….