It’s been said that a healthy appreciation of history helps us to better comprehend our present circumstances and how we got to where we are. I couldn’t agree more with this statement. The history of the United States is laced with stories of people who through their personal and business endeavors, helped to redefine the status quo and shape cultural and societal perception with every passing generation.
A lot of these people were women like you and I. Black women to be precise.
African-American women have always had an entrepreneurial mindset going back centuries. In fact, according to the National Women’s Business Council, there were over 911,000 women-owned business in the US in 2014, with over one in every 10 belonging to African-American women.
To celebrate Black history month, I did research to find out about iconic African-American women entrepreneurs – dead and living – who helped shape modern business and culture. I have had the privilege of interacting with some of these women and I’m in awe of their dedication to their craft and their commitment to uplift the African American conscience and improve the black narrative in whatever they do.
So here are a few of the heroines I uncovered in the course of my research.
Let’s start with inspirations from the past.
Born in 1784, the last child to her parents, Elleanor began to show serious business acumen at the age of 10 when she started work as a laundry woman to support herself and her family after mother passed away. But this was only the beginning. By the time Elleanor was 19, she had built up her skill set considerably and immediately started to use them to her advantage.
Upon her father’s death, she took over his estate, teamed up with one of her sisters and opened a multi-disciplinary business in Warwick with services like soap manufacturing, weaving, and nursing. Building up her business portfolio, Elleanor subsequently purchased and built up a piece of land which she put up for rent at $40 a year.
After deciding to make Providence her home, she again opened another business which proved to be profitable. This time she offered interior design services like wallpapering, whitewashing, and painting. As her empire grew, she began to purchase and rent out houses in Providence.
Ms. Eldridge, to me, defines the principle that we are not defined by our birth but by our actions and intelligence to rise above our circumstances.
I was saddened by how badly Elizabeth’s story began. Born to slave parents in Virginia, she was torn from her family and sold from one owner to another growing up. At one point in her teenage years, she was raped by her white owner at the time and birthed her only child, a son who would later be killed while serving in the US Army. As the tragedies in her life continued to unfold, Elizabeth didn’t let them deter her from picking up a skill.
She soon became a skilled seamstress and was frequently loaned out to make dresses for many of the wealthy women of St. Louis. A few years later, she was able to purchase her freedom and that of her son, thanks to a loan from a few of her wealthiest customers. After paying off the loan, she moved to Washington D.C., where she started her own business as a seamstress catering to the elite.
This was how she met the then-first Lady of the United States, Mary Todd Lincoln. The pair quickly became friends as her relationship with the First Lady continued to deepen. Ms. Keckley went from her personal designer to confidant, close friend, and traveling companion. She eventually wrote and published a book detailing her time and experiences as a resident of the White House. Although her dressmaking business would later decline before her death in 1907, Elizabeth’s story is an inspiring piece that outlines her perseverance, talent and enterprising nature.
Mary Ellen Pleasant
In the 1840s the stage was set for Mary to make something of herself. At the time she was a free woman living in the booming city of San Francisco during the Gold Rush era. Mary, who at the time was making a living as a chef for wealthy clients, leveraged the $45,000 left to her upon the death of her first husband to build a business empire. Some of her businesses included restaurants, laundries, and boarding houses.
Ellen who was a fervent abolitionist used the platform of her business to preach the anti-slavery message while fostering black industry. She employed a slew of African Americans across her business empire. Her elite status enabled her to have access to and network with some of the most prominent business owners and politicians of her time. Her influence continued to grow as she began to involve herself in the political affairs of the city, memorably on the issue of the Jim Crow legislation.
Despite the negative rumors (media perception was as rampant then as it is now) that surrounded her life, I strongly believe Ms. Pleasant embodies the kind of spirit that we should all have. She was tough, smart, savvy and had a strong belief in herself.
One of the things that struck me about Annie Malone is that she discovered the complementariness of her talents and learned how to use them to her advantage. Ms. Malone discovered while attending high school that she was excited by the subject of chemistry. She soon combined this flair with her already existing skill of hair styling. She manufactured and started selling her own hair and scalp treatment products made specifically for African American women’s hair. Annie was arguably the first in this spanking new niche of the hairdressing business.
In order to grow her business, Annie Malone moved to St. Louis in 1904 where she made and sold her product from door to door. The following year she established and copyrighted her company, Poro Company in Denver. Besides the manufacturing aspect of her venture, Malone also established beauty schools that specialized in training hairdressers on how to take care of African American hair.
Annie soon grew her company to a point where she had employed thousands of sales agents across the country. Annie was also a philanthropist. She made certain that her philanthropy also included employing African Americans from all over the country. At some point in the peak of her career, the business magnate was said to have a net worth of $14 million.
Madame CJ Walker
Competition in business is almost always a good thing; it fosters creativity and productivity. Such was the relationship between Madame Walker and Annie Malone. Like Annie, Walker was also the owner of a hair care company that catered to African American women.
It was intriguing to me when I discovered that Madame Walker started out her career in the industry as one of Annie’s sales agents. Talk about recognizing an opportunity and creating a niche for yourself.
She subsequently left Poro and opened her own business based in Indianapolis, Indiana. The two women frequently butted heads on the business front with Annie accusing Walker of plagiarizing her formulas, an allegation that Walker vehemently refuted, saying that her recipes came to her in a dream.
Even though they remained rivals, Walker, like Annie, also recorded immense success in her ventures and also became successful enough to shift the focus of her later years to areas of politics and philanthropy.
Obviously, Madame Walker was the marketing genius of the two because every women who has her own business knows her. Personally, I had no idea, about Ms. Malone. But when you read her biography, you see and can appreciate the astute and creative way she marketed Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.
Maggie Lena Walker
Growing up in the heart of the Confederacy, Maggie Lena Walker started work as a laundress at age 9. At 16, she was working as a teacher and learning accounting. Eventually she lead the Independent of Order of St. Luke and founded a bank, a newspaper, and a retail store, creating jobs and opportunities for many women and other African Americans. 
Interestingly, her assumption of the position coincided with the period when the organization was on the brink of bankruptcy.
To save the Order, Maggie established the St. Luke Penny Savings in 1903, in Richmond, Virginia. As the venture grew and operations expanded, she was able to revitalize the Order. And through the bank, Maggie upheld the virtues and objectives of the organization to uplift African Americans by helping to sponsor homeownership for African Americans. Not satisfied, she would eventually widen her business interests while building and maintaining her status as an ardent advocate for the rights of African Americans and women.
The bank which Maggie Walker founded made her the first female African American bank president in the history of the United States. We talk about economic empowerment everyday but Ms. Walker literally put her money where her mouth was. Ms. Walker should be a huge inspiration to you. She certainly is to me.
Christiana Carteaux Bannister
Christiana Bannister (formerly Babcock) was a triple threat in her lifetime: hairdresser, entrepreneur, and abolitionist. As a young woman, she relocated to Boston where she established her own salon in 1847. She had gradually grown the business to a chain of salons in the Boston area by 1871.
It seems impossible to imagine in today’s world, but Christiana established her enterprise in a period when salons catered almost exclusively to men. However, she managed to build a thriving business. Her salons were also known to be popular convergence points for both white and black abolitionists.
Her activism saw her fight for equal rights for people of black ethnicity. During the Civil War, she advocated for equal pay for African American soldiers and organized a fair in 1864 under the auspices of the Boston Colored Ladies Sanitary Commission in 1864 to help pay black soldiers who had refused their salaries in lieu of collecting lower pay than their white contemporaries.
After she moved back to her home State of Rhode Island with her husband, Christiana, she established a nursing home to cater for elderly women of color.
Bringing us to my present inspirations…
Janice Bryant Howyrod
I heard of Ms. Howyrod when I was the Supplier Diversity manager for an IT company in Maryland. This was in 2000. I was even more excited when I met her in person. To think that she was building a multi-million business at that time, I knew I just had to put her on this list.
Growing up during the height of the civil rights era, Janice, born 1952, started her working life as a temp secretary to her sister’s husband, Tom Noonan at Billboard Magazine in 1976.
After two years of working at the company and being exposed firsthand to the affairs and workings of the workplace by Noonan, she moved on in 1978 to launch her own business, ACT-1 Group, bringing on her former boss as her first client. ACT-1 Group is an employment services firm that caters to government agencies and businesses in the Fortune 500, lower level and mid-market tiers. Since its inception, Janice Howyrod has grown the company into a multibillion-dollar business, with many subsidiaries operating in 19 countries with an overall workforce more than 2,600 and a client pool of over 17,000. This sits Janice firmly as one of the first African American women to own a billion-dollar venture.
I met Natalie in person at a Walker’s Legacy event. It was my first year in business and I was excited to network with other women who wanted to learn, network and grow their businesses. The event did not disappoint and I joined soon after. When you learn her story of why she started, Walker’s Legacy, you understand why there was so many women there.
At an early age, Natalie was exposed to the world of business by her mother, who was all about it. After attending Howard College, Natalie went to work for a Black Enterprise 100 Company, the same company where her mother was the top female in the company. She learned the virtues of dedication and hard work. Her greatest lesson during her time there, in Natalie’s words, was the realization that an African American could lead and sustain a company of that size.
Natalie told of how she was buoyed by this experience and channeled the energy into starting her first business NMC Consulting when she was 26. Even though her venture was a success, she struggled to maintain her relevance in the predominantly masculine waters of consulting and business development. She called it “the old boy’s network”.
It didn’t take long for her to see that she was not the only woman of color in this situation. As a means to provide much-needed guidance, and mentoring for these women, Walker’s Legacy was born in 2009. Initially, a lecture series for businesswomen held quarterly, the venture soon grew into a full-fledged hub of inspiration, support, and education for female professionals and entrepreneurs.
So it turned out that Natalie Cofield and I are inspired by the same woman: our admiration for Madame CJ Walker. Hence the name, Walker’s Legacy. Looking at Natalie, it is heartwarming to see someone who has drawn from the inspiration of those who came before her to make something of herself and pull others along with her.
Aliche is a personal heroine of mine. She is the founder and CEO of the Live Richer Academy and The Budgetnista. Aliche’s business ventures are fueled by a commitment to teaching people financial excellence.
Aliche’s story, as she tells it in a chapter of her book, The One Week Budget, reveals that she once made some bad financial decisions that put her in a credit card debt of about $30,000 in less than a week. She had to learn the hard way how to get out of it and build a financially stable and responsible life for herself.
Plus, there’s also a little story on her website about how an experience with her Nigerian father sparked her quest for financial knowledge. It is a great read and is adorable and inspiring in equal measure.
My respect for this lady has only grown in leaps and bounds for various reasons. Firstly, the financial education she doles out helps entrepreneurs like me think about our financial situations and go from erratic cash flow to actually save money. I still use the 52 week savings plan I found on her Facebook page to this day!
Cheryl is a force of a personality. One look at her website, CherylEmpowers, and you can almost feel her influence and the impact she is having on women in the US and around the globe.
Cheryl is an internationally recognized speaker, speaking coach, and best-selling author. Simply put, Cheryl Wood is all about teaching women to identify and hone their skills and talents and leverage them for career and business success. As a speaking coach, she teaches females in authority about how to effectively and powerfully communicate their public presentations.
Wood also caters to a younger female audience aged 10 – 16 with her Girlpreneur Mentorship program where she essentially helps to spark the flame of entrepreneurship in them.
Throughout her career, she has been able to boast some high-profile individuals and corporations as part of her clientele. Some names on her client list include The Department of Defense, Verizon Wireless, Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and The United Nations.
I guess, this lady may just have been another figure more me to admire from a distance if I hadn’t encountered her personally. When I was just starting out my business, I attended one of her classes and it really packed a punch, to say the least. I have been inspired by her on a much deeper level every day since then.
Thank You for Inspiring Me
Every woman on this list is an inspiration in her own right and to the watching world. They are a testament to the truth that African American women are courageous, skilled, confident, enterprising, and daring. They are shining stars; an inspiration to every African American in whatever field of endeavor. Through their efforts, I am reminded every day to pursue personal and business success while lending a hand to others in any way I can.