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A History of Triumph: African American Women in Business

african american business women

Part 3 in a 3 Part Series

This is the third blog in our three-part series on African Americans who have changed the world through their contributions to science, the arts and now business. Of course, it’s no surprise that there are many African American women who are also successful business people. Oprah, anyone? But have you ever heard of Clara Brown, Madam C.J. Walker or Ursula Burns? Well, if you don’t already know them, you are about to get schooled. Drumroll, please….

Brown was born in Missouri, but she and her family were sold to a family who lived in Virginia and later relocated to Kentucky. She married at 18 and had four children, but the family was forced apart when their owner died and the estate was settled and they were sold to different families. When Brown eventually gained her freedom at 56, she went West to Colorado hoping to find her family. Although she originally supported herself through various jobs such as a cook, mid-wife and nurse maid, she started to build her wealth after she opened her first laundry. After expanding, she began investing in real estate and gold mine claims. With her success, she helped other African Americans in need as well as Native Americans and European immigrants. She quickly began to be called Aunt Clara because of her unwavering generosity. Sadly, she was only able to reunite with one of her daughters and she was already 82 when she finally located her. But while many people would have crumbled under the heart breaks that she suffered, Clara Brown never gave up. She succeeded despite the many obstacles that she encountered and she never forgot that her most important legacy would be based on her unwavering kindness rather than just her success. Over a century after her death, she was honored by being inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.

Walker became one of the most successful entrepreneurs at a time when most women were not even allowed to work outside the home. She was also an activist and a supporter of other African American women. Born in the Louisiana delta to parents that were slaves, she became an orphan at the young age of seven. By the time she turned twenty, she was widowed and had a two-year-old daughter to support. After many years of working in thankless jobs, she was determined to provide a formal education for her daughter. She started working for a hair care company as a saleswoman and later left to start her own line of cosmetics and hair products specifically designed for black women.

As her wealth increased, so did her philanthropy, activism and support of other black business women. At an annual gathering of the National Negro Business League, she said, “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.” Now that’s a speech. When she died at the young age of 51, she had amassed a sizeable fortune as well as a sterling reputation that went well beyond hair care products.

Fast forward almost 100 years to 2009 and meet Ursula Burns who became the first African American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Starting as a summer intern, she worked her way up through the ranks and eventually into the corner office. Burns was raised by a single mother in a housing project in New York. Her mother always taught her that “where” you are does not define “who” you are and encouraged her to pursue education as her path to success.

After attending an all-girls Catholic school, she obtained a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now New York University Tandon School of Engineering) and only one year later, she finished her master of science in mechanical engineering at Columbia University. That was not an obvious path for women at the time, but she was confident that it was the right path for her; just as she believed that taking an internship at Xerox was the right career path. As she eventually became CEO, it seems like her instincts were correct. After taking that role, she led the acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services, another Fortune 500 company that had over 74,000 employees at the time.

In addition, she became a founding member of Change the Equation, a CEO-led-non-profit program to boost STEM education which was launched by the Obama administration in 2010.

In 2016, Burns stepped down as CEO of Xerox but remained on the board for another year. She also currently serves on the board of numerous other corporations such as American Express and Uber and is also involved in many philanthropic pursuits. In 2017, Burns accepted the position of CEO of Veon Corporation, a multinational telecommunications company that is headquartered in Amsterdam.

In summary, the two common denominators for the extraordinary people that we profiled in our series is perseverance and empathy. All of them overcame odds that were clearly stacked against them. Yet, none of them let the obstacles define them. Rather, they forged their own path despite those obstacles, and they helped many others along the way.

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