Celebrating Inspiring Black Businesses


August 2023

In recognition of Black Business Month we offer this series of spotlights to celebrate the incredible achievements and innovations of Black business owners that have inspired us.

American businessman Reginald F. Lewis is the first profile. Without inherited wealth or prestigious connections, Lewis became one of the country’s wealthiest people, and was the first African-American to close an overseas billion dollar leveraged buyout deal with the purchase of global food company Beatrice International.

But what captivates us most is his strategy of attacking big challenges and how he succeeded in establishing, acquiring, and running businesses – in addition to his exceptional work ethic and drive. His actions and achievements are an inspiration and case study for our team on developing a mindset to take on challenges and successfully work them through.

His amazing contributions and life were cut very short when he passed at the age of 50 in 1993. But his philanthropy and legacy continues on in his family’s work through the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation. His alma maters Virginia State University and Harvard University have schools in his honor, the Reginald F. Lewis School of Business and Law, and The Reginald F. Lewis International Law Center, respectively.

Second in our series is entrepreneur, philanthropist, social and political activist Madame CJ Walker, who is credited with being the first female self-made millionaire in the US, and one of the first African-American millionaires.

Born Sarah Breedlove, Walker’s family was enslaved in Louisiana and Sarah was the first in her family to be born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation. Her life included being orphaned at the age of 7, married at 14, and having a daughter at 16.

Her innate drive, smarts, and determination led her to ultimately found the Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company, which developed and sold cosmetics and hair care products for Black women. This dizzying journey of accomplishments established her as the figurehead of the self-made American business woman.

As her great-great-grandaugher A’Lelia Bundles writes in “Madam Walker Essay”:

“Tenacity and perseverance, faith in herself and in God, quality products and “honest business dealings” were the elements and strategies she prescribed for aspiring entrepreneurs who requested the secret to her rags-to-riches ascent. “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she once commented. “And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”

Learn more here.

One of the country’s oldest, continuously operating, Black-owned business is next in our National Black Business Month series.

John T. Ward helped enslaved people in the South escape to freedom as a conductor in Ohio’s Underground Railroad. During the Civil War he was a contractor for the U.S. Army moving supplies and equipment.

Understanding how these skills could be applied to the business world, E.E. Ward Moving & Storage Co. was created by John and his son William S. Ward in 1881 in Columbus, Ohio. Originally named Ward Transfer Line, the business transported goods and supplies from warehouse and storage yard to commercial sites and markets via horses and wagons. Shortly after the company began offering storage services as well, and became fully motorized in 1921.

In 2003 the company was acknowledged by the U.S. Department of Commerce and recorded in the Congressional Record as being the oldest known continuously operating Black-owned business in the United States. Learn more about this long-standing company here.

The series continues with a profile of Earl G. Graves Sr., most well-known for founding Black Enterprise Magazine in 1970. The magazine is nationally recognized as the definitive resource for African American business professionals in the public and private sectors.

His accomplishments spanned decades soon after he graduated from Morgan State University and served two years in the army. After that he volunteered for the 1964 presidential campaign, which ultimately led him to a permanent role as the administrative assistant for Senator Robert Kennedy until Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.

Graves built Black Enterprise from a singular magazine into a multimedia business. In addition he was the former chairman and CEO of Pepsi-Cola of Washington D.C., leading the largest minority-controlled Pepsi-Cola franchise in the U.S.

Learn more about Graves here.

The final installment in the Black Business Month series is Paul Revere Williams, the first Black architect to become a member of the American Institute of Architects in 1923, and in 1957 was inducted as the AIA’s first Black Fellow.

Williams is well-known for the private homes he designed in the Los Angeles area, especially many for celebrities.

However Williams also co-designed with Hilyard Robinson the first federally funded public housing projects of the post-war period, plus a myriad of other buildings, schools, churches, courthouses, and other structures.

Read more about his life here.

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