The 'secret' history of African-American entrepreneurs

We learn what we don’t know through research and study. But how do we learn what we don’t know we don’t know? How do we unlock a well-kept secret?

Take the tradition of African-American business leadership, for example. With only five male CEOs and no women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies, we easily could assume that the field of black business leaders is emerging just now from decades of discrimination. But we’d be wrong. Black business leadership in America spans four centuries and includes successful entrepreneurs, men and women.

“I have an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in American history, and I wondered why I was never taught this,” says Jeffrey Matthews, associate professor and director of the Business Leadership Program. “Then I had an ah-ha moment. This was a fascinating area of undiscovered history.”

Matthews now is helping to fill the void with the cross-disciplinary course he developed, “Black Business Leadership: Past and Present.” Students draw connections and contrasts between critical issues facing black business leaders, both historic and contemporary, and analyze the influence of racism and prejudice on the evolution of American black capitalism.

Last spring, eight visiting African-American entrepreneurs and executives—ranging from Deborah Tuggle, owner of two Friday’s Cookies in Tacoma, to Buster Brown ’72, M.B.A.’74, CFO at Vulcan Inc.—shared their stories with the class and answered the students’ questions. Did they experience racism in high school or college? In the workplace? Did they feel isolated at large corporations as the only minority in their department?

“Their responses varied, which is a good lesson in understanding that there is not one black business culture,” Matthews explains. “Historically, we saw this in the 1920s and ’30s among African-American intellectuals such as E. Franklin Frazier. They were downplaying the uniqueness of black business history because they didn’t want to raise a separate black consciousness when their main social agenda was integration, not segregation.”

Matthews is working on a book he’s tentatively calling Earvin “Magic” Johnson and the Secret History of Black Business Leadership (due out in 2009). He says Johnson’s international reputation and strong business track record in urban markets serves as both example and magnet to attract interest to the larger history of black business leadership.

That makes sense to Najja Bullock ’06, who took the course last spring. “Athletes like Magic Johnson and music artists like Jay-Z have the capital to go in new directions,” he says. “They are role models who emphasize the importance of business in uplifting black communities. Civil rights will still play a big role, of course, but economic liberation is just as important.”

Once the secret is out, Matthews says everyone benefits from the achievements of black business leaders.

“Considering that most entrepreneurs aren’t ultimately successful,” he explains, “the fact that black businesspersons made it in spite of the discrimination, in spite of their lack of access to capital and exclusion from the good-old-boy network, makes their success even more remarkable.” — Lynda McDaniel