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Black History Month: 5 Lessons From 5 Business Legends

Check out the 5 business legends who paved the way for many of the world's black business leaders

One of my favorite interviews was three hours I spent with the late John H. Johnson in 1987 when BE named him our “Entrepreneur of the Decade” — and for good reason. He built his publishing and cosmetics empire into an international powerhouse, distributing name brands such as Ebony, Jet, and Fashion Fair. For 60 years, he touched the lives of millions of African Americans in every facet of life, sharing with the world their talents and potential, exposing injustice and racism, and shattering social and commercial barriers. And he still does today.

Johnson’s lesson: I believe in hands-on, hands-in, hands-wrapped-around management in which you delegate freely and check on people every day. The most important thing a manager can learn is the ability to analyze a situation and quickly think his way out of it.

My first interview with Robert L. Johnson was for my book,Titans of the BE 100s. As usual, he was between deals. It was the natural state for the serial entrepreneurs who made business history when he took BET public in 1991, the first time a black-owned company was traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2000, he sold the cable network to Viacom for $3.2 billion, making him the first African American billionaire. He acquired the Charlotte Bobcats in 2003, creating the first black-owned NBA franchise and launched four other BE 100s companies. Still striking deals and forming alliances, he has two thriving BE 100s companies in , respectively, the auto industry and private equity sector as well as investments in aerospace, defense, consumer goods, hospitality and media companies.

Bob Johnson’s lesson: Do not miss the chance to leverage whatever assets you have, in addition to your ability and skill. Leverage your political clout. Leverage your demand that companies address opportunities for minorities in a [given] sector. Don’t be afraid you’re going to be blackballed. If you’re good, you won’t be blackballed.

My colleague Alfred Edmond Jr. and I gained the opportunity to view history in front-row seats when BE broke the late financier Reginald F. Lewis‘ historic $985 million leveraged buyout of TLC Beatrice International Foods Cos.—the largest offshore transaction at the time. He created the first black-owned global enterprise to surpass the billion-dollar revenue mark. Throughout his business career, Lewis was responsible for scores of black businesses to gain access to financing, becoming the standard bearer for African Americans on Wall Street and inspiring generations of entrepreneurs and corporate professionals.

Lewis’ Lesson: Enlightened businessmen are always interested in trends in their communities, states and countries, as well as in neighboring areas and in other parts of the world. Now, obviously that doesn’t mean they have to have a doctorate in international affairs. The best business people are willing to find out about the factors that influence what they’re doing.

I first gained the opportunity to interview astute, focused Kenneth I. Chenault for the March 1990 cover story on his being named president of the consumer card group of American Express. Even then, I wrote he had “the stuff of which CEOs of the 21st Century are made.” Within a decade, he was Chairman and CEO of the financial powerhouse. Today, Chenault is the face of global corporate leadership. One of the few African Americans to oversee a major publicly traded company, he’s one of the most admired executives for his cool, Socratic approach, successfully steering Amex and serving as a presidential advisor over the years during our nation’s major financial crises.

Chenault’s lesson: Today, the stakes are incredibly high. The need for leaders to stand for something and act from principle is more important than ever…If your people believe that you have the right values, they will tolerate a few mistakes. In fact, they will stay with you. They want to see that you are decisive and compassionate, because you are asking people to take risks, to take chances. But don’t confuse compassion with a reluctance to act decisively when necessary.

As a 21-year-old college graduate, I had the great fortune to get the dream job of working for one of my heroes: Founder and publisher of Black Enterprise Earl G. Graves Sr. One of his first comments to me was that “everyday was Monday,” meaning that we should never waver in our professionalism, preparation and performance. This visionary entrepreneur embodied that message through the creation and advancement of a vehicle to provide information and advocacy that has enabled three generations of African Americans to build wealth through business ownership, career advancement, and money management. Through his media company, he opened the door for the best and brightest in the global business arena and, in the process, created an expansive business network that would, among other milestones, help elect the first African American president. In terms of the progress that we’ve witnessed, another one of his sayings proved how prescient he can be: “Over time even the impossible can become possible.”

Graves’ lesson: Because they live, work and play together, white businesspeople generally aren’t focused to use their ingenuity as much as we are. Most of them don’t have to storm the castle. If I want to get to the CEO of a company and I can’t do it by going in the front door, I’ll sit down and examine the individual. What corporate or charitable boards does the CEO sit on? Whom do I know that may get me in inside?

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