The 10 Most Important Black Business Luminaries

Visitors to name the 20th century's greatest

Oprah Winfrey

(1954- ) The Beacon. As producer and host of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey reaches an estimated 14 million viewers daily and millions more in 132 other countries. Winfrey uses her long reach to help viewers improve their lives and their world. She is chairman of the Harpo Entertainment Group in Chicago, and in this capacity has the distinction of being the only African American woman in TV and film to own her own production studio. Winfrey is also an actress — she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Color Purple — and a philanthropist — who established the “world’s largest piggy bank” on her show as a way to send disadvantaged kids to college. In 1998, Winfrey partnered with the producers of Roseanne and the head of the cable network Nickelodeon to form Oxygen Media Inc., a cable channel and interactive network for women. In April, she launched O, The Oprah Magazine, in a joint venture with Hearst Magazines. The magazine is a personal growth guide for women. Oprah has her finger on America’s pulse.

Reginald Lewis

(1969-1993) The Groundbreaker. Lewis set an historic precedent with the $985 million leveraged buyout of TLC Beatrice International Foods Cos. in 1987. At the time, the deal was the largest offshore transaction ever, and with $1.8 billion in gross sales, TLC Beatrice became the first black-owned company to gross $1 billion in sales. As CEO of the company, Lewis built an empire in the food processing industry. Lewis’ untimely death in 1993 rocked the business world, but TLC carried on under the leadership of Lewis’ wife, Loida. In 1993, Lewis’ alma mater, Harvard University Law School, dedicated the Reginald F. Lewis International Law Center to Lewis of the graduating class of 1968. The center is the first major facility at Harvard named after an African American. In 1997, after assessing several business models, TLC’s management team made the decision to sell its French Food business, which accounted for two-thirds of the company’s revenues. In 1999, the company liquidated the remaining assets and sold its shares back to investors.

Sarah “Madame C.J.” Walker

(1867-1919) The Entrepreneur. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana, Walker was the daughter of former slaves. From her beginnings as an uneducated farm laborer and laundress, she transformed her life, becoming one of the most successful businesswomen of the 20th century. Walker is widely reported to be the first self-made African American millionaire. She made her fortune through a haircare products company targeted to the African American community. Once asked what was the secret of her success, Walker responded: “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. . . If I have accomplished anything in life, it is because I have been willing to work hard.”

Originally published in the August 2000 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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