Up, Up, And Away

African American women business owners on the rise, continue to soar to the top of the BE 100s

Madame C.J. Walker, the daughter of slaves, became the first widely reported self-made African American millionaire in the 20th century, making her fortune through hair care products for African Americans. Media mogul Oprah Winfrey, CEO of Harpo Inc. (No. 9 on the 2003 BE INDUSTRIAL/ SERVICE 100 list with $314.5 million in sales), carries on this tradition of firsts in 2003, becoming the first female African American billionaire.

African American women have graced the BE AUTO DEALER 100 and the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 lists, since first unveiled in 1973 and continue to soar to the top. Their numbers have fluctuated over the years (8 in 1988, 7 in 1996, and 12 in 2003) and so have the total revenues generated by their empires ($113.6 million in 1988, $2.3 billion in 1996, and $1.8 billion in 2003). The dip in total revenues from 1996 to 2003 was mostly due to the liquidation of TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc. At its height, it was No. 1 on the 1997 BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with $2.2 billion in sales.

Janice Bryant Howroyd upholds the tradition as CEO of the Torrance, California-based Act One Personnel Services (No. 3 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with $487.53 million in sales), the largest company on the BE 100S list headed by a woman.

In 2002, the Center for Women’s Business Research reported an estimated 365,110 majority-owned, privately held firms controlled by African American women in the United States, an increase of 17% since 1997. Dolores Ratcliffe, founder and president of the Association of Black Women Entrepreneurs, attributes the growth to several factors:

  • As a result of hitting the glass ceiling in corporate America, African American women are starting businesses of their own.
  • Success stories of female entrepreneurs are inspirational.
  • Media outlets have done a good job of publicizing accomplishments of black businesses.

Ratcliffe also notes that because of the high unemployment rate, “while [women are] looking for another job … they can look at [business ownership] as an alternative.”

Additional reporting by Tamara Holmes
Research compiled by Arletha Allen

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