From May 23–26, the nation’s largest annual gathering of black entrepreneurs will take place when more than 1,500 business owners, corporate executives, and professionals converge on the city of Chicago for the 2012 Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference.
This year’s conference has special significance for several reasons. For the first time since its inception 17 years ago, the Entrepreneurs Conference is being held in Chicago, a city that proudly boasts a legacy as the cradle of black entrepreneurship. This legacy can be traced back to the Windy City’s founding by the black entrepreneur, pioneer, and trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable in the 1700s, and includes the trailblazing black business titans John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing Co.; George E. Johnson, founder of Johnson Products haircare products company; and Albert W. Johnson, the first black owner of a Cadillac dealership. Also, this year’s Entrepreneurs Conference will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first publication of the BE 100s, our annual listing of the nation’s largest black-owned companies.
One of the primary objectives of the Entrepreneurs Conference is to expose the current generation of young, ambitious business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs to the inspiring examples set by the great black entrepreneurs who came before them. Sadly, too many black entrepreneurs are taking that legacy for granted.
Black entrepreneurs of my generation actively and aggressively looked for ways to collaborate and support each other to create opportunities and grow their businesses. For example, the media industry game changer Soul Train, created by the iconic Don Cornelius (who died tragically last month), got on the air because another black entrepreneur, Johnson Products CEO George Johnson, stepped up to sponsor the show, advertising haircare products including Ultra Sheen. Also, in the years after I launched black enterprise in 1970, my business idol John H. Johnson went from being my competitor to my mentor and partner. We regularly made joint sales calls to secure advertising dollars for black enterprise and his long-established magazines Ebony and Jet.
Most of us who launched our enterprises in the 1970s and ’80s collaborated because we had no choice; we knew that we could not survive without working together to grow our businesses. We did not have access to information, resources, and connections from Ivy League business schools. We could not look to support from mainstream corporations that ignored and excluded African Americans. How did we thrive before diversity initiatives and minority supplier development programs? We relied on, partnered with, and did business with each other.
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