Facilitating the Next Golden Age of Black Business
To combat the racial wealth gap and support Black business growth, companies and leaders can learn from lessons of early 20th century innovators.
In recent years, a growing recognition of deep inequities in the global economy has served as a much needed push for financial institutions, philanthropic organizations, governments, and corporations to invest in Black business.
Take the example of the PNC Foundation, the philanthropic arm of PNC Financial Services, which in October 2021 donated $16.8 million to launch the Howard University and PNC National Center for Entrepreneurship. Howard University, a historically Black research university, will also work alongside other historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), such as Morgan State University, Clark Atlanta University, and Texas Southern University, to give the center a national footprint.
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Likewise, in November 2022, Robert F. Smith, the founder, chairman, and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, launched a program alongside investment companies Stackwell and Prudential that will provide 500 students from HBCUs and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) with $1,000 grants to invest, along with hands-on investment education.1 Smith, an African American billionaire and the visionary behind the Student Freedom Initiative, sees the promise of a global economy where underrepresented groups are not left behind. The launch of the Stackwell and Prudential partnership, Smith said, “shows what the power of intentionality and collaboration can do to create long-term solutions to combat the racial wealth gap.”
These recent efforts represent a step in the right direction to help grow the pipeline of Black entrepreneurs and stimulate a new era of prosperity for the Black community — one that is reminiscent of the golden age of Black business, as business historian Juliet Walker has described the period from roughly 1900 to 1930, when Black businesses flourished in the U.S.2 During that time, Black businesses such as North Carolina Mutual, Atlanta Life Insurance, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, and others thrived due to the cooperative advantage that was achieved by those companies and their leaders. In our book, African American Management History: Insights on Gaining a Cooperative Advantage, we hypothesized that this was due to a spirit of care and community, consensus-building, and dialogue that they engendered within their organizations and the wider community.3
In this article, we will explore the lessons that Black leaders of the past can offer those who are facilitating the next golden age, and how current leaders can work to ensure that prosperity in the Black business community is robust, long-lasting, and sustainable.
HBCUs and MSIs Must Lead the Way
In 1925, at Bluefield State College, an HBCU in West Virginia, William Matney, a professor in the department of business administration, started a unique practicum that taught his students how to create and manage cooperative enterprises.4 Matney had been one of the first African American MBA graduates from Harvard Business School, and he received the support of famed sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, who himself had been the first African American to earn a doctorate at Harvard. Du Bois was a proponent of Black Americans engaging in economic cooperation to create wealth collectively and at the same time facilitate social sustainability and community well-being. Matney and his students at Bluefield launched a cooperative store, which allowed student members to raise capital by selling stock within the co-op and to receive dividends paid out of net profits. These profits went on to help provide much-needed scholarships to high-achieving students. Matney’s innovative approach to cooperative enterprise and theory soon spread to other institutions; in a letter to Du Bois, he explained that department chairs from other HBCUs had reached out to him expressing interest in following his lead.5
HBCUs have always been instrumental to the collective success of Black Americans in many spheres and will continue to be a critical lever for facilitating prosperity.
Today, similar efforts are needed at HBCUs and MSIs to help students gain the knowledge to lead entrepreneurial ventures. For example, in August 2021, Bowie State University, an HBCU based in Maryland, opened its Entrepreneurial Living Learning Community. The space, which houses over 500 students and includes an entrepreneurship academy and an innovation center, gives students the opportunity to collaborate and develop new products and businesses.
By helping students develop the skills needed to become successful entrepreneurs, HBCUs and MSIs will be preparing them for economic stability and helping them gain confidence in making their business ideas a reality. This will not only benefit the students but also help to increase diversity in entrepreneurship and create economic opportunities for communities of color. HBCUs have always been instrumental to the collective success of Black Americans in many spheres and will continue to be a critical lever for facilitating prosperity.
Supporting the Next Generation of Black Investors
Looking to the past, we can see how access to funding, along with mentorship, has played a role in supporting Black businesses. In the early 20th century, Charles Clinton Spaulding, then president of North Carolina Mutual, was pivotal in the formation of Durham’s Black Wall Street by routinely investing in Black entrepreneurs.6 Today, many African American entrepreneurs still face the challenge of access to capital. Venture capital firms and angel investors are essential to the success of entrepreneurs and startups, but the VC industry is largely dominated by White executives and investors. For example, Black founders in the U.S. picked up only around 1% of VC funds raised in 2022.7
The lack of diversity in VC firms limits opportunities for Black entrepreneurs who might not have access to diverse networks or might face bias when trying to secure funding. There is an urgent need for more Black-owned VC firms to address this issue. One such firm is Harlem Capital, which was founded by Henri Pierre-Jacques and Jarrid Tingle, Black Americans who are on a mission to change the face of entrepreneurship by investing in 1,000 diverse founders over the next 20 years. Harlem Capital and other minority-owned VC firms, such as 1863 Ventures, BLCK VC, Fearless Fund, and others, have the potential to provide a different perspective on investment decisions, based on their understanding of underrepresented markets and communities. These firms are also better able to identify promising early-stage investments from minority founders that could lead to higher returns than those found elsewhere in the market.
The lack of diversity in VC firms limits opportunities for Black entrepreneurs who may not have access to diverse networks or face bias when trying to secure funding.
Black-owned VC firms can also provide valued mentorship and support to early-stage entrepreneurs who are often overlooked by traditional venture capital sources. This might come in the form of advising on business models, networking with industry professionals, and fostering relationships with potential customers.
Connecting With Africa and the Diaspora
Partnering with academic institutions, diversifying investment teams, and supporting Black entrepreneurs must also go hand in hand with creating an ecosystem of support for the wider African community. From a historical context, Booker T. Washington, the famed African American educator, founded the National Negro Business League (NNBL) in 1900 to promote the financial and commercial interests of African American businesses. The organization quickly grew within the U.S. and expanded to other regions, including the Caribbean and West Africa, with the goal of promoting international trade with the wider African diaspora. Annie Turnbo Malone, an NNBL member and one of the first female Black self-made millionaires, employed women in parts of Africa and the Caribbean to sell hair care products under the brand Poro, a word connected to the Mende ethnic group in West Africa.8
Today, Africa is an increasingly attractive investment opportunity, as evidenced by interest from Chinese and European investors, but the paucity of Black American investors represents a missed opportunity on both sides. Nana Akufo-Addo, the president of Ghana, has encouraged Black Americans and others from the African diaspora to visit and take advantage of investment opportunities. The National Black MBA Association has organized trade and education missions to Ghana, Liberia, and other African countries, enabling members to learn about investment opportunities and gain specialized knowledge and experience that can be beneficial when investing in African markets.
Black Americans have access to capital from banks or other sources that might not be available to African entrepreneurs who are just starting out or do not have established relationships with lenders. Furthermore, by increasing their presence in Africa’s investment landscape, Black American investors could help bridge the wealth gap between African countries and their counterparts in the Global North. By investing in African businesses, Black Americans can help create jobs and stimulate economic growth on the continent. This could ultimately lead to greater stability for African nations, which would benefit all those involved — including investors and entrepreneurs alike.
Facilitating the next golden age of Black business is essential to creating an equitable and inclusive economy. This will require individual leaders to rise to the challenge, and companies, academic institutions, and communities to work together to scale individual efforts. Take the example of James “Jay” Bailey, who, as CEO of the Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs (RICE), a Black business generator in Atlanta, is working with his team to eliminate the challenges of access, opportunity, and exposure for Black entrepreneurs. RICE supported 127 companies by its third year of operations and plans to increase that number to 1,000 in the next five years. These types of efforts need to be scaled up in Black communities, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted Black businesses throughout the U.S.
When Black enterprises are successful, their employees benefit from better wages and working conditions, local economies benefit from increased tax revenues, public safety improves as crime decreases, educational opportunities expand, and communities become stronger through increased civic engagement. Individual and organizational change-makers should continue to focus on supporting HBCUs, increasing the number of Black VCs, and investing in Africa and its diaspora. By prioritizing these initiatives, the golden age of Black business can ensure a sustainable future for Black communities across the U.S. and abroad.
Image credit: Turnbo-Malone: Chicago History Museum; DuBois: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.80.25; Washington: Library of Congress, LC-J694-255
1. A. Wray, “Black Billionaire, Banks Partner to Give HBCU Students $1,000 to Invest in Stocks,” AL.com, Nov. 29, 2022, www.al.com.
2. J.E. Walker, “The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship,” 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
3. L.C. Prieto and S.T.A. Phipps, “African American Management History: Insights on Gaining a Cooperative Advantage” (Bingley, U.K.: Emerald Publishing, 2019).
4. L. Prieto, S. Phipps, L. Giugni, et al., “Teaching (Cooperative) Business: The ‘Bluefield Experiment’ and the Future of Black Business Schools,” Academy of Management Learning & Education 20, no. 3 (September 2021): 320-341.
5. L.M. Brooks and R.G. Lynch, “Consumer Problems and the Cooperative Movement in the Curricula of Southern Negro Colleges,” Social Forces 22, no. 4 (May 1944): 429-436.
6. L.C. Prieto, S.T.A. Phipps, and H.C. McKoy Jr., “Supporting Black Business Ecosystems: Lessons From Durham’s Black Wall Street,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Feb. 24, 2022, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.
7. D. Davis, “Black Funders Still Raised Just 1% of all VC Funds in 2022,” TechCrunch, Jan. 6, 2023, https://techcrunch.com.
8. C.V. Trawick, “Annie Malone and Poro College: Building an Empire of Beauty in St. Louis, Missouri From 1915 to 1930” (Ph.D. diss., University of Missouri, 2011).