America has long been a melting pot of different cultures, ethnicities, religions, and creeds. And with African-Americans historically being underrepesented in centers of power due to years of oppression, a celebration of African-American businesspeople is warranted. One of the most diverse groups in terms of methods of accruing wealth, here you’ll find the ten most successful African-American CEOs of all time.
With her aptly acronymed television network, Oprah, in a word, OWNs. America’s most beloved talk-show host, book club president, actress, producer, magazine owner, satellite radio station owner, philanthropist, lifestyle guru, and single-handed president picker, Oprah was raised being taunted for having to wear potato-sack dresses because of her poverty. Now, if she sneezes, the market moves. Not only the best businesswoman and alpha-female in the entire world, Oprah revolutionizes every industry that she touches, including politics — her unwavering support of President Obama absolutely helped to influence his 2008 election. People everywhere know her truth: if Oprah likes it, it’s good.
Here’s something good to come out of Penn State: Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck & Co., Inc. He’s the first African-American CEO of a pharmaceutical company, and only the second lawyer to become a CEO of big pharma. A champion of innovation and an all-around good guy, Frazier is also a successful pro bono lawyer, and the man responsible for the release of a wrongly accused Alabama man from death row. While at Penn State, he worked in a local aquarium, selling newts and tadpoles; now he’s in charge of one of the distributors of birth control and tetanus shots. All in all, not a bad move.
Women have it hard. African-American women have it harder. African-American businesswomen have it triple tough, and that’s just the truth. A first-generation American citizen and raised in the housing projects of New York City, Ursula Burns defied many odds and, as of 2009, is the CEO of paper and copy giant Xerox. Ranked as the 14th most powerful woman in the world, Ursula Burns is no stranger to back-breaking work as a means of rising through the ranks — she began her tenure with Xerox as a summer intern in 1980. Contrasting fearlessness with recklessness, she is passionately focused on growth for the company.
Robert L. Johnson
Not only is he named after one of the most prolific blues musicians of all time, Robert L. Johnson is a true influencer of American culture and the first African-American billionaire. The former CEO of Black Entertainment Television provided for the world a voice and a vehicle for all things African-American: television shows, hip-hop, R&B, soul, and movies. Additionally, Johnson was the first African-American to head a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, along with rapper Nelly and basketball giant Michael Jordan, his life and style beg the question: with friends like those, who needs…other friends?
The CEO of the eponymous Dangote group, this Nigerian businessman is the richest person of African descent in the world. Contributing to the development of Nigeria with the largest industrial conglomerate in West Africa, the Dangote Group employs upwards of 11,000 people, dealing with industries such as sugar refining, flour mills, food distribution, and cement. Also a heavy contributor to political parties in the region, Dangote’s businesses account for one-fourth of the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
Give it up for the man who produced the The Beastie Boys, Will Smith, LL Cool J, and everyone else that you can think of from the annals of rap history. The original hip-hop mogul and pioneer of the genre and its subsequent entrepreneurial spin-offs, Russell Simmons is as much activist and spiritual practitioner as he is CEO. Whether he’s founding Def Jam records, marrying a super model, and seeking enlightenment, Russell Simmons has his hands in much of the entertainment that we hold dear today.
Sean “Puff Daddy” “Puffy” “P. Diddy” “Diddy” Combs
The Artist Formerly known as Prince’s radical name-to-symbol has gotnothingon this guy. The richest and one of the most successful figures in hip-hop, unless you’re as B.I.G. as him, he won’t be missing you. From the projects to his own projects as CEO of Bad Boy Entertainment and Sean John Clothing, Combs has been a recording executive, producer, rapper, actor, entrepreneur, and a man of many names.
Madam C. J. Walker
Also known as Sarah Breedlove, Madam Walker was the first American woman to become a millionaire for her own achievements. Experiencing hair loss at an early age, she experimented with home products until she developed a workable salve. Parlaying her $1.50-a-day job as a washer into a hair-care empire in only 12 years time, this fascinating 19th-20th century mogul is a true inspiration and pioneer for African-Americans and businesswomen everywhere. Walker used her money to forward anti-lynching campaigns and black education, dying in 1919 at the age of 51.
The third African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Kenneth Chenault has been the CEO of American Express since 2001. Another lawyer turned CEO, Chenault worked his way through the ranks at American Express — beginning in 1981. Also an active public servant and recipient of the prestigious Third Lantern Award, Kenneth Chenault has been likened to perennially successful business magnate, Jack Welch.
Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter
Rap and hip-hop can’t be stopped! Producing some of the most financially successful CEOs of all time, you also have to give the industry credit for producing some of the greatest stories of all time. Another African-American born into impoverished American housing projects, Jay-Z is the current CEO of Roc Nation and his net worth is an estimated $450 million. Also, he’s married to one of the hottest female entertainers of all time, and they just had a new baby. Rumor also has it that he and Beyonce are planning to shoot a music video…in space.