By: Cynthia Kurtz
February is Black History Month; a time when we remember among other things, the accomplishments and the contributions of the many African Americans who have earned their place as leaders in business, entertainment, education and research.
There have been many stories of successful African American businessmen and women. People who started or managed successful companies, employed hundreds of thousands of people, supported their local economies and contributed to their communities. It was difficult to decide which stories to tell.
Madam C.J. Walker deserves to be on any list of successful business leader but she probably would have described herself as a civil rights leader. She was born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana December 23, 1867. Her parents were freed slaves. By the age of 20 she was widowed, a mother and working as a washerwomen earning $1.50 per day. A scalp ailment led her to invent a line of hair products for African Americans. She took her products on the road giving demonstrations. They were a huge hit. In 12 years she became the first female self-made millionaire. A time when a million dollars really meant something! Sarah's success wasn't just about making money. It was about how she used her newly found position. She donated a large amount towards the construction of the Indianapolis YMCA. She funded an anti-lynching campaign and was part of a delegation that petitioned President Woodrow Wilson to make lynching a federal crime. She funded education.
Fast forward to another outstanding businesswomen - Ursula Burns, Chairman and CEO of Xerox. Ursula joined Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering summer intern and 20 years later she was named senior vice president of Corporate Strategic Services. She became the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer in July 2009. It wasn't an easy climb to success. She was raised in the housing projects of New York City. Today, Ursula Burns is ranked as the 14th most powerful women in the world by Forbes Magazine. She is the founding director of Change the Equation, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for science, technology, engineering and math. She provides leadership for many other non-profit organizations including the National Academy Foundation and the U.S. Olympic Committee. She was recently appointed as the Vice-Chair of the President's Export Council.
There are many other stories. African American men and women who have earned their places in the center of business. Whose hard work and dedication has not only helped shape our economy but influenced the world.
Black History Month is important for all Americans. It is our American story.
President & CEO
San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership