If you do a search on the Internet for the wealthiest black businessmen, the results may (or may not) come as a surprise to you. The list is dominated by athletes and entertainment figures; in fact, only two of the names that consistently come up are what you would consider traditional businessmen Robert Johnson (worth $550 million) and R. Donahue Peebles ($350 million).
Oprah Winfrey heads the list with a net worth of $2.8 billion, followed by the likes of Sean Combs at $550 million; Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson each at around $500 million; and Jay-Z with an estimated worth around $460 million.
Those numbers may seem impressive, and this is not to take away those persons’ business acumen, but if you compare them to the richest, they are paltry. Oprah is only the world’s 502nd richest person. The big names at the top of the list include Carlos Slim Helu ($78 billion), Bill Gates ($67 billion) and Warren Buffet ($53.5 billion). In looking at the list, I cannot help but also notice also the industries at the very top telecom, tech, fashion, investing, energy, etc. not entertainment and sports.
This tells me several things.
First, there is a lack of role models in the black business community. When athletes, musicians and Oprah dominate your list, they are representing fields of employment that are not only extremely hard to break into, but the chances for success are rare as well. It is almost akin to winning the lottery because there is no real formula you can follow to become Michael Jordan you either have the genetics to supplement the drive or you don’t.
Second, business role models are not making themselves visible enough to the youth to show them an alternate and more viable path. You see Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffet in the news all the time; Robert Johnson rarely appears on mainstream news outlets to publicize his efforts and beliefs.
White, Hispanic and Asian kids are constantly exposed to examples of young entrepreneurs creating new businesses (especially tech) and making millions. In these communities we have seen an explosion you could call the “Era of the Nerd.” It is cool to be smart, invent something and make an insane fortune. Sometimes you don’t even have to be smart; just savvy, persistent, hardworking, or even simply support the right person.
All of these examples come with the knowledge that you have to buckle down, work hard, and be on the constant lookout for better opportunities and enhancing your business mentors. And your reward is not simply making a fortune for your self, but also creating employment and wealth for thousands of other people and possibly revolutionizing the world.
On the flip side, many black communities see the “get rich quick” idea. Become a pro athlete and make a million by the time you are 22. Become a rapper or singer and maybe you’ll get discovered. Become an actor and hope you get cast in that star-making role. Or, notoriously, turn to crime and get rich even quicker even if your life expectancy drops dramatically, as does your chances of avoiding jail time.
We can focus on the barriers to entry, differences in education and class, or myriad other problems our community faces; or we can find solutions.
We need businessmen to get more involved in our communities outside the school system. Instead of building another youth basketball center so people can pretend they have done something to help inner-city kids, we need to build centers to teach kids about computers and business.
Instead of seeing athletes and musicians talking about their hitting the big time, we need to see stories about how people like tech company founder Amos Winbush III rose from humble beginnings to make his millions.
Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career fields are booming, yet fewer blacks are entering these fields. They are not quick payoff careers, but are a clear path into the upper middle class or higher. Many students claim these fields are intimidating to enter, but are they more intimidating than a life of low-paying, menial jobs?
But more visible mentors opening learning centers will only go so far if we do not encourage our children at home. In all other ethnic communities you can see parents and communities fostering kids’ interests in STEM and business. When I look around most of the black communities, I do not see any urgency to inspire kids in such disciplines; rather I see ridicule and disinterest and pressure to find that magic lottery ticket.