10 Historic Black Women Who Inspire Business Leaders of Today

The year 2020 is the start of a new decade filled with prosperity. We are fully immersed in the growing era of women entrepreneurs, political leaders, and #GirlBosses. Today, prominent business women like Serena Williams and Lisa Price wouldn’t have their platforms without the paved pathways by the pioneers of yesterday. To show proper gratitude to the women who persevered for us, we must continue to remind ourselves of their sacrifices, obstacles, and achievements. In honor of Black History Month, here are ten black women who paved the way for #BlackGirlMagic to sparkle today.

Madam C.J. Walker

Image Credit: Biography.com
Image Credit: Biography.com

Madam C.J. Walker was named as “the first black woman millionaire in America” by the time she passed away in 1919. She is known for her pioneership in black hair care products, philanthropy, and social activism for African Americans of her time. Walker developed the “Walker System” after seeking treatment for hair loss and sold her homemade products directly to the community of black women with similar experiences. Soon, her brand became popular within the community that quickly spread to neighboring cities and developed into an entrepreneurial success. By 1910, Walker had opened her headquarters in Indianapolis and developed a door-to-door marketing system selling over 15 hair and skin care items. Through her success, Madam Walker valued cultural growth and contributed to charities, scholarships, and progressive institutions like the NAACP.

Mae Reeves

Image Credit: NPR.org
Image Credit: NPR.org

Mae Reeves, a famed milliner from Philadelphia, was a business pioneer known for designing women’s hats. Her show-stopping creations were adorned with vibrantly colored flowers, delicate beading, and bold broaches to style for any occasion. Reeves earned her spot in Black History after migrating to Philly from a harsh Jim Crow South to open her own store in Philadelphia’s apparel industry: Mae’s Millinery Shop. She quickly became one of the first African American women to own a business in Philly’s commercial economy. Famous black women like Eartha Kitt, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lena Horne all shopped at Mae’s in support of her pioneerious reputation. Mae Reeves surely set an example for African American women in the fashion business then and even now.

Mary Ellen Pleasant

Image Credit: TheParisReview.org
Image Credit: TheParisReview.org

Mary Ellen Pleasant was an African American entrepreneur, financer, and abolitionist of the early 19th century. Although she was born into slavery, Pleasant found herself working as a store keeper at the age of 13 for a family of abolitionists in California. She grew to understand the family’s ways of freeing slaves of the fiery South. Eventually, she grew a team of like-minded abolitionists and worked to funnel slaves to northern states like Ohio, Philadelphia, and California. She, to many historians, became known as “The Harriet Tubman of California”.

Marjorie Carter

Image Credit: Syracuse.com
Image Credit: Syracuse.com

Marjoire Carter is the first African American woman to become employed and teach in Syracuse Public Schools. She was inspired to become an educator at an early age and recognized the importance of education in the African American community. After high school, Carter moved on to earn her teaching certificate from SUNY Cortland as the only black student. Carter retired from the classroom after a 40-year career in 1990, but that didn’t stop her efforts to keep positivity flowing in her community. She became more active in organizations like the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary, the Everson Museum, and the Syracuse Federation of Women’s Clubs. Throughout her career, Carter also received numerous awards of recognition including the “Pioneer Award” by the Black Leadership Congress of Syracuse in 1973, the Distinguished Alumni honor of 1977, and many more.

Ella Baker

Photo Credit: Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Ella Baker was an African American social activist with a career spanning over 50 years. She moved to New York City in the late 20’s in search of employment, but instead found people suffering from the hardships of the Great Depression and decided to act. Baker was introduced to political activism thus helping organize the Young Negroes Cooperative League that worked to gather community resources and provide affordable goods to members. Her work stretched passed New York boarders and bled into the racist south where she served with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Baker continued her social activist leadership efforts for civil rights until her death.

Mary Edmonia Lewis

Image Credit: Biography.com
Image Credit: Biography.com

Mary Edmonia Lewis was an African American fine art sculptor from the early 19th century. She was most famous for her work in Rome, Italy and notoriously known as the first African American woman to reach international recognition. Lewis was born free in upstate New York, but attended Oberlin College in Ohio where she sharpened her artistic talents. In 1864, she sculpted her most famous bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, a civil war hero who led the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The profits from this project allowed Lewis to move to Rome where she continued to develop her craft with African American themes and marble over several decades. “Forever Free” (1967), one of her most prized pieces depicted a black man and woman emerging from the chains of slavery. Today, her pieces are permanently present in the Howard University Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Janice Bryant Howroyd

Image Credit: UnityFirst.com
Image Credit: UnityFirst.com

Janice Bryant Howroyd is an African American entrepreneur, educator, author, founder, and chief executive officer of The ActOne Group, the largest private personnel corporation in the U.S. After studying English at North Carolina A&T, Howroyd migrated across the country to Los Angeles with only $900 and opened up ActOne in 1978. Early business operations included finding full-time and part-time job placements for companies in need. As she built her network of happy clients, she decided to implement education and began training people to enhance her job placement strategy in order to compete with larger staffing companies. Now, ActOne is worth $1 Billion and contracts with 17,000 clients in 19 countries.

Oprah Winfrey

Image Credit: WeightWatchers.com
Image Credit: WeightWatchers.com

Oprah Winfrey is an African American philanthropist, media executive, producer, and actress. She is most famously known for hosting “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, a Chicago based, nationally syndicated talk show that led the airwaves for 25 years. Winfrey’s show gave birth to a new era of publicity, education, and gossip and gave platforms to celebrities like Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Tina Turner, Prince, Maria Shriver, and many more. Early in her career, she worked as a co-anchor for the local evening news station in Chicago, but diligently charismatic, Winfrey was set apart from her peers and was transferred to the daytime talk show environment. Through her career, she accumulated many accolades due to her pioneerism and revolutionary revitalization of day time television. Winfrey was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame(1994), received honorary doctorate degrees from Harvard and Duke, and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Today, she sits as the chairwoman for the Oprah Winfrey Network and Harpo Productions.

Shirley Chisholm

Image Credit: WomensHistory.org

Shirley Chisholm made her stamp in the history books in 1968 by becoming the very first African American woman elected into Congress where she eventually served seven terms in the House of Representatives. A year after her induction to congress, she became one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a national organization that aims to achieve greater equity for persons of African descent in the United States. She remains a member of the caucus along with Rep. John Lewis, Rep. Maxine Waters, Del. Elanor Holmes Norton, Rep. Bobby L. Rush, and others just to name a few.

Cathy Hughes

Image Credit: BlackEnterprise.com

Cathy Huges is an American entrepreneur, business executive, and TV personality from Omaha, Nebraska. Hughes’ website describes her as the founder and Chairperson of Urban One, Inc., the largest African American owned and operated, broadcast company in the nation, Huges’s career gave birth to a multimedia conglomerate that generates original content across radio, television, and digital mediums. Today, the span of her network includes over 60 radio stations across the country covering R&B, HipHop, Gospel, and talk radio genres. Hughes’ success is recognized by prestigious awards like the Uncommon Height of Excellence Award, the NAACP Chairman’s Award, the Giant of Broadcasting Award, the Ida B. Wells Living Legacy Award, and many others. She is a champion of philanthropic work, business leadership, and education for African Americans.



Jannah Bolds is a writer, journalist and responsible for membership and subscription engagement for Walker's Legacy.

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Walker's Legacy is a growing global women in business collective founded to establish networks of empowerment and access for women of color in business.