Category Archives: Entrepreneurs

A celebration of entrepreneurial resilience

A Black Barbarian at the Gates


Black History Month Entrepreneurs: Reginald Lewis (1942-1993)

Key Lessons

  • Put in the hours. Working hard is a habit, practice it
  • Recognize your obstacles and work around or through them
  • Don’t just be frustrated, do something. Don’t just try again, try bigger

Buyout King
Resilient black entrepreneurReginald Lewis died on January 19th, 1993, age 50. He was then the only black businessman on the Forbes 400 list with a net worth of $400M. He was also the first black person to have a major facility at Harvard named in his honor. He was the first black man to found a business worth more than a billion dollars—TLC Group (The Lewis Company)—a leveraged buyout firm whose holdings included Beatrice Foods International which had $1.7B in sales in 1993.

TLC was founded in 1984 to acquire McCall Pattern company for $22.5M. To do this, Lewis borrowed $20M in McCall’s name, sold a stake to the management of the company and put in $1M borrowed in his name. In an era, when barbarians seemed to stalk every gate, Lewis had played the leverage buyout game perfectly. After three and a half years, Lewis sold McCall for $65M in cash keeping about $8M in McCall real estate and a sizable dividend. All told, Lewis ended up with assets valued 90 times that of the money he had borrowed.

Try Bigger

Resilient Food

A TLC Beatrice brand

Cream of Resilience

A TLC Beatrice brand

Two months after selling McCall, Lewis would pay $965M for a controlling stake in Beatrice International, a global food conglomerate made up of 64 companies operating in 31 countries (mostly Europe and North America). This time, rather than having to scrimp and scrape the money together, Lewis was able to rely on Drexel Burnham Lambert to finance the bid. Beatrice International had $2.5B in sales. The next largest black-owned business, Johnson publications, registered just $173M. Lewis’ investment of $1M in borrowed money had been transformed into ownership of a company with 2500 times the sales. In six short years, Lewis would sell $900M in assets and retire $600M of debt (well in excess of the roughly $500M he needed to finance the original purchase) as he prepared to make yet another acquisition.

An Overnight Success, 40 years in the Making

Lewis’ success did not come overnight and was certainly not due to luck. He grew up in a semi-tough part of East Baltimore. While in high school, he once  called on an uncle to protect him from after a man who was waiting for him with a pistol. He started by trading paper routes with other kids in the neighborhood. He was a three-sport athlete at Washington D.C.’s famed Dunbar High School while putting in 4 hour days at a local pharmacy. Lewis worked hard. At Virginia State, he rode the bench as the third-string quarterback and eventually lost his scholarship (in part due to injury). He covered this loss by working the night shift (1am – 8am) at a bowling alley. He later traded up to a commission sales job with a photographic company.

Through sheer repetition and practice he went from failing math his freshman & sophomore years to a D in his junior year. By his final semester, he would receive As and Bs for all his academic courses. This upward trajectory gave him an opportunity to attend a summer program at Harvard Law. He turned his summer school into a regular session spot by arguing that his standing as the top summer student should be the basis for admission. Lewis, used what he had to get more.

Resilient Entrepreneurs wife

Lewis was succeeded by wife Loida who now heads TLC Beatrice China & TLC Beatrice (Philippines)

After years of frustration at having to prove himself again and again, he decided to move from being a lawyer helping put deals together to being a dealmaker himself. His first tried in 1975 and endured years of failure on small deals before bidding for McCall in 1983. This time, he implied that he was representing investors trying to buy the company, secure in the knowledge that it would be assumed that the lead investor was white. This time, in his most ambitious effort yet, he was successful. Lewis did not let failure discourage him or trim his ambitions. Failure and frustration were merely prompts to find alternative means—the very definition of entrepreneurial resilience.

Lewis’ posthumously published autobiography is entitled Why Should the White Guys Have All the Fun

In honor of Black History Month, our regular Tuesday and Friday posts will highlight black entrepreneurs who have displayed exemplary success and resilience.


TDH: Monopoly goes on sale


February 6, 1935: Monopoly® Goes on Sale for the First Time

Merely playing Monopoly to the end is a test of ones resilience and persistence. Not surprisingly, the stories behind the game’s development and one professor’s work to defend his right to create an alternative are similarly inspiring tales of entrepreneurial resilience.

The game as we know it came out of the depths of the Great Depression. Charles Darrow, a heater salesman laid off after the Crash of 1929, started selling a board game he had seen played in Eastern Pennsylvania. He and his wife made the board (then actually oilcloth) by hand coloring in the deeds themselves.

1935 Resilient Game Maker

1935 Darrow Patent

Darrow secured a copyright and sold his games through the Wannamaker department store in Philadelphia. In 1934, he tried selling the game to Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers. They both rejected him but in 1935, after seeing the game’s success in Philadelphia, Parker Brothers wrote back. They helped Darrow to take out a patent and he would later become a millionaire—the resilient entrepreneur’s dream.


The tale of Anti-Monopoly is also indicative of unusual resolve.  Prof Ralph Anspach an economics professor from San Francisco State, had played Monopoly as a child in pre-war Czechoslovakia. His family fled the Holocaust. In 1948 he would travel to Israel to defend the new Jewish homeland in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the 1970s, while explaining the dangers of cartels to his son Anspach decided to create a game in which players competed to break up monopolies (instead of build them).

Last Grasp of Resilient Entrepreneur He called his game Anti-Monopoly. In 1974, he was plunged into a trademark fight which pushed him to the brink of personal bankruptcy. He would ultimately argue that Monopoly was played as a folk game prior to its patenting and that therefore his game did not infringe on Hasbro’s trademark. Parker Brothers would win a court order to destroy thousands of copies of Anspach’s board game but Anspach would prevail in a 1979 Court of Appeal case which determined that the trademark “Monopoly” was generic. Parker Brothers’ appeal to the Supreme Court was denied. Congress would soon pass a law invalidating the defense used by Anspach but his own case was grandfathered in. Through his own resilience, he won.


America’s first self-made female millionaire


BHM Entrepreneurs: Annie Turnbo Malone (1869-1957)

A Pioneer in St Louis

Model of a Black EntreprenuerAnnie Turnbo Malone was quite likely America’s first female self-made millionaire. She pioneered the development and manufacture of beauty products for black women and was a leading philanthropist, making significant donations to black colleges and political institutions even though she herself did not complete high school. In an era when many African-Americans sought to downplay any link to Africa and when cosmetics distributors were accused of diminishing pride in African features, she chose a Mende word, Poro, as her trademark.

Turnbo was born in 1869, the tenth of eleven children born to parents who had only recently moved to Illinois after winning their freedom. She attended high school in Peoria but dropped out due to illness. By age 20 she had developed her own shampoo and scalp treatment to grow and straighten hair. She took her creation to the streets, going around in a buggy making speeches and demonstrating the new shampoo even though she was later described as reticent.  Another resilient black entrepreneurIn 1900, while living in what is now Brooklyn, Illinois, she began to sell the Wonderful Hair Grower, five years before Madam C.J. Walker would market a similar product under the same name. She also developed hair straighteners to replace the damaging grease and the chemicals that were the only alternatives at the time. In 1902 she moved to St Louis to take advantage of the city’s booming economy and to prepare for the 1904 World’s Fair. St. Louis gave her access to the fourth largest black middle class community in the country. She was able to capitalize on the publicity and the sales associated with the World’s Fair to tour the South. There she recruited black women as sales agents and as customers. After five years of service, these women were often rewarded with a diamond ring or other luxurious gifts for their service. In the interim, they earned up to $15/day which compared well to the $11/week that an unskilled white worker earned or the less than a 70 cents/day typical of sharecropper families in the South or the $1.25/day of washerwomen in the North. Because store-based channels were closed to black entrepreneurs, these women and the pyramid distribution model pioneered by California Perfume Company (now known as Avon) were essential to her success. She herself had started first by going door to door with a small group of sales agents and often used free hair and scalp treatments to convince potential customers.

Lifting as she rises

Figure of Entreprenuerial ResilienceAs her business grew, she sparked the career of a number of black women entrepreneurs including Madam C.J. Walker. By 1918, Turnbo would develop the Poro College in St Louis which attracted beauticians from across the country. The college included classrooms as well as 500 seat auditorium and convention facilities which made it a social center for the black middle class who were otherwise shut out of the city’s accommodations (it would become the home of Booker T Washington’s National Negro Business League). It is believed that by this time she was already a millionaire while Walker was denying that she herself was a millionaire. The Guinness Book of Records nonetheless cites Walker as the first self-made female millionaire. By 1922, Turnbo’s products were sold by almost 75,000 agents spread across the U.S., Canada, the Philippines, South America and Africa and by 1924 she was widely regarded as a multimillionaire.

The troubles

Turnbo had the misfortune of marrying poorly. She first married briefly in 1903 but divorced quickly after realizing that her husband did not share her ambitions for Poro. She tried again with Aaron Malone in 1914. That effort ended in a costly 1927 divorce battle in which Malone tried to take credit for much of Turnbo’s success. Local black Republicans supported Malone’s claim and Turnbo settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of cash and real estate. Fruit of Entrepreneurial ResilienceShe left her sizable St Louis mansion and moved to Chicago. There she had difficulty replicating her success owing to competition from Walker’s company and Sarah Spencer Washington (who would also become a millionaire). Turnbo also suffered significant losses in the crash of 1929 and had a difficult time generating sales as the depression persisted and S.B. Fuller (more on him in a later post) came on the scene. She also refused to pay all of the taxes levied against her. This permitted the government to take her business into receivership. In time she would lose her Chicago properties also. Nonetheless, at the time of Turnbo’s death in 1957, Poro College continued to operate in more than 30 cities.

Who was first?

While there is quite a bit of controversy about whether C.J. Walker stole Turnbo’s formula for the Wonderful Hair Grower, it is worth considering that Walker was living in St Louis (and was a former Poro agent). In 1905, Walker claims to have had a ‘dream’ in which she received the ingredients of her own Wonderful Hair Grower (petrolatum, sulphur  and beeswax). These are the same ingredients of Turnbo’s version. In any case, after her inspiration, Walker moved to Denver where a recently widowed sister-in-law lived.

In honor of Black History Month, our regular Tuesday and Friday posts will highlight black entrepreneurs who have displayed exemplary success and resilience.


Love and freedom


BHM Entrepreneurs: Free Frank (1777-1854)—Manufacturer

Free Frank - A Tale of Persevering Love

That Free Frank survived for seventy-seven years the bitter hardships, the disappointments, the limitation imposed on his life by a society that operated continuously and perniciously to defeat his efforts, attests to the strength and indomitable will of this black man in his determination to buy his family from slavery. By 1857, while over forty years had passed since Free Frank purchases Lucy, in 1817, this black pioneer had succeeded. Four generations of his family had been purchased from slavery. (page 163)

Free Frank was born a slave in 1777, the year after the Declaration of Independence. His mother was born free in West Africa. At age 18, his owner (likely his father) moved him to Kentucky to clear and farm a homestead.

Life on the frontier was often brutish and fraught with danger. Within those harsh surroundings Frank met and married Lucy, another slave. Because of the distance between their owners, Free Frank and Lucy would not live together for almost 20 years. They were still too close for either to run away.

Frank’s owner left the county in 1810. This was a most opportune time. Between 1810 and 1812 the price of saltpeter (a critical input for gunpowder) increased 6-fold because of the War of 1812. Frank lacked access to the tools used by other more sophisticated manufacturers. He nonetheless exploited the low barriers to entry, his own industriousness and deep knowledge of the county to earn the $1600 (about $30,000 in today’s money) needed to buy both Lucy’s freedom in 1817 and his own in 1819. It is likely that Frank also paid his owner an additional $1,200 in fees over this period for the right to his own labor.

Over the course of his life, Frank would buy the freedom of another 13 relatives for the equivalent of $341,000 in today’s money. He would leverage the frenzy around the Illinois-Michigan canal to become the first black man to found a frontier town and protected these accomplishments by demanding the right to legally sue.

By any measure, Free Frank exemplified resilience in the face of the challenges of life as a slave in the South and as a free man in Illinois.

In honor of Black History Month, our regular Tuesday and Friday posts will highlight black entrepreneurs who have displayed exemplary resilience.


6 Lessons in Entrepreneurial Resilience


Strategies for Success from Resilient EntrepreneursEveryone suffers setbacks. For some these setbacks fade into the background of their unfolding lives. For the risk-takers in Renee & Don Martin’s Risk Takers: 16 Women and Men Share their Entrepreneurial Strategies for Success they propel them to success. Despite the promise of the subtitle, you don’t hear the voice of the actual risk takers. What you get is a summary of their lives as entrepreneurs set out in the classic situation, complication, resolution plot line.

The vignettes do not center on people overcoming great failures or obstacles but rather on their boldness and tenacity. Our readers will nonetheless be inspired by the story of Gary Heavin’s (Curves) early failures before the success of Curves, Linda Alvarado’s (of Alvarado Construction) work to surmount the low expectations and prejudice that hold back many Hispanic businesswomen, Paul Orfalea’s (Kinko’s) dyslexia and ADHD , David Steward’s (World Wide Technology Inc) resilience in overcoming the peculiar challenges of a black man founding an enterprise technology company in the 1970s, Florine Mark’s (Weight Watchers) battles with obesity and John Paul DeJoria’s (John Paul Mitchell Systems & Patrón Spirits Company) homelessness (albeit it with a Rolls Royce).

The Martin’s abstract six strategies from the experiences of these entrepreneurs:

  1. Find an under-served niche to serve (hit ‘em where others ain’t)
  2. Do not let adversity or failure defeat you
  3. Trust your gut & Just start
  4. Reinvent your company or yourself when necessary (in Silicon Valley, they’d call this pivoting)
  5. Be willing to buck conventional wisdom
  6. Exploit your competitor’s weaknesses and make them your strengths

The Risk Takers has also been subtitled The Risk Takers: 16 Top Entrepreneurs Share Their Strategies for Success