Women have created businesses and impacted history, the economy, and personal lives throughout history. As a Black woman entrepreneur myself, I am highlighting a few historic, successful and impactful Black female entrepreneur who paved the way for Black women and all women to become entrepreneurs. There are 24.9% Black women entrepreneurs (catalyst.org). Many people have heard of Madam CJ Walker (1867–1919), a millionaire who built a business on hair-care products. I want to share about the women most have not heard of, except of course Suzanne de Passe, whom most people have heard of.
Although many details of Mary Ellen Pleasant’s (1814–1904) life are obscure, she lived for a time as a free woman in Boston before coming to San Francisco at the height of the Gold Rush in 1849. Taking advantage of the opportunities available in the booming new city, Pleasant started working as a cook for wealthy clients but soon began opening laundries, boardinghouses, and restaurants, using the $45,000 she inherited upon the death of her first husband. Her establishments were patronized by many of San Francisco’s newly minted elite, enabling Pleasant to interact with the city’s most powerful businessmen and politicians. An ardent abolitionist and racial advocate, Pleasant employed many African-Americans and used her businesses as a way to promote Black employment throughout San Francisco.
Elleanor Eldridge (1784–c. 1845) stands out as an impressive success story from the beginning of American history. The youngest of seven daughters born to Hannah Prophet and Robin Eldridge, a slave who won his freedom fighting in the Revolution, Eldridge began working as a laundress at age ten following the death of her mother. Industrious and naturally bright, she quickly became adept at arithmetic, spinning, weaving, cheese making, and all types of housework. Drawing on her skill with numbers, at age nineteen Eldridge took over her deceased father’s estate and quickly opened a business with her sister in Warwick, Rhode Island, weaving, nursing, and making soap. Realizing that investment and versatility were the keys to success, she used their profits to purchase a lot and build a house, which she rented out for forty dollars a year. Eldridge eventually settled in Providence, where she opened a profitable business whitewashing, painting, and wallpapering. Her hard work and enterprising nature enabled her to eventually purchase several houses in Providence for rent income.
A strong voice for education, Maggie Lena Walker (1867–1934) became the first African American female bank president. Walker was a member of the Independent Order of St. Luke, an organization founded by a former slave dedicated to the uplifting of African Americans. After becoming leader of the Order when it was on the verge of financial ruin, Walker became the first female bank president in the United States by founding the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903. Succeeding in her twin goals of revitalizing the Order of St. Luke and encouraging economic security for the black community of Richmond, Virginia, Walker grew her business by welcoming small depositors and helping to finance black home ownership. Her success is evidenced by the fact that the bank, now named the Consolidated Bank and Trust Co., remains open today as the oldest continuously black-owned bank in the United States. True to the Order of St Luke’s goal of uplifting African Americans, Walker went on to found other businesses and advocate tirelessly for black rights and women’s suffrage throughout her life.
Suzanne de Passe (1946 – ) has won numerous awards, including Emmys, Peabodys, and Golden Globes. She is so well known for her managerial abilities that Harvard Business School has conducted two studies of her management style. The twentieth century has seen the slow emergence of Black women in positions of corporate authority, a number of them in the entertainment industry. Suzanne de Passe was one of the first African-American women to become a power player in the music, television, and film industries. Beginning her career as a creative assistant at Motown Records in the 1960s, de Passe rose to become a vice president of the company before turning her attention to screenwriting. After achieving acclaim for works such as “Lady Sings the Blues”, the successful film biography of Billie Holiday, de Passe eventually founded her own entertainment company, de Passe Entertainment, which primarily produces material for television. Her ability to balance her projects’ creative integrity with the bottom line has proven so successful that Harvard Business School has conducted two studies of her managerial style. De Passe’s versatility, creative integrity, and sound business sense has enabled her to become one of the most influential women in the entertainment industry today. Courtesy the Austin/Thompson Collection, by permission of De Passe Entertainment.
There were many women to choose from, and it was hard to narrow it down to just a few for this article. I chose women from diversified fields and eras to give a snapshot of the impact that Black women have made to the business/entrepreneurial world, not just for Black women but for all female entrepreneurs and business owners. Keep reaching toward your dreams. Women have sacrificed for us to live our dreams, build our businesses and make an impact.