Five African American Women Who Inspire Today’s Business Leaders
By Rasheedah Stephens
I feel fortunate to live and work in the Washington D.C. area, surrounded by people of all colors and nationalities who are breaking barriers and living courageously. While many African American women struggle to find these kinds of role models in their everyday lives, all I need to do is look to The Clearing’s leadership team, fellow school alumni, and others right outside my own front door. In honor of Black History Month, I’ve put together a selection of five African American women who inspire today’s business leaders with their bravery and boldness.
Misty Copeland, Ballerina and Businesswoman
Copeland is the first African American to be appointed as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, a remarkable achievement in and of itself. Not content to break boundaries on the stage alone, Copeland has made herself a name in business by engaging in endeavors that have historically been off-limits to other dancers. Under the guidance of manager Gilda Squire, Copeland has won endorsement deals with COACH and American Express, participated in a highly successful Under Armour video campaign, and authored two books, one a New York Times bestseller.
Copeland’s business sense and follow-through remind business leaders to press forward, seek out new opportunities, and not be afraid to follow an untraditional path.
Madam C.J. Walker, Business Leader and Self-Made Millionaire
At the time of her death in 1919, Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in the United States. Her working life began as a laundress earning just $1 a day, but the ailments she faced as an African American woman inspired her to create a line of products that would allow women like herself to properly care for their hair, scalps, and skin. The result was the creation of the C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, which produced a line of cosmetics and hair care products for African American women. The company earned her a fortune that later allowed her to take on a philanthropic role as both an activist and patron of the arts.
There are so many things today’s leaders can learn from Walker, who found a niche and built herself an empire but didn’t forget to use her success to help others.
Dorothy Height, Civil and Women’s Rights Activist
Height began her activism in high school, as an anti-lynching champion and continued as a civil rights and women’s rights activist until she died in 2010. She was the president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years and was also deeply involved in women’s rights campaigns throughout her tenure. Height was an important advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt and other American leaders. She advocated for the desegregation of schools to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and encouraged President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint African American women to positions in government. She also served as a consultant to the Secretary of State on African issues.
Though Height was not a businesswoman, her efforts set a remarkable example for business leaders who understand the importance of bridging gaps between diverse groups of employees and other stakeholders.
Michelle Obama, Attorney, Businesswoman, and First Lady
A list like this wouldn’t be complete without including First Lady Michelle Obama whose personal success began long before her husband ran for president. A Princeton University graduate with a law degree from Harvard, Obama was active in promoting African American interests as a student and wrote her thesis on “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” inspired by her own experiences as an African American woman on campus. After graduation, she was successful as the Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago and the Vice President for Community and External Affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center. And as First Lady, she took an active role in supporting women’s rights, poverty awareness, education, and health.
Obama’s passion for using her various positions and personal successes to lift up others is a perfect example for today’s leaders.
Ava DuVernay, Award-Winning Director, Producer, and Screenwriter
DuVernay has had an impressive career of Hollywood firsts: she was the first African American woman to win a directing award at the Sundance Film Festival, the first to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award, and the first to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Her production of A Wrinkle in Time made her the first African American woman to direct a live-action film with a budget of $150 to $250 million dollars and the first to direct a film that earned $100 million in the United States. Despite noting systemic issues with the representation of African American people in Hollywood, DuVernay has found success developing films that represent the community. She is recognized for not only her talent but also for her undeterred self-determination.
With a career that began in public relations, DuVernay is no stranger to business. Outside of Hollywood, today’s leaders can learn from her fearlessness and drive to succeed as her authentic self.
Last year, I set a personal goal for myself to amplify my own voice and be more proactive in my career. I am inspired by the women mentioned above, as well as by African American women in my own network, and I feel fortunate to have around me so many powerful examples of success. I would love to hear from our readers now. Who are your role models for success in business and in life? How have they set an example that you follow on your own journey?