Throughout history, entrepreneurship has been at the heart of social innovation. We salute innovators who disrupt and challenge the status quo to drive social change and a path forward for all of our communities. In addition to these successes we also acknowledge the moments in American history where systematic oppression explicitly targeted social entrepreneurs of color. We do this with the intention highlight the resilience within our communities to strive forward against all odds.
Before 20th Century
While social entrepreneurs have existed all throughout history, we don’t have clear records of their accomplishments - especially if they were from communities of color.
Chaco Canyon and Trails of the Ancients Byway
Long before the colonization of North America, the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (North America in various Native languages) had practiced entrepreneurship. Excavations at Chaco Canyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, demonstrate that the ancestors to the Hopi and the Pueblo people were engaging in urban planning and rich entrepreneurial practices.
1780s - 1790s
Benjamin Banneker was an almanac author, surveyor, astrologist and urban planner who was born a free Black man in 1731. HIs accomplishments include publishing six almanacs in twenty-eight editions, being part of the team that did the original surveying of Washington D.C., and inventing America’s first clock entirely out of wood after only seeing 2 timepieces in his lifetime. He’s also known for writing to Thomas Jefferson to challenge his racism.
James Forten, a Black abolitionist and businessman, was worth an estimated $100,000 (or approximately $2.5 million today, when adjusted for inflation). Using his acquired wealth, Frotten invested in many abolitionist initiatives, even having served as the vice-president of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
The Cherokee Phoenix
The Cherokee Phoenix began printing in 1828, becoming the first-ever newspaper to be published in a Native language and inspired other Native-language publications. Although the paper had stopped publication in the mid-19th Century, the paper has recently been revived as a monthly broadsheet published by the Cherokee Nation along with an online edition.
There was a time when elevator doors didn’t open and close automatically. The first Black member of Duluth Chamber of Commerce, Alexander Miles built a three-story building in Duluth in an area known as the “Miles Block.” When he saw the danger that elevators with doors left ajar presented for his young daughter, Alexander Miles invented and received a patent for automatic elevator doors in 1887. He eventually became the “wealthiest colored man in the Northwest,” and started an insurance agency that did not discriminate against Black families.
Mary Ellen Pleasant
The legacy of Mary Ellen Pleasant is an inspiring dichotomy. She was born enslaved and became a self-made millionaire. Her first husband left her a small inheritance and once the Gold Rush began, she moved to California. While working as a domestic servant, she grew her fortune by investing in businesses based on tips she overheard in the house. These included restaurants, banks, dairies and other ventures. She and her second husband were conductors on the Underground Railroad and she helped fund the attempted slave uprising at Harpers Ferry in Virginia - she donated $30,000, which is equivalent to $900,000 today.
Nathan “Nearest” Green & Jack Daniel’s
The Jack Daniel’s Distillery is established and is the first registered distillery in the U.S. While Jack Daniel is attributed with his disruptive whiskey formula, it was recently uncovered that he was actually taught by Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved man of African descent, who worked on the property where Jack lived. Nathan taught Jack how to use the still and his smooth whiskey recipe. He was known as the best whiskey maker in the area. Jack Daniel hired Nearest as his master distiller and today, the Green family operates its own brand, Uncle Nearest.
1882 - 1892
The Birth of Chinatown
The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, and renewed in 1892. The law barred Chinese immigrants who were already in the U.S. from becoming citizens and restricting new immigration from China. In response, many migrated from the West and settled into neighborhoods along the east coast, where community organizations provided services to immigrants who weren’t protected by the benefits of American citizenship. These included legal aid, housing and health services. Today, Chinatowns across the country are economic drivers in immigrant communities and are a primary driver in increasing community wealth. In New York City, for example, 35+ bank branches operate in Chinatown, with an aggregate deposit level exceeding $5.44 billion.
W.E.B. Du Bois
Du Bois released The Negro in Business, a study of Black business in the south under the direction of Atlanta University with help from graduate students and alumni from several Historically Black Colleges and Universities; together with the proceedings of the fourth annual Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems, held at Atlanta University, May 30-31, 1899.
“For a Negro then to go into business meant a great deal. It is, indeed, a step in social progress worth mentioning. It means hard labor, thrift in saving, a comprehension of social movements and an ability to learn a new vocation. To measure such a movement is difficult, and yet worth the trial.”
Turn of the Century
While vast parts from this era of American history are unfamiliar to the general public today, even at the turn of the last century, innovators of color were pioneering new ways to advance social entrepreneurship for all.
Madame C.J. Walker
Madame C.J. Walker developed a hair care line after suffering hair loss due to a scalp condition. She began selling her hair iron at the St. Louis World’s Fair and giving lecture demonstrations of the "Walker Method," which eventually leads her to becoming the first self-made woman millionaire in the United States.
Granville Woods, The Black Edison
Granville Woods, a Black inventor from Ohio, received 35 patents between 1884 - 1907. He established what would become the Woods Electrical Company in 1880, where he developed an improved steam boiler in 1884. Some of his other inventions include the first electric railway that was powered with electric lines from above the train, the first telegraph service that allowed messages to be sent from moving trains, and several improvements to air brakes. He sold his inventions to many companies, including the American Bell Telephone Company and the General Electric Company, significantly improving the lives and safety of Americans.
The Father of Harlem
Phillip A. Payton was dubbed ‘The Father of Harlem,’ because of his real estate business that housed over 70,000 Black people by 1913. Before opening up his own business in real estate, Payton worked as a barber handyman, and porter at a real estate office. He later invested his life savings into founding “Afro-American Realty Company” and advertised, “Colored man makes a specialty of managing colored tenements.” He started the business in reaction to white landowners who refused to lend money or renew mortgages on properties that were occupied by Black people.
Garrett Morgan’s Life-Changing Inventions
Garrett Morgan is somewhat known for inventing the first automatic three-way traffic signal system, which he eventually sold to General Electric for $40,000 (around $587,700 today). However, before that, he invented the prototype for gas masks that would protect soldiers from toxic gas in World War I. As a Black entrepreneur, staunch racism prevented him from reaping the full benefits of his business genius. In fact, he used a white actor to sell his masks until the Cleveland Tunnel Explosion. During the explosion, Morgan and his brother wore the masks and saved 2 people, which “outed” Morgan and drastically affected sales.
Arab Migration to Michigan
Michigan has a long history of Arab migration. The late 1800s, 1960s and 1990s all saw a huge influx in Arab migration, largely due to political unrest and war. In 1914, Henry Ford’s $5 work day provided employment opportunities for Arab migrants. The automotive industry boom also created a need for businesses, specifically grocery stores, to open up. The majority of these were Arab-owned. Neighborhoods built around these grocery stores (and other neighborhood necessities like gas stations) became economically affluent and have retained majority Arab-ownership. Today, there are roughly around 11,000 small businesses in Southeast Michigan owned by Arab Americans, which employ around 170,000 people.
Osage Nation and Mineral Rights
With the discovery oil, the Osage Nation quickly became, per capita, the wealthiest group of people as they owned many of the oil and gas rights. Learning from the previous experiences of being taken advantage, the Osage negotiated with the United States government to retain communal mineral rights. As a result, Tulsa oil barons have led the efforts to murder the Osage into intimidation and giving up their headrights.
1920s - 1950s
The History of U Street
U Street Corridor, a neighborhood in Washington D.C., was a hotbed of activism, entrepreneurship and Black history. Many of the businesses were funded by Industrial Bank, which was founded in 1934 by nine Black businessmen, because they couldn’t get loans at other banks. Black Broadway nurtured the careers of greats like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Madame Lillian Evanti, the world’s first renowned black opera singer. U Street enabled Black entrepreneurs to not only own their businesses, but scale them up.
After the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, which devastated Black Wall Street, Black entrepreneurs and business owners in Greenwood rebuilt Black Wall Street, which previously was home to nearly 200 businesses. Three of of them were worth over $1 million.
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
A. Philip Randolph helps create the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first labor organization led by African Americans to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). It merged in 1978 with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks (BRAC), which is now known as the Transportation Communications International Union. BSCP members played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1940s and 1950s. Randolph and one of his chief lieutenants, Bayard Rustin, were the moving force behind the March on Washington in 1963.
1930s - 1940s The Depression and the War
Though the ‘30s and the ‘40s were largely defined through hardship, history shows that social entrepreneurship never stopped. In fact, entrepreneurs of this era found success through the hardships that defined the era.
The Great Migration & Depression
The Great Migration saw about 1.6 million Black Americans move from southern states to northern industrial cities to escape Jim Crow laws, policies and terrorism (i.e. widespread lynchings). The Migration came to a halt in the 1930s as a result of the Great Depression, but many entrepreneurs who had already settled, continued to run their businesses in the face of economic instability. One of these entrepreneurs was Frederick Patterson, the first Black American to manufacture cars. He developed the Patterson-Greenfield car and was in direct competition with Henry Ford’s Model T. After his death in 1932, his son continued running the business until it eventually closed operations in 1939.
Indian Arts and Crafts Act
The passage of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act establishes the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which aims to protect and promote Native American and Alaskan arts and crafts. The law had been amended in 1990 and 2000 to ensure that items being sold as “Indian” were Native-made. Native communities today are advocating for expansion of the meanings to include “Native” and to include e-commerce in its scope.
Native Son’s Success
In 1940, Richard Wright published his seminal novel, Native Son. The book became the first bestselling novel by an Black author. While the successes of the Harlem Renaissance was an echo by this time, Native Son resonated with audience across racial lines and became the first literary work of the Civil Rights Era. Native Son brought the rich literary legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and brewed it with the deep social undercurrents of the era about to begin. A classic in the American literary canon, the book inspired other Black authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison and kicked off a literary tradition that lives on through the writings of authors like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
Black Media Takeover
Ebony Magazine is founded and published by John H. Johnson in Chicago to as a publication for the Black market. Its digest-sized sister magazine, Jet, is published in 1951. These publications sought to highlight Black issues and interests in a positive and self-affirming way. Ebony Magazine filled a void in the way of a national forum for Black Americans and is still relevant today with a circulation of 1.3 million.
Zelda Wynn Valdez’s Body Positivity Movement
Zelda Wynn Valdez, a Black woman from Pennsylvania, is the creative genius behind the famous Playboy bunny suit. Before being commissioned by Hugh Heffner, she was disrupting the fashion industry with her feminine and sensual pieces that celebrated curvaceous bodies. In 1948, Valdes opened her own boutique, called Chez Zelda, making her the first black person to own a store on Broadway in Manhattan. Josephine Baker, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West are just some of the famous women who donned her creations.
1950-1970: The Movement and the Movers
In this era, we see the advances in social entrepreneurship following advances in technology. Technology and entrepreneurship worked in tandem to ensure that the community was never left behind - whether it was through the intricate ridesharing systems devised for the Montgomery Bus Boycotts or through in-language television like Univision, entrepreneurs got the job done.
Montgomery Bus Boycott (Dec 5, 1955 – Dec 20, 1956)
One of the key pillars to success to the twelve month-long Montgomery Bus Boycott was the ingenuity of the Black community. Churches operated station wagons known as 'rolling churches’ that were analogous to the buses. Black-owned taxis and private cars came together to replace the buses. At its peak, some three hundred cars and taxi cabs came together to serve as a makeshift alternative transit system for the Black community.
Univision TV was founded by Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta of Telesistema Mexicano. It was born out of Raul Cortez’s KCOR-TV, an independent station in San Antonio, Texas, which was the nation's first Spanish-only TV outlet. Cortez sold the station to Azcarraga, who grew Univision into America’s largest provider of Spanish-content. The empire brings in $3 billion in revenue.
Delano Grape Strike
During the Delano Grape Strike which shaped the modern day labor movement, the Filipino manongs and Chicano laborers were supported by generous bed and breakfast owners who opened up their establishment to provide space for the strikers to organize.
1970s: New Intersections and New Frontiers
After the dizzying progress made during the Civil Rights Era, the ‘70s advanced new frontiers for marginalized groups who were emboldened by the progress of racial justice of the previous two decades. Stonewall became the rallying cry for the House of Xtragavanza and the House of Labeija. And of course today, these achievements are frequent inspirations for mainstream popular culture phenomenon like FX’s Pose and VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race. And very often, entrepreneurs of color were at the forefront and leading these changes.
House of Labeija and the House of Xtravaganza
The House of Labeija and the House of Xtravaganza were “ball houses” founded in the late 1970s - early 1980s by queer and trans people of color who were not allowed to participate in the more “elite” ballroom shows in Harlem, which were organized by white gay men. Within the subculture, the House of Xtravaganza was created by Hector Valle to be an all-Latinx ball house, in response to what was a nearly exclusive African American gay subculture.
Jewel’s Catch One
Jewel Thais Williams opens Jewel’s Catch One, one of the first Black-owned discos, in Los Angeles. For a long time, Catch One was the premiere Black gay club. The club gave financial empowerment to both Jewel as one of the few female club owners in L.A. and to LGBTQ+ and POC performers who would be booked there after not being able to perform in white clubs. A 2016 documentary celebrates the legacy of Catch One, its community and the life-changing impact its owner, Jewel Thais-Williams, had on her community breaking down racial and cultural barriers and building the oldest Black-owned disco in America.
1990s: Foundations for Today
The ‘90s were a time of rebounding after the tumult and the lull of the ‘80s. Preceded by cultural hallmarks like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and the Joy Luck Club, the 90s saw a refocused energy to build up social entrepreneurship for today’s entrepreneurs.
Grace Lee Boggs + Detroit Urban Renewal
Grace Lee Boggs (alongside her husband James Boggs) spent the early 1990s investing in young entrepreneurs throughout Detroit as they continued the fight for social justice. Dubbed the “Detroit renewal experiments,” their goal was to give power and ownership back to the people of Detroit through economic infrastructure and place-based education.
Famous Dave’s Barbecue
For 25 years, Dave Anderson, A Native American from the Obijwe Nation, had a burning passion to open a restaurant that served the best barbecue in America. He failed at several other businesses before opening the first Famous Dave’s Barbecue in Wisconsin in 1994. The restaurant saw immediate success and grew quickly, with over 180 locations in operation today. Dave’s business has provided over 200,000 jobs nationwide he remains committed to his community, in 2004, Mr. Anderson was named Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, giving him the opportunity to help native communities thrive despite increasing economic pressures.
Pride At Work
Pride At Work, a national coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers and their supporters, becomes an AFL-CIO constituency group. The labor movement, which had previously been seen primarily straight, male and white shows signs of transformation that continues to this day.
Innovation never stops. Today, innovators carry the legacy of those who came before to envision an equitable future for all. The future looks ever brighter with entrepreneurs never giving up after the complex legacies of the latter half of the 20th century.
Social Innovation Post-Katrina
In the aftermath of a storm that devastated a city came an intense wave of innovation and entrepreneurship. This movement was largely led by the native New Orleans who were forced to clean up and rebuild their city after local and federal governments failed to assist. Companies like Propellor, co-founded by Andrea Chen, have created systems to promote entrepreneurial success. They’ve graduated 200 entrepreneurs from their accelerator who collectively have generated over $105+ million in revenue and financing.
In today’s explosion of innovation and entrepreneurship, young people of color are frequently left behind in the landscape of opportunities. B.Cole, a queer entrepreneur and creator, recognized the vacuum and formed Brioxy, a professional circle that built up a community network and resiliency in this new generation of entrepreneurs.
Bow and Arrow Brewing
In 2016, Missy Begay and Shyla Sheppard, a Native couple, co-founded Bow & Arrow Brewing Co., the only Native women-owned brewery in the United States. While breweries in Albuquerque have grown significantly over the past decade, prior to Bow and Arrow’s establishment, none of them had been owned by Native women.
Hurricane Maria had devastated the island of Puerto Rico and wreaked havoc upon its outdated power grid, effectively putting the island in the dark. In the midst of the dark, Salvador Gomez Colon, a 15 year old, saw an opportunity for his island to transition towards renewable energy sources and distributed 100s of solar powered lamps, raising awareness for solar power while providing services.
Native Women’s Business Summit
Born from Women’s Economic Forum’s Native women participants, Native Women Lead announced the Native Women’s Business to encourage and foster innovation for Native women entrepreneurs. The summit convened over 200 Native women from more than 30 tribes across North America with the vision of doubling the rate of Native women-owned businesses.
The Chef and the Workers
José Andrés, an immigrant chef and entrepreneur, opened a temporary kitchen in Washington, D.C., to feed furloughed federal workers who weren’t getting paid amid the partial government shutdown. Andrés was able to leverage his experience filling in where FEMA could not in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
“We believe that no person should have to go through the pain of not knowing what to feed [their] children. We're going to be open for any federal family that needs food. We will have food for you to eat or food for you to take home.”