My favorite part of Black History Month is uncovering the seldom-told stories of Black excellence that never seem to make it into textbooks. The few stories we do hear about, mostly showcase Black political, social, and cultural contributions. Rarely do we hear about the business moguls and entrepreneurs who opened the economic doors of opportunity for future generations of Black folk. As a Black B2B salesperson, I look to these untold stories to find inspiration and motivation. To that end, here are my 3 favorite Black American business icons you might never have heard of.
Well over a decade ago I joked to my best friend from North Carolina that Mansa Musa is the closest thing we’ll ever see to a Black Jeff Bezos. Without skipping a beat, he responded “how you gonna disrespect my guy C.C. Spaulding like that?!” After looking him up, there was no doubt that Charles Clinton Spaulding was, as the youths like to say, “that guy.”
At 26 years of age, C.C. Spaulding took over his uncle’s failing insurance business and built it into a 1,000+ employee, 100,000 client empire. He did this all before he turned 40. By the time he died in 1952, his company was the largest Black-owned business in America and worth about $40 million!
Just as inspiring is how much of his success he put back into civic and social causes. Along with his leadership on the boards of the YMCA and Boy Scouts, he chaired the Emergency Advisory Council of the Urban League to help ensure Black Americans got their fair share of jobs and assistance from FDR’s New Deal program.
C.C. Spaulding showed America just how successful a Black person and the Black community as a whole can be when given the opportunity to do so.
When I was trying to research the first woman to become a millionaire for an essay in high school, a typo led me to stumble upon the first woman to own a bank – and it turns out…she was Black! Not only that, she founded the bank in the former capital of the Confederacy, no less!
Everything Maggie Lena ever did was “doing it for the hood” -- and she did a LOT. After joining The Independent Order of St. Luke's (IOSL), an organization dedicated to advancing the lives of the Black community, she rose through the ranks to eventually lead it. While she worked her way up through the organization, she recruited more young Black men and women to join. During her time there, Maggie took the IOSL from deeply in debt to a 100,000-member behemoth with over $3.5 million in revenue and a six-figure cash reserve!
Little did anyone know, she was just getting started. After giving one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century, Maggie shared her vision of creating a bank, a newspaper, and a department store all run by and for the Black community. In less than five years, she did exactly what she said she would. The St. Luke Herald newspaper was established in 1902, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank opened in 1903, and the St. Luke Emporium was up and running by 1905. And remember, all of this happened in Virginia – the literal heart of the Confederacy – at a time when soldiers who fought in the Civil War were still alive!
My typo on that fateful day in high school taught me more about what it truly means to put my community first, and how much knowing my “why” matters, than anything I’ve encountered since.
Of course, as a salesman myself, the first Black B2B sales representative is my favorite untold story. In 1946, eighteen years before the Civil Rights Act passed, IBM hired its first Black sales rep. And remember, this is IBM we’re talking about – “...not a beauty products company… this was a business products company that was on the technical leading edge and selling their product[s] to basic ‘white’ America’s businesses” (Black Sales Journal, Micheal Parker).
When I look at my water bottle and see my Jopwell sticker with the words “representation matters”, I think of what Tom meant for Black folks in B2B, then and now. When I have a bad cold call and get some choice words from a prospect, I think of what Tom went through doing in-person sales calls in 1946. Whenever I get angry or frustrated at a deal falling through, I think of all the extra work Tom had to put in just to hit quota.
And whenever I win a deal and think about the people of color that are about to get exposed to opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have, I think about how TJ unlocked the doors for Lionel Fultz (IBM’s first marketing rep), Harry Cochraine (first Black engineer), Calvin Waite (first Black engineering manager) and every person of color at IBM who came after him.
TJ Laster was proof that Black people can excel at any job in corporate America – if given the opportunity.
I hope more of these kinds of stories get drawn into the light this Black History Month, and may they inspire future moguls, entrepreneurs, and executives to continue to ascend past our ancestors’ wildest dreams for us.