If you do a search of the wealthiest black businessmen, the results may not come as a surprise to you. The list is dominated by athletes and entertainment figures; in fact, only 2 names consistently come up that are what you would consider traditional businessmen- Robert Johnson (worth $550 million) and Donahue Peebles ($350 million).
Oprah Winfrey heads the list with a net worth of $2.8 billion, followed by the likes of Sean Combs -$550 million; Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson each clocking in at around $500 million; and Jay-Z is estimated to be worth around $460 million.
Those numbers may seem impressive, and this is not to take away the business acumen of Sean Combs and Jay-Z but if you compare them to the richest, they are paltry. Oprah is only the 502nd richest person. The big names at the top of the list include Carlos Slim Helu ($78 billion), Bill Gates ($67 billion), and Warren Buffet ($53.5 billion). In looking at the list, I cannot help but notice not only a huge difference in the amount of wealth, but also the industries- telecom, tech, fashion, investing, energy, etc. vs. entertainments professions.
This tells me several things:
First, there is a lack of role models in the black business community. When athletes, musicians, and Oprah dominate your list, they are representing fields of employment that are not only extremely hard to break into, but the chances for success are rare as well. It is almost akin to winning the lottery because there is no real formula you can follow to become Michael Jordan--you either have the genetics to supplement the drive or you don't.
Second, potential business role models are not making themselves visible enough to the youth to show an alternate and more viable path. You see Bill Gates and Warren Buffet in the news all the time; Robert and Shelia Johnson rarely appear on mainstream news outlets to publicize their efforts and beliefs.
White, Latino, and Asian kids are constantly exposed to examples of young entrepreneurs creating new businesses (esp. tech) and making millions. In these communities we have seen an explosion you could call the "Era of the Nerd." It is cool to be smart, invent something, and make an insane fortune. Sometimes you don't even have to be smart; just savvy, persistent, hard-working, or even simply support the right person. All of these examples come with the knowledge that you have to buckle down, work hard, and be on the constant look out for better opportunities and enhancing your business mentors. And your reward is not simply making a fortune for yourself, but also creating employment and wealth for thousands of other people and possibly revolutionizing the world.
On the flip side, many black communities see the "get rich quick" idea. Become a pro athlete and make a million by the time you are 22. Become a rapper or singer and maybe you'll get discovered. Become an actor and hope you get cast in that star-making role. Or, notoriously, turn to crime and get rich even quicker even if your life expectancy drops dramatically, as does your chances of avoiding jail time.
We can focus on the barriers to entry, differences in education and class, or a myriad of other problems our community faces; or we can find solutions. We need businessmen to get more involved in our communities outside the school system. Instead of building another youth basketball center so people can pretend they have done something to help inner city kids, we need to build centers to teach kids about computers and business.
Instead of seeing athletes and musicians talking about their hitting the big time, we need to see stories about how people like Amos Winbush III rose from humble beginnings to make his millions.
Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) career fields are booming, yet blacks are graduating fewer and fewer into these fields. They are not quick payoff careers, but are a clear path into the upper middle class or higher. Many students claim these fields are intimidating in their perceived difficulty, but is that more intimidating than a life of low paying, menial jobs?
But more visible mentors opening learning centers will only do so far if we do not encourage our children at home. In all other ethnic communities you can see parents and communities fostering kids’ interests in STEM and business. When I look around most of the black communities, I do not see any urgency to inspire kids in such disciplines, rather I see ridicule and disinterest and pressure to find that magic lottery ticket. Many of the businesses in the inner city and urban communities are dominated by Koreans, Asians, Chinese and families from the Caribbean. These families are usually intact with a two parent household, education is essential, teenage pregnancy is rare, church is critical and they encourage and instill a culture of entrepreneurship in their children.
The pathologies that continue to erode the black family and community has to stop. We must take matters into our own hands and make a change. It is critical that African American congregations on Sunday's encourages their members towards entrepreneurship and ownership and discourage looking to the government and Uncle Sam as their source of existence.
We need more mentors, more role-models, and more encouragement so kids will see the same value in learning STEM and business principles as they do perfecting their jump shot.