Happy Black History Month!
As you know, The My Boss Is Me. platform is a dedicated to equipping women of colour on an entrepreneurial journey, there is nothing I love more than to shine a light on successful black women. Today I’m sharing the stories of trailblazing black women who’ve changed the game for all of us. They’ve aimed higher, overcome obstacles, worked harder and delivered value the world could not and cannot ignore.
They’re inspiring. But beyond getting inspired, we’re going to do what we always do around here – get practical. We’ll draw actionable lessons from the lives and careers of these legendary black women.
Sometimes your hardships turn out to be your platform.
Maya Angelou was a prolific and iconic poet, writer and outspoken activist for African Americans and women. Her work, awarded with over 50 honorary degrees, is a lesson in making beauty out of pain. She’d divulged in interviews that parts of her childhood (namely the murder of her ongoing sexual abuser) were so traumatic that she did not speak for almost five years. In that time she immersed herself in classic literature. She emerged with the command of language and an ability to be quiet and observe. These traits, acquired through trails, allowed her to pen the autobiographical works that would resonate with millions around the world.
Ruby Bridges is the little girl in the famous photographs, being escorted by policemen to school, in the middle of total racial chaos and strife, as the first black child to desegregate an all-white school. She’s used her experience to launch the Ruby Bridges Foundation, whose mission is “to promote the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences.”
Viola Desmond was a Canadian businesswoman who challenged racial segregation at a film theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946. She refused to leave a whites-only area of the Roseland Theatre and was unjustly convicted of a minor tax violation used to enforce segregation. Desmond’s case is one of the most publicized incidents of racial discrimination in Canadian history and helped start the modern civil rights movement in Canada. In 2010, Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon, the first to be granted in Canada. The government of Nova Scotia also apologized for prosecuting her for tax evasion and acknowledged she was rightfully resisting racial discrimination. In 2016, the Bank of Canada announced that Desmond will be the first Canadian woman to be featured on the front of a banknote. She is slated to appear on the $10 bill in 2018.
Daisy Bates and her husband created their own newspaper in 1941 – The Arkansas State press, voicing their struggles and becoming a voice for civil rights even before the national movement was prevalent. She was later appointed a position in Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, doing work to combat poverty.
If you’re excellent and you’ve mastered your craft, you can create a career out of something others consider just a hobby.
Shonda Rhimes was once a Hollywood scriptwriter who couldn’t get a job and worked day jobs to pay the bills. She’s now an influential screenwriter and executive producer who’s been called the most powerful black woman in Hollywood. And she’s not just telling other people’s stories, she’s writing them. She’s the screenwriter behind blockbusters like Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, The Princess Diaries and Scandal.
Gwendolyn Brooks was the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. She was awarded for a book of poetry and later became the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
Josephine Baker was a world renowned dancer, singer, and entertainer who moved to Europe (Paris) where she was wildly successful. She was the first black woman to become a world-famous entertainer and the first black woman to star in a motion picture. She also famously supported the French Resistance in World War II and was awarded a military honor by the French army.
Toni Morrison is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the work Beloved, was awarded a Nobel Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to literature.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe – Godmother of Rock & Roll brought gospel music to the mainstream in a way that influenced artists like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Through her mastery of electric guitar and fusion of gospel lyrics with rhythmic guitar playing, her unique musical voice has profoundly shaped American popular music.
It doesn’t matter if the world says you don’t “look the part.”
Maggie Lena Walker was the first woman in America’s history to be a bank president and the first black woman to start a bank.
Misty Copeland is the first black principal ballerina at American Ballet Theatre.
Marjoree Lee Browne was the first black woman to receive a Doctorate in mathematics.
Bessie Coleman was the first black woman (also, the first woman with Native American ancestry) to hold a pilot’s license.
Shirley Chisolm was the first black woman in American history to be elected to a position in the United States Congress and the first woman (of any race) to vie for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Halle Berry is the first black woman to receive a Best Actress Academy Award.
Your own solutions to your own problems might be great business ideas.
Madame CJ Walker was first female self-made millionaire in America (black or white!) daughter of a slave, orphaned at 7 – her business came from necessity. She had a scalp condition that made her lose her hair and she developed a solution that she later commercialized. Over time, she expanded her successful hair care product line into an empire.
Start where you are, deliver undeniable value and work with dedication. You just may end up running things.
Ursula Burns went from a mechanical engineering intern for Xerox to becoming its CEO. She was the first black woman to run a large corporation in the United States.
Folorunsho Alakija started off as a secretary in a Nigerian bank, now she’s Nigeria’s first female billionaire. She quit her job at the bank and moved to England to study fashion design, launched her own high-end Nigerian fashion label, catering to the Nigerian elite and is now involved in other enterprises, including her foundation, Rose of Sharon which works to care for widows and orphans.
Oprah Winfrey’s journey has taken her from a poor, sexually abused little girl to a Chicago news anchor to an iconic talk show host to television network owner worth 2.9 billion dollars who’s turned her name into a powerful global brand. Oprah built her career on her relatability and her ability to connect with people of all stripes, telling their stories in an impactful way. Her voice and advice became so respected during the run of her talk show that a phrase was coined, “The Oprah Effect.” The Oprah Effect described the way anyone with Oprah’s seal of approval would become instantly famous and companies whose products she featured would experience overwhelmingly explosive growth.
Ertharin Cousin started off in social services, worked for a season in politics, even being hired to work in the White House during the Clinton administration and now leads the United Nations World Food Program, the world’s largest humanitarian agency.
If you’re dissatisfied with something, find a way to change it.
Sojourner Truth was born a slave and in 1826 escaped from slavery with her baby daughter. She later sued the slave owner who had her son and became the first black woman to win a case like that. Sojourner Truth then spent her life as a relentless abolitionist and women’s rights activist.
Wangari Maathai is a Nobel Prize winner for her environmental political activism in her home country of Kenya.
Rosa Parks – Parks became a beacon of the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat in the colored section of the bus to a white passenger when ordered to by the bus driver. After the incident, she was fired from her job and received backlash that included death threats. Parks then dedicated her life to fighting civil rights injustices.
Mary McLeod Bethune created Florida’s Daytona Literacy and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. She rallied her community to sell baked goods to generate income for school supplies for the girls. Her girls school merged with an all-boys school, eventually becoming Bethune-Cookman College. embers and sold baked goods to help raise funds for supplies and maintenance. Later she founded the National Council of Negro Women, and worked with the President Franklin D. Roosevelt on policies that would benefit minorities and minors.
Fannie Lou Hamer was the voting rights and civil rights activist famous for championing voter rights and nonviolence from her home state of Mississippi and later becoming Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She coined the phrase, “ I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Dorothy Height was rejected from the college of her choice, Barnard College in NYC, because of their policy of admitting just two black students per year. Undeterred, she headed to New York University instead, and later Columbia University. Height, a champion of black women’s issues like illiteracy and unemployment, was the president of the Nation Council of Negro Women and was eventually awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her life’s work.
You Can Always Create a Better Way
Dr. Patricia Bath an ophthalmologist and inventor who holds the distinction of being the first black female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention. She created the Laserphaco Probe, which when she created it, became the newest and best solution for treating cataracts. Because of her innovation, thousands have been able to save their eyesight.
Harriet Tubman was born a slave and escaped to freedom in Philadelphia. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief that she was safe, she earned the title of Moses by making 13 return trips to free over 70 other slaves by using a network of antislavery safe houses – the Underground Railroad. She literally streamlined and organized the process a slave would need to go through to escape, ensuring the freedom of many who might have otherwise been captured and killed while trying to escape.
Which successful black women would you add to this list? Tell me in the comments!