Five African American Financial Pioneers
Updated: Jul 14, 2022
Part two in a two-part series
In part one of our two-part series Our Money Matters recognized five African American Financial Pioneers in honor of Black History Month. In part two, we recognize five more inspirational financial trailblazers. Read on for inspiration!
1. Clifton Wharton Jr. became one of the first Black CEOs of a Fortune 500 company, heading TIAA-CREF, one of the world's most significant pension funds with assets of $260 billion. At only 16 years of age, Wharton went to Harvard, where he earned a bachelor's degree. Wharton was the first African American to earn a Master of Arts degree in international affairs from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and later graduated from the University of Chicago with a master of arts and a Ph.D. in economics. He was the first African American president of Michigan State University and managed the State University of New York, the country's most extensive university system. President Bill Clinton appointed Wharton to be the first African American Deputy Secretary of State. While CEO of TIAA-CREF, he was lauded for turning the company around. Professor Michael Useem, director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, highlighted Wharton's performance as an exemplary example of corporate leadership. President of the American Council on Education, Robert Atwell, characterized Wharton's impact, "In no time at all, with dizzying speed turned all that around...I have probably never seen a more spectacular performance." Wharton has received 63 honorary doctorates.
2. Reginald F. Lewis started his career in law. After graduating from Virginia State University (VSU), he took part in a summer program at Harvard set up by the Rockefeller Foundation that introduced African Americans to the study of law. While there, he made such an impression that Harvard invited him to attend school that fall. At the time, this made him the only person in the 148-year history of Harvard to be accepted before even applying. He attended Harvard Law School and completed his Juris Doctorate in 1968. Immediately after graduating, he was recruited by the top New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, but Lewis left after two years to start his own firm. After 15 years as a corporate lawyer running his practice, he moved to the other side of the table by creating TLC Group L.P., a private equity firm, in 1983. He then led the historic $985-million deal in 1987 to buy TLC Beatrice International Foods on the heels of a 1984 buyout of McCall Pattern Co. When TLC Beatrice reported revenue of $1.8 billion in 1987, it became the first black-owned company to have more than $1 billion in annual sales. At its peak in 1996, TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc. had sales of $2.2 billion and was number 512 on Fortune magazine's list of 1,000 most prominent companies. Lewis became a philanthropist in his later years, donating to homeless shelters and neighborhood churches. In 1992, he donated $3 million to Harvard Law School, making him the largest individual donor to the school at that time. Sadly, Lewis died at only 50 years old from brain cancer.
3. Robert Louis Johnson is an American entrepreneur, media magnate, executive, philanthropist, and investor. After growing up in Freeport, Illinois, the 9th of 10 children, he majored in history at the University of Illinois and received an M.A. in public affairs from Princeton University. After graduate school, Johnson moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Urban League. He began cultivating valuable political and business connections that later helped him bankroll his vision of creating a black-owned cable television company. Johnson built BET from a small cable outlet, airing only two hours of programming a week in 1980, to a broadcasting giant that claimed an audience of more than 70 million households. In 1991 BET became the first black-controlled company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. After taking the company private again, he and his partners sold the company to Viacom for 3 billion dollars making him the first African-American Billionaire. He also founded RLJ Companies, which invests in the media, sports, gaming, real estate, and hospitality industries.
4. Mellody Hobson began her career as an intern at Ariel Investments soon after graduating from Princeton, a Chicago investment firm that manages nearly $13 billion in assets. She rose through the ranks to become president of one of the largest African American-owned money management and mutual fund companies in the United States. Hobson serves on the board of many organizations, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., the Chicago Public Education Fund, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, and the Sundance Institute. She is also on the board of directors of the Starbucks Corporation, the first black woman to be chairperson of an S&P 500 company. Hobson has received numerous accolades, including Esquire's "America's Best and Brightest" (2002), The Wall Street Journal's 50 "Women to Watch" (2004), Time's 2015 100 Most Influential List, and in 2020, was #94 in Forbes list of the world's 100 Most Powerful Women.
5. Suzanne Shank began her career as an engineer. After graduation from Georgia Tech, she received multiple job offers in the field and proved that she had what it took to find success. But after working for General Dynamics in Atlanta for a couple of years, Shank decided to take another chance, following an instinct to leave engineering and pursue an MBA degree at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. "It was there that I realized that finance was my desired area of concentration, as I was most comfortable with an analytical field after studying engineering," Shank says. After graduation, she landed an internship on Wall Street, and her rise to the top began. She founded Siebert Williams Shank & Co, one of the biggest Black-owned financial companies in the U.S. and the best-ranked women-owned and minority-owned Wall Street firm. Shank has managed deals for state and local governments across the country totaling over $700 billion. The company made history in 2010, becoming the first minority and woman-owned firm in Wall Street history to rank in the top 10 among municipal bond underwriters. Shank was recognized by Essence magazine in its 2008 Power List, by Black Enterprise magazine as one of the 50 Most Influential Black Women in Business, and as one of the 75 Most Powerful Blacks on Wall Street. The Wharton School has also recognized her among 100,000 graduates as one of its 125 Influential People. Shank is deeply committed to promoting the mentorship of inner-city youth, having formed and supported various mentorship programs across the country. She is active in numerous industry and civic organizations. She serves on many boards, including the Citizens Budget Commission, Women in Public Finance, Detroit Institute of Arts, and Spellman College.
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