We’ve come a long way since the days when Madame C. J. Walker became the first Black female millionaire. All around us, African-American women have inspired us with their strength, drive, and their success stories, big and small. In honor of Black History Month, we’re sharing a list of eight of the most notable and influential Black women in business, each offering their own lessons and inspiration for anyone, regardless of race or gender.
Oprah Winfrey / Television Personality, Entrepreneur, Director, Producer, Actress, Publisher
Take your pick from her numerous accolades, Oprah Winfrey, known to us all as Oprah, is arguably one of the most influential women in the world. Embodying a true rags-to-riches story, Oprah was born into poverty in rural Mississippi, and is now North America’s only black billionaire. Best known as the queen of daytime TV, Oprah published the first issue of O Magazine in 2000, and founded the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) in 2011. She’s the second African-American to start her own network after Cathy Hughes (also on our list!), and is worth an estimated $3.1 billion.
Ursula Burns / Chairman and CEO, Xerox
Ursula Burns, the first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, started her journey at Xerox in 1980 as a summer intern. Brought on as a full-time associate the next year, Burns worked her way through the ranks before finally becoming CEO in July 2009, and chairman in May 2010. Once only known for its carbon copies, Xerox flourished as a strong, profitable company under Burns’ leadership. While her influence is undeniable, Burns’ future with the company remains unclear as Xerox recently announced its plans to split into two separate public companies by year’s end. On her involvement, Burns said, “What I wanted our board and our management team and me to do was to think about what the best path for the company is going forward, not what the best role is for me.”
Rosalind Brewer / President and CEO, Sam’s Club
Rosalind “Roz” Brewer is both the first woman and first African-American to lead a Walmart division. Prior to leading Sam’s Club and joining Walmart, Brewer had a 22-year career at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, where she first got her start as a chemist. Under Brewer’s leadership, Sam’s Club has integrated its digital offerings, allowing members to order items online and pick them up at the store the next day. Brewer has also ushered in a suite of services including a private health insurance exchange and access to payroll and legal services. She serves on the board of Lockheed Martin and chairs the board of trustees for Spelman College, her alma mater.
Beyoncé / Musician, Actress, Entrepreneur
With over 118 million records sold worldwide as a solo artist, and another 60 million with Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé and her estimated $250 million net-worth, make her one of the highest-grossing music artists of all time. Beyond her chart-topping music, Beyoncé, aka Queen Bey, has numerous fragrance and clothing lines, endorsements and acting credits to her name – not to mention, the 20 Grammy Awards and 53 nominations under her belt.
Tyra Banks / Model, TV Host, Producer, Entrepreneur
Tyra Banks began her modelling career at the age of 15, and has since become the first African-American woman to grace the covers of GQ and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, been one of the highest- earning models in history, and along with being the creator, producer and personality behind her own daytime talk show and the long-running reality TV series, America’s Next Top Model. Banks has proven time and again that she’s more than just a pretty face. These days, Banks continues to influence the world with personal brand of style and sass in her new roundtable talk show, The FABLife.
Tina Wells / Founder and CEO, Buzz Marketing Group
Tina Wells started as her career an entrepreneur at the age of 16 and developed the idea for Buzz Marketing Group (BuzzMG) when she was still in college. BuzzMG launched in 1996 to help companies capture the youth markets within the beauty, entertainment, fashion, finance and lifestyle sectors, and has since established itself as an invaluable resource for millennial marketing insights. Wells is also the author of Chasing Youth Culture and Getting It Right, and the teen series Mackenzie Blue.
Cathy Hughes / Founder and Chair, Radio One
In 1980, Cathy Hughes, a then-recently divorced single mother, founded Radio One on nothing but her love of radio and a dream. Eighteen years later, the company went public and Hughes became the first African-American woman to head a publicly-traded company. Today, Radio One includes 53 radio stations in the U.S., and TV One, a cable network, and is one of the biggest media companies in the world. Hughes credits her teen pregnancy and the birth of her son as her “impetus to achieve.”
Shonda Rhimes / TV Producer, Writer, Author
If you’ve turned on your TV in the last decade, chances are you’ve seen Shonda Rhimes’s genius at work. With hits like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, Rhimes and her production company, ShondaLand, are some of today’s most sought-after television writers, producers and hitmakers. With upcoming shows The Catch and the Romeo and Juliet sequel, Still Star-Crossed, Rhimes continues to pave the way for strong females in her leading roles. Her best written role yet? Shonda as herself in her new memoir, Year of Yes.