Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

By Makisha Boothe, Founder of SistahBiz Global Network

Being an entrepreneur is hard. Being an employer is – even harder.

As my company evolves from “micro” business toward small business, managing growing pains, developing new teams, and building new departments can be a lot. Within just days, I’ll go from “whoa” to “no” and back again, just like that. On Tuesday, the world is mine and I’m living the dream. By Thursday, I’m questioning whether or not this growth is stealing my freedom and peace. On that second kind of day, I cringe as I move through audits and federal contracts while navigating the ups and downs of client or staff relationships makes me feel nauseous. I wonder if my tech integrations will ever freakin come together – they’re truly the projects that just won’t end – and I lie awake at night wondering how I will ever get white male investors to believe in a concept they just don’t get and often don’t care about. 

Still I know: it’s all par for the course, especially for Black women entrepreneurs. I’m far from the only one who’s experienced these kinds of setbacks and self-doubts.

Plus, it’s all worth it when another Sistahbiz member reaches the quarter-of-a-million mark in her own business, when another texts me that she landed a wholesale deal, or when we save a Black brick-and-mortar from closing its doors with emergency funding. These kinds of moments help me remember how God made me for what I do and gave me an assignment to be proud of and committed to.

So when doubt comes knocking, I put on my big girl panties and I remember the Black women who have blazed trails before me, many of which I can comfortably navigate now because they decided to show up and move past fear, injustice, and more.

Reflecting on my predecessors helps me to remember that it’s not only possible to be the entrepreneur I want to be, but also, that I must be.

I must continue the legacy. I must keep the faith.

I look at the stories of great Black women in history, and I remember that they learned the lessons I’m learning and suffered the injustices I face in far worse terrains. 

…Before Beyonce dropped an album with no apologies. 

…Before Lisa Price sold her business to investors like a boss. 

Long before the amazing entrepreneurs of today, there were Black women pioneers who built wealth, owned patents and factories, created the world’s greatest inventions, and showed up boss style while enduring the country’s deepest oppressions. In spite of slavery, Jim Crow, women’s suffrage focused mainly on white women’s liberation, and more, these Black women built dream businesses. This Black History month, I honor them and share some of the lessons I took away from their stories and accomplishments. 

 

Madam CJ Walker

Madam Walker (born Sarah Breedlove; December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919) didn’t have an easy road. On her journey, she was betrayed, overlooked, underestimated, and abandoned. She had to make a dollar out of 15 cents. She walked into rooms and cut deals when the men on the other side of the table refused to acknowledge her, and instead wanted to do business (her business!) with her husband. But she kept going. She built a million-dollar business and helped thousands of women launch side hustles, open their own businesses, and take on leadership roles in her corporation.  

Madam C.J. Walker was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and social and political activist. She is recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in America in the Guinness Book of World Records. As an advocate of Black women’s economic independence, she opened training programs using the “Walker System” for her national network of licensed sales agents who earned healthy commissions (Michaels, 2015). Walker ran her business in Denver until 1907, and she opened a beauty school and factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that she named after her daughter. In 1910, she moved her business headquarters to Indianapolis, a city with access to railroads for distribution and a large population of African American customers. She later established an office and beauty salon in New York City’s growing Harlem neighborhood in 1913. 

The Lessons:

When God gives you a vision, don’t let anyone convince you it’s not real. 

Put other women on.

You’re not just responsible for your own greatness: God uses you to make others great too.

 

Elleanor Eldridge

What do you do when your property is sold right out from under you? You go get it back, like Elleanor Eldridge did. 

Elleanor Eldridge (March 1784/1785 – c. 1845) was an African-American and Native American entrepreneur and memoirist from Rhode Island. She used her revenue to repurchase some property of which she had been perhaps legally, but at all events unfairly, deprived.

She purchased and built a house on a lot of land on Spring Street, in Providence, Rhode Island,  enlarging it several times until its value increased and it was almost fully paid for. She became ill, rented that property, and went away to heal and recover. When she returned, she learned that the property had been sold from underneath her, for exactly the amount of the mortgage. 

But Eldridge was not a woman who would submit quietly to such proceedings, and immediately set herself to work to obtain justice. Though she paid heavily for it, Eldridge eventually recovered her property, and she lived to old age there.

The Lessons:

Life is unfair, but you have the opportunity to change your own story.

Fight for what’s yours.

Build and pour into your community, and they will show up for you when you need them most.

 

Judy Woodford Reed

Do you have an idea, a formula, or a methodology that you need to protect? Don’t delay. Judy Woodford Reed protected her intellectual property not long after it was made illegal for slaves to be literate, and those found reading, writing, or teaching others could be punished severely or killed.

Reed is the first African American woman to receive a US patent. Patent No. 305,474 for a “Dough Kneader and Roller” was granted on September 23, 1884. The patent was for an improved design of existing rollers that achieved dough mixing more evenly while keeping the goods covered and protected.

Research points out that it is unlikely Reed was able to read, write, or even sign her name. Census enumerations refer to her and her husband as illiterate, and her patent is signed with an “X”. Besides the patent records, there are no known records of Reed, and US patent files of the time showed that women often used only their initials to hide their gender. 

The Lessons:

Don’t just create it, patent it.

Even when systems are designed for your demise, you can succeed.

 

Clara Brown 

Clara Brown was a Colorado entrepreneur (April 7, 1800 – October 26, 1885). In addition to being a real estate mogul, she also owned a profitable laundry enterprise and was an investor in the mines during the Colorado Gold Rush. She was born a slave in Virginia in 1800. When she was 35, she was sold by her owner and separated from her husband and children. Freed by her third owner in 1859, she came to Denver by working as a cook on a wagon train in exchange for her transportation. Aunt Clara is reportedly the first Black woman to cross the plains during the Gold Rush. She worked hard to find her family and was finally reunited with her daughter over 20 years later.

Clara Brown was honored by the Denver community and made a member of the Society of Colorado Pioneers. In her honor, a memorial chair was placed in Central City’s Opera House and a stained glass window can be found in the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol. She was inducted into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame on January 27, 2022. The Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce gives the honor of the Clara Brown award to a hard-working entrepreneur each year. I was honored to receive this award with my sister and business partner in 2008.

The Lessons:

Don’t be afraid to play in a man’s world…and make it a woman’s world.

You can start from nothing and make it big.

No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to succeed.

Diversify your business investments. You can have it all. 

 

Entrepreneurship can be cutthroat and scary, but for me, it has also been one of the greatest growth factors in my life, and it is certainly a key lever for the community wealth-building and equity work that I am a part of.

So I’m here to tell you that, when you have a tough day, think about Aunt Clara and Madam Walker and draw on that spirit to tell yourself, “Girl, you GOT this.”