By Leon C. Prieto & Simone T.A. Phipps

I<n the early 20th century, the US saw what’s been called a golden age of Black business and of Black business thinkers. Harvard Business Review tells the story of that era.

Think back over the pantheon of 20th-century corporate leaders and thinkers you learned about in business school and you’ll likely conjure up figures like Frederick Winslow Taylor, Peter Drucker, Jack Welch, or Clayton Christensen. It’s hardly a surprise that these canonical giants are largely male and white. What’s less well known is that the same century in the U.S. saw a golden age of Black business and Black business thinkers. Deeply rooted systemic prejudices meant that these individuals and their thinking were omitted from most textbooks, leadership workshops, and from public consciousness. It’s past time to incorporate their work into what we know of business history, not only because it is the ethical thing to do but because  in our research as management historians, we’ve found that a more racially inclusive history of management is filled with profound advice about the role of business in society that is relevant for leaders today.

The Golden Age of Black Business

University of Texas business historian Dr. Juliet E.K. Walker was the first to name the period from 1900 to 1930 in the United States the golden age of Black Business. She observed that many companies owned by Black entrepreneurs (which primarily served Black customers) thrived in a country starkly divided along racial lines. These companies included not only small local shops but also organizations with regional, national, and international reach such as insurance companies, financial institutions, manufacturing companies, and beauty enterprises. For example, Annie Turnbo-Malone built a beauty, hair care, and cosmetic empire under the “Poro” brand, establishing branches in major cities in the US, and achieving a business presence in Canada, the Philippines, the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. By recruiting and training sales agents she created almost 75,000 jobs mostly held by Black women and women of color.

As we studied the owners and executives of these companies, we noticed a pattern in their management philosophies and actions: a love of community that loomed large and permeated their business. As we describe in our recent book, many Black business pioneers built their businesses in ways that supported and strengthened the people around them: employees, customers, and local communities. These efforts were beneficial to the companies’ success: Care is often reciprocated, and many successful Black businesses were robustly sustained by the African American community which was happy to patronize organizations that cared for its members’ well-being.

That these efforts were needed at all was a reflection on the failure of the US government as well as white-led corporations in the wake of slavery and reconstruction. Rampant racial discrimination led to unemployment and underemployment. Blacks were less likely to be hired (except for marginalized jobs) and more likely to be fired, often to make room for white applicants. Enterprising African Americans filled the void by engaging in their own social sustainability efforts to ensure community wellbeing.

In contemporary times, we have witnessed corporations’ promises to do better. However, some companies, even those that have made significant steps toward diversity and inclusion even those that have created much needed jobs for the unemployed within communities, are still failing the stakeholder capitalism test. This has been made especially clear during the pandemic as complaints surface about economic and health disparities due to workers’ race, as well as unsafe working conditions and low salaries for certain workers.

Let’s take a closer look at two early twentieth-century Black business leaders to better understand their alternative approach.

Read the full article here.

About the authors: Leon C. Prieto is an associate professor of management at Clayton State University and an associate research fellow at the Judge Business School’s Centre for Social Innovation at the University of Cambridge; Simone T.A. Phipps is an associate professor of management at Middle Georgia State University and an associate research fellow at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School’s Centre for Social Innovation.