The New Entrepreneurs
At first glance, all that Randal Pinkett (far right), Kwame Jackson and Stacie Jones have in common is their appearance on real estate mogul Donald Trump’s reality TV show, The Apprentice, complete with the “15 minutes of fame” that appearance brought them. Away from the Trump public relations behemoth, they are bound by a strong sense of community and a palpable entrepreneurial passion stemming from their determination to dictate their own futures.
African-Americans are no strangers to entrepreneurship. Madame C. J. Walker, beauty and hair products magnate of the early 1900s; the late Reginald Lewis, 1990s creator of the multibillion-dollar TLC Beatrice Foods conglomerate; and today’s global hip-hop impresarios Sean Combs (Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group), Russell Simmons (Rush Communications) and Damon Dash (Damon Dash Music Group) are prime examples. Entrepreneurship, in fact, is on the rise in the Black community. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2002 Survey of Business Owners: Black-Owned Firms, published in April of this year, shows the number of businesses owned by Blacks increased 45.4 percent between 1997 and 2002, from 823,499 to 1,197,661. Receipts of these businesses jumped 24.7 percent in the same period, from $71.2 billion to $88.8 billion. Firms owned by Blacks accounted for 5.4 percent of all U.S. firms in 2002, up from 4 percent in 1997.
The Scholarly Entrepreneur
To expand the legacy of the early Black entrepreneurs, Pinkett says he is more interested in following the “socially conscious” business model of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, owner of Harpo Productions. That means creating and sustaining profitable businesses and meaningfully impacting the socioeconomic rebirth of the African-American community.
For Pinkett, president and CEO of BCT Partners, a Newark, N.J., technology and policy consulting services firm, access to technology is the biggest deterrent to the economic upliftment of the Black community. “There is a world of haves and have-nots. We are disproportionately underrepresented when it comes to computer purchasing and Internet use. We lag behind every group,” he complains. To overcome this divide and be competitive in an increasingly technological world, African-Americans need to gain 21st century skills through reading, writing, arithmetic and technology, he says. “I’m from the generation that grew up with technology and see it as an asset to doing business. And in college I learned that the only way to achieve economic freedom is to own something,” he says.
In addition to running BCT Partners, Pinkett is overseeing the renovation of information technology projects for Trump Entertainment Resorts in Atlantic City, N.J., his prize for being hired by Trump at the completion of season four of The Apprentice. He holds five academic degrees, including master’s degrees in electrical engineering and business administration and a Ph.D. in media arts and sciences, all three from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Appearing on The Apprentice gave him and his company significant and beneficial exposure, says Pinkett, who describes himself as intelligent, God-fearing, savvy, socially conscious and humble. “There are very few shows on TV where you can gain visibility as a business person. And as a Black man in America, it also showed our young people that there are more avenues besides being an athlete or an entertainer to be successful,” he says.
Through speaking engagements, community activism and his own lifestyle, Pinkett hopes to emphasize the right values for young people, helping to shift them more toward a culture of responsibility and excellence. His career path certainly has raised the bar for young engineers and business owners.
Second to None
Jackson’s appearance on The Apprentice and his second-place finish in the show’s first season were opportunities to show that he could be extraordinary. It afforded him access to countless opportunities, which he seized to create Legacy Holdings L.L.C., a New York City company focused on real estate development, fashion, television and film production. But he considers his role as a Harvard-educated Black male M.B.A., whose presence on the show resonated with whites, and particularly Middle America, to be his most critical. “At this time I have that ripple effect—that I can change the images of how the media portray us and inspire the next generation,” says Jackson. “I’m a role model but I don’t try to be perfect. I’m simply taking advantage of opportunities and having fun.”
The death of his mother when he was 15 and the recent death of his brother Funson in a motorcycle accident are the most defining moments of his life, Jackson says. His mother’s passing rattled his foundation and led him into a period of rebellion, but he eventually was able to appreciate the example she set for him. “My mother was a [certified public accountant] who owned her own firm. So at an early age I had an example of business ownership and economic freedom,” he says.
He acknowledges that obstacles must be overcome every day, but he is adamant about individual responsibility, about taking charge of your destiny and understanding that every day you have an opportunity to finish the task that will get you closer to your goal. “We need to rise above our circumstances and the ‘excuse’ culture,” says Jackson. “What we do to ourselves is worse than what others do to us.”
This attitude of self reliance, combined with his interest in real estate, led him to buy his home in Harlem, the historical mecca of Black arts and literature and one of New York City’s hottest real estate markets. Harlem’s commercial transformation continues to attract upscale stores like Starbucks and clothing stores H&M and Old Navy, but Jackson insists he has no intention of taking part in the gentrification debate. “Gentrification is a natural evolution of capitalism. The important question is is it about race or economics? And as a people whose lack of financial knowledge throughout history has kept us away from socioeconomic progress we can no longer be bystanders,” he says.
One way to cease being bystanders, Jackson says, is for individuals and communities to pool their resources and become more involved in the community. “I became a home owner in Harlem because of the long history of ownership for African-Americans. And I want to invest in the community where I live,” he says.
The Branded Diva
A beautiful, intelligent Black woman, Jones considers herself a triple threat to most people. She argues that her depiction on the show as “the crazy Black woman” is a defamation of character, adding that it fueled her passion to control her image, name and future. As a model with the Elite and Ford modeling agencies, Jones is very aware of how far the right image can take you and of the damage a tarnished image can do to your marketability. “Going home and crying because of how I was portrayed on the show was never an option,” she says. “Instead, I assembled my management team and started branding myself.”
Her branding as “Stacie J” has led to cosmetic and jewelry contracts. Most recently she launched the perfume “Stacie J Golden” with Revelations Perfume & Cosmetics Inc. and a line of jewelry and accessories with ICING by Claire’s. Jones is also the owner of a Subway sandwich shop franchise in Harlem, an investment she views with pride. “Being an entrepreneur is important because it is the only way to gain financial independence,” she says. “I want to be a role model to young Black women and men, to encourage them to get an education and build a business that will make them money.”
Jones’s entrepreneurial spirit was formed while in college, where she created a marketing company with a staff of 17 people. She received a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Emory University, and an M.B.A. from Mercer University in Atlanta. In the hierarchy of African-American women business owners, she sees herself wedged between today’s matriarchs—Winfrey; Suzanne de Passe, chairman and CEO of de Passe Entertainment; and Sylvia Rhone, president of Motown Records and executive vice president of Universal Records, for example—and the younger generation of entrepreneurs headed by R&B songstress Alicia Keys. “My goal is to touch one single person. But now, through television, I can touch millions and show what you can accomplish when you are smart,” Jones says.
By Inés Bebea