"As entrepreneurs you can build your dream or someone can hire you to help build theirs," media executive Michele Thornton said firmly to an audience of two hundred Black women in Washington, DC.
Thornton was speaking at the Walker’s Legacy Power 50, a summit connecting Black women entrepreneurs around the country, held at the Hamilton Restaurant on Saturday. The effort directly connects to the business legacy of Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire in American history who made a fortune from hair and beauty products for Black women.
Walker’s Legacy was founded in 2009 by Natalie Cofield as a business lecture series to empower women of all ages. A'Lelia Bundles, a former TV executive at NBC and ABC who is a direct decedent of the iconic beauty and hair care mogul, addressed the summit.
"She used her wealth and philanthropy to contribute to Black schools and colleges, she gave the largest gift the NAACP had ever received to it's anti-lynching fund… Madam Walker's life was one of transformation and re-invention. I'm so happy to say her legacy is still alive," Bundles said.
On March 4, Sundial Brands re-launched a Madam CJ Walker line of hair care products exclusively available at Sephora.
In 2015, a report by American Express revealed that the number of businesses owned by African American women grew 322% since 1997, making black females the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S. Currently women-owned firms account for 38 percent of all companies in the U.S. There was a 70 percent increase in companies started by minority women between 2007 to 2012.
DeShuna Spencer, the founder and CEO of the video streaming site Kweli.tv, which is a streaming TV network dedicated to Black issues, took part in a panel discussion on the issues faces startups and female entrepreneurs. Spencer is attempting to change the image of African Americans away from the sensationalized reality shows that depict Black women as drama queens and out of control.
"I wanted to see people who looked like me in mainstream media and that's where the idea of Kweli.tv came from," Spencer said. In 2014, she won $20,000 in a business plan competition for her business but has been bootstrapping the business ever since.
"It's a lot of work. As far as resources there really aren't a lot of resources but the reality is if you want something bad enough you have to work for it. That's the reality of it. That's the truth," Spencer added. "The biggest challenge has been access to capital," she added.
Randi Gloss, Founder of Glossrags said she got the idea for her T-shirt business after working on signs at the 50th Anniversary at the March on Washington in 2013.
"I wrote out Emmett and Amadou and Oscar and Trayvon, and then I put at the bottom: More than just Black faces in tragic spaces," Gloss said. She then noticed that every ten feet or so someone would stop her and ask for a picture of the sign bearing the names.
She would later design T-shirts with the names of those killed and in February 2014, Gloss asked a mentor for $500 to create 100 shirts. On November 25th 2014, when the news hit that former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the murder of teenager Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, Gloss said she sold 200 shirts in one day.
Her entrepreneurial story is the result of a powerful blend of activism and business -- in this case around the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement. Though Gloss said one of her company's challenges is "fighting amnesia" as the issue of police brutality floats out of the news, she remained positive.
"This is really opening doors and opportunities right now, I'm really learning from you on the spot," she told the audience.
"A hundred years from now you never know who might be standing up here talking on a stage…I challenge us — this is about 100 years from now — will people remember that we gathered? Do you understand the importance of that? The answer should be yes," said Natalie Cofield at the end of the summit.