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Remembering a Legend…Earl Graves Sr, Founder of Black Enterprise

Lakeisha Gray-Sewell

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Anytime one can transition from this earthly realm and leave a legacy that is recognized across generations as well as beyond race and class lines; that life is an endowment.

This is exactly how Earl Graves, Sr. lived his life and ran his business. What he created was a mantra; an endowment and promise to the success of Black businesses. Black Enterprise, indeed.

Well before Biggie claimed notorious fame on the streets of Bed-Stuy, Earl Graves Sr. used one of its blocks to hone his entrepreneurial skills selling Christmas cards. Those entrepreneurial skills served him well on the HBCU campus of Morgan State University and during his stints working in civil service capacities. Throughout his life, he flourished as not only a salesman but an astute negotiator and perceptive networker.

Thus, the natural birth of Black Enterprise as Mr. Graves Sr. compiled a newsletter to highlight the Black business owners whom he became familiar with while working for the Small Business Administration. A simple newsletter that shared Black business successes, secrets and lessons, was regarded as much more. It proved to be a necessary platform and tool for others who were aspiring to break color barriers, push through the ranks in their careers, and learn business strategies.

Moving forward that humble start forged into an audacious magazine publication. It would grow into a conglomerate that showcased Black business leaders and owners. Not only that, it created an advertising avenue for businesses that targeted Black consumers as well as space for inspirational storytelling. This is what Black Enterprise remains.

In its glossy pages, Black America could see what it took to purchase their dream homes, become a C-Suite executive, invest in stocks, turn a hobby into a lucrative business, become franchise owners and so much more. Basically, Black Enterprise was where you looked for a how-to-guide to accomplish your biggest economic dreams.

Continuing on the magazine evolved into what today is a multimedia conglomerate. His business acumen thrived into venture holdings companies and a myriad of corporate entities. Yet, while Mr. Graves Sr. was comfortably positioned amongst the well-heeled and who’s who of Black America, he was also fluid across racial lines where the ultimate color of money green could afford him access and new knowledge. 

All in all, he had an abundance of accomplishments and titles. Just a few include:

  • Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Black Journalists.
  • The 84th NAACP Spingarn Medal
  • Junior Achievement Worldwide U.S. Business Hall of Fame Inductee
  • Named amongst Fortune Magazine 50 most powerful and influential African Americans in corporate America
  • HistoryMaker Feature
  • Recipient of more than 60 honorary degrees
  • American Academy of Arts & Sciences Fellow

Still his character and relationships revealed that he was unashamed and unapologetically  Black. The various initiatives that came from his companies demonstrated his staunch philosophy of community responsibility. More than anything, what is evident is that Mr. Graves was a champion for Black business. A common thread throughout his accolades is that of advisor and strategist.

Not only did he put his money where his own business was, perhaps what we can take most from Mr. Graves’ legacy is philanthropic commitment.

Future generations are promised a shot at Black excellence because of his generous contributions to colleges and scholarship programs such as his alma mater, Morgan State University where he not only gave monetarily but where he established the Graves Honors Program and Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management.

Again, he endowed us not only his masterful business mind, but words of wisdom as well.

This was evident in his own words as the author of the New York Times bestseller How to Succeed in Business without Being White, as well as on his monthly Publisher’s Page in BE. Almost cryptographic in nature, he left us the Black business code of self reliance, corporate responsibility, and innovative thought.

Earl G. Graves Sr. with his book “How To Succeed In Business Without Being White” in New York, on Aug. 17, 1997.
Earl G. Graves Sr. with former United States President Bill Clinton

As we mourn his death yet celebrate his legacy, I’d like us all to reflect on his powerful quote:

“You can forget who you are as an African American. I mean, unfortunately we have people who have succeeded and done well in business and they don’t identify with any of the issues or problems we have at all as a people. I think that is unfortunate and it’s their problem to our demise as a people if we have people who are successful (yet) not realizing who they are.”

La'Keisha Gray-Sewell, is a news media relations and strategic communications consultant by trade, and a girls advocate by life assignment. She is an urban youth advocate, cultural critic, and founder of Girls Like Me Project, Inc; a not-for-profit group mentoring program that seeks to help inner-city adolescent girls identify and critically analyze the cultural, social and environmental messages that influence their development. Ultimately helping them learn to navigate beyond those messages to make positive life choices and connect globally with their peers.

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