The First Black Woman to Own and Run a Billion-Dollar Company Says That Trusting Yourself Is Key to Success
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In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
Janice Bryant Howroyd didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur, but a taste of being in charge changed everything. She's since made history, becoming the first African American woman to run a company that makes more than $1 billion a year, which has garnered her a net worth of $420 million.
In 1976, with $900 to her name, she headed to Los Angeles to see her big sister and got a temp job working as a secretary for her brother-in-law at Billboard, while she decided what she wanted to do full time. But when a conference sent her brother-in-law to Europe, Howroyd got to run things while he was gone.
“When he returned he did not recognize his office. But he did recognize that it was functioning better. He was the one who recommended that I consider hanging my own shingle,” the Tarboro, N.C., native recalls to Entrepreneur. “I did not come West to find my pot of gold. … I didn't find the job I was looking for, so I created my job. It just so happens that it was in the business of helping other people to achieve the jobs and careers they want.”
With that experience in her back pocket, in 1978 she officially set up shop in Beverly Hills and launched human resources firm The ActOne Group. Forty years later, Howroyd’s business has grown to a global enterprise, with a presence in 19 countries and more than 17,000 clients and more than 2,800 employees.
When asked if there had been a counterintuitive or surprising way that she had opened doors for herself, Howroyd simply laughed. “Janice Bryant Howroyd is an African American female of a certain age,” she said. “You add that formula up and it's a formula designed for failure, right? I'm not supposed to be sitting here having this conversation with you. Then again, yes I am.”
Looking back on her trajectory, she says she has been able to accomplish all she has because she didn’t sacrifice what she believed in to fit someone else’s idea of success.
“Never compromise who you are personally to become who you wish to be professionally. It is very difficult to pay yourself back for any moment you've cheated yourself from living life truthfully to who you are. If you don't believe that … speak to any minority who has not felt comfortable to bring their whole self to work,” Howroyd says. “The list can go on and on and you won't find anybody who is of conscious mind who can tell you that any measure of financial or business success is worth the failure of personal success.”
Howroyd shared her insights about how to recover from setbacks and be your own best advocate.
What has being in this industry taught you about how you pursue opportunity?
I have a heritage of watching people create opportunities oftentimes from need, many times from desire and inspiration. [When I define] how I stay in business, [it’s] not just a matter for me of whether or not I'm going to service one skill set versus another and identify myself as a niche business.
One of the things that I tell people often is that jobs don't have futures -- people do. This industry is so rife with opportunity. It's the people who have the opportunity. You don't look to the company, you look to the industry and the people. It can reinvent itself in so many dynamic ways.
What is your approach to helping people find the opportunities that are right for them?
In our company, we say the applicant is the center of the universe. Many of the people who I've competed with and continue to compete with today have approached it that the company paying the fee is where they place the emphasis. For me it was always about, what is this applicant truly looking for? [Are] they just looking for a job? Is that job a process or a step on the way to a career? And then matching them in the best, healthy way toward that.
That's a skill that transfers beyond jobs as well. When you listen to people and understand what they want to achieve, sometimes it's not what they are saying so much as what they're trying to get to. Then you have to be honest about what your ability is to help them with that. Trust is so huge when you're working with a candidate who's looking for work. I would even say that people who don't achieve healthy, good, rewarding, life supporting work often don't succeed in other ways. It can lead to so many dysfunctions and traumas and illnesses.
How do you handle setbacks? What are you thinking about to get yourself unstuck in those moments?
Understand that you're going to fall down sometimes. But you learn from it and you move forward. The thing that I've found is that many people experience a setback and then [they] let that cripple them. They can't focus on anything else but that one failure.
The people I grew up around, they grew up in a very different society than we have today. They may have had more setbacks than successes but it's the end measurement that they made worth it. These are people for who setbacks facts were built into the fabric of how they would create a life. And sometimes those were social setbacks, sometimes they were legal setbacks. Most of the time they were economic disadvantages or exclusionary setbacks. So they knew. They came ready. They expected it.
I grew up in a mindset where I was taught oftentimes you're going to have to do twice as much to get half as far. It did build readiness [in me] to hit the road running and not stop when you come to the potholes.
What is your advice for being your own best advocate?
You've got to really learn to trust yourself. Be very clear about who you are. Sometimes that means you've got to ask someone other than yourself who you are. Shakespeare encouraged us to know thyself. I encourage us to do that, and understand how other people see you. If you want to be your own best advocate, you've also got to understand who are you advocating to. Not just who are you advocating for.
What you're worth to yourself is immeasurable, what your worth to someone paying you for it is a combination of things that may include your skill set and the value you can bring to outcomes for them. It also may include where they are at that point. One company may be prepared to pay you in one way differently than another company. And so being very clear about who you are as you advocate for yourself is one thing. But being very clear about who you're advocating to is a very key element that sometimes is missed.