As we celebrate Black History Month, I’m reminded of the role black business leaders played in the Civil Rights Movement. Many may not know about the black lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and more who helped push the Movement forward.
These leaders showed that business is not just about the bottom line. It can also help advance entire communities. With that in mind, I wanted to share a bit about a few of Arkansas’ business leaders who have exhibited the impact business can have on communities. Some of these individuals you may know, while others you may not.
John H. Johnson founded Johnson Publishing in 1942, after discovering that the black community had a desire for news about the community that went beyond crime. The Arkansas City native took this knowledge to publish his first magazine, Negro Digest. He went on to publish Ebony Magazine, the largest black-owned media publication in the country, and then launched Jet Magazine. During the Civil Rights Movement, Ebony became a critical source of information as Ebony writers covered church meetings and the magazine published contributions from Martin Luther King, Walter White, and Langston Hughes, among several other influential voices in the Civil Rights Movement.
Jet Magazine published the photo of Emmett Till that helped make his murder national news. The photo garnered so much attention that Jet had to reprint its publication for the first time. For his contributions, Mr. Johnson earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.
Rosalind Brewer is the former CEO of Sam’s Club where she led the company for five years before stepping down in January. Prior to leading Sam’s Club, Brewer joined Wal-Mart as a vice president and rose through the ranks to become executive vice president of Wal-Mart’s East business unit. Brewer has helped push for diversity in corporate America and has served as a role model for women of color who aspire to lead some of the largest companies in the world.
Brewer continues to take leadership roles. She has been nominated to join the board of directors at Starbucks with shareholders slated to vote on her nomination. If elected to the board, she would join another black woman on Starbuck’s board, Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, the first African-American owned money management firm with publicly traded mutual funds in the United States.
Charles Phillips is CEO of Infor, the third largest enterprise application company in the world, and has built a reputation as an innovative leader and a top dealmaker in the technology industry. The Little Rock native and Arkansas Black Hall of Fame member graduated from the Air Force Academy, holds a law degree from New York University School of Law, and has a master’s degree in business administration from Hampton University.
After serving as a Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, Phillips began building his reputation on Wall Street, rising to become one of the top managing directors at Morgan Stanley. Larry Ellison, former Oracle CEO, recruited Phillips to join the company as president where he oversaw the Oracle’s tripling in size through 70 acquisitions over seven years. He became CEO of Infor in 2010, and has built the privately-held company into one of Oracle’s biggest competitors with well over $2 billion dollars of revenue just in 2016. As a leader in the community, Phillips has provided financial aid to single parents, disadvantaged students interested in engineering, and wounded veterans through the Karen and Charles Phillips Foundation.
Gerald Alley founded Con-Real in 1979, one of the leading construction and real estate firms in the Southwest and Southeast, with clients including Hilton, Homewood Suites, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Kroger. The Pine Bluff native and Arkansas Black Hall of Fame member studied finance at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and earned a master’s degree in business administration from Southern Methodist University. He has been impactful in the Pine Bluff community and serves on many boards in Texas.
Beyond Con-Real, Alley began a number of other companies, including The Alley Group, a project management services firm in San Francisco, and Bravado, a real estate and hospitality firm in Arlington, Texas. Further, the Gerald and Candace Alley Foundation supports disadvantaged youth through the creation of educational opportunities.
These black leaders epitomize how success in business can serve as a platform to positively impact our communities. Business has a real impact on communities and Black History Month is a great opportunity for us to highlight that.
Editor’s note: Frank Scott, Jr. is a banker, former Arkansas Highway Commissioner and a board member of the Little Rock Port Authority. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s).