Given the pioneering success of Madam C. J. Walker, America’s first self-made Black woman millionaire, people wanted to know how she got started in business ownership only decades after the end of slavery in America. Her answer was short and simple: “I got my start by giving myself a start.”
As for her astronomical success as owner of an Indianapolis-based hair and skin care factory, Walker had yet another pithy saying: “Perseverance is my motto.”
More than a century later, these morsels of wisdom still work – at least according to economic experts and advocates who have observed the historic rise of Black women entrepreneurs over the past 18 years. According to an American Express Open study released in 2015, there’s been a 322 percent growth in Black female-owned businesses since 1997, making Black women the fastest growing entrepreneurial group in America.
The same self-start, perseverance and faith employed by Walker is still motivating Black women in 2016, says Julianne Malveaux, an economist and former president of Bennett College for Women.
“African American women have earned degrees, have moved up the ladder, and have found corporate America sometimes wanting and have found the mainstream difficult,” Malveaux says. “Therefore, the 322 percent increase is a function of people being very skilled and talented and not finding space for themselves in the traditional pipelines. And so they are going into creating their own.”
Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “Women of color, when you look at the statistics, are impacted more significantly by all of the negative factors that women face. It’s not surprising that they have chosen to invest in themselves,” Dorfman told Fortune magazine.
Yet, Malveaux points out, it is crucial to note that despite the growth of Black women entrepreneurs due to their talent and tenacity, they are still a huge minority when compared to White women.
BlackEnterprise.com reports that women in general now own 30 percent of all businesses in the United States, accounting for some 9.4 million firms. African American women control 14 percent of these companies, or an estimated 1.3 million businesses. In contrast, White women own 6.1 million, the lion’s share of the women-owned firms, according to the National Women’s Business Council.
Generally, Black businesses – owned by men and women – still lag grossly behind those owned by Whites, says Malveaux. “The issue is that African Americans are less likely to have access to capital and African American women are even less likely than that. In terms of access to capital, no African American has a level playing field.”
The Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that Black-owned businesses, which once received 8.2 percent of all loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, had dropped to only 2.3 percent.
From a Black man’s perspective, it has been inspiring to observe the growth of entrepreneurship among determined Black women, says Howard R. Jean, co-founder of the Black Male Entrepreneurship Institute. He concludes the growth is spurred, in part, by Black women increasingly realizing their worth.
“It comes to a point when women have stopped begging for a seat in the boardroom and began creating their own,” Jean says. “Realizing their value on the open market and capitalizing on the certification pools that increase their opportunities for success in business, women are now in a position of influence in the business community.”
Edna Kane-Williams is senior vice president for multicultural leadership at AARP.