5 Courageous Stories of Black Entrepreneurs Who Started from Scratch
They “beat the odds”. So can you.
Entrepreneurship is in many ways, a mirror to life — you start with a blank page and a head full of ideas. How you fill that page will depend on a lot of inner characteristics— vision, patience, perseverance, empathy, stubbornness. Plus, one external thing— “a dash of luck”.
This elusive “luck” is in many ways, “uncomfortable” things like privilege, background, family, connections, etc. Often enough, “luck” is the collective term for the things we don’t talk about, the things we shush.
For Black entrepreneurs, the above kind of “luck” has been so minimal — or even nonexistent — that historically, they went on to defy it and create their own. We can only admire the courage of the people who beat the odds of life and became not just successful entrepreneurs but role models far beyond their communities.
Today, I’d like to give an ear to their stories — the stories of the Black entrepreneurs next door who made it when all the odds were against them. If they can do it, so can you.
Antonio Wells: “Never let someone who lacks vision stop yours”
Today, Antonio Wells is someone we call a “role model” and a “success story”. The owner of Chicago-based brand growth and marketing agency NAMYNOT Inc. is helping businesses from start-ups to Fortune 100 companies grow their brand.
Yet few know that Antonio is a serial entrepreneur who once started a tech review company launching on nothing but a “shoestring budget”. Back then, in 2009, Antonio was able to grow the company organically into a global leader in the app review industry and successfully sell it only through smart investment decisions.
“My company never received funding and was able to grow exponentially by reinvesting. The greatest challenge I faced was lack of funding [and] lack of knowledge in finding alternative ways of gaining funding. However, I turned this lack into execution by working with what I had and continually reinvesting (oftentimes 100%) until I hit a point of profitability.”
For Antonio, the most important thing in life has been to never give in when others fail to believe in you or your business. Even such a critical aspect as lack of funding for business isn’t enough reason to give up on one’s goal.
Antonio’s business journey shows that strategic financial planning is vital to any startup or growing business. Further, his motto is to never let even well-meaning advisors to interfere with your vision. Whatever the financial hardship, there’s a way to adapt the means to your goals, Antonio reminds us.
Some of the best ways to cut back on business costs are reinvesting in the business, studying profit margins, and building a simple financial model for your business. All of these things can be learned in online courses for free, or by studying beginner-oriented financial literature.
2. Jamie R.Wright: “It’s not that I’ve always known who I would be, it was just very clear to me who I wouldn’t be.”
Starting or growing a business during a pandemic is an immense challenge in itself. Starting a business as a victim of domestic violence in the middle of a pandemic, while fighting for your safety at a women’s shelter around Houston, TX, is something that takes unprecedented courage.
Jamie Wright is one such amazing woman. Fighting not just for her life, but for the life of women in similar circumstances as she, Jamie became a trauma & self-love advocate, author, motivational speaker, and ambassador for women subjected to domestic abuse. Jamie’s story and practical advice has already been shared on BBC News, CBS, Fox 26, 60 Minutes Quibi and more.
“As a survivor of domestic violence, I share my story of triumph in a way that inspires others. I also provide practical ‘how-to’ tips and tools in an effort to help others radically transform their lives. The greatest business challenge I faced overcoming my self-doubt and disempowering thoughts by realizing that all that I needed was within me. I may have been victimized, but I AM NOT a victim. Adversity is an opportunity to remind/show myself how strong and resilient I am.”
A survivor of domestic violence that has accomplished everything through her faith and courage, Jamie’s motto is a paraphrase of Oprah’s quote, “It’s not that I’ve always known who I would be, it was just very clear to me who I wouldn’t be.”
Whatever life situation we’re currently in, Jamie reminds us to find a community for guide and support (find a list of online business communities for Black entrepreneurs here.).
She also makes it clear that seeking help in a community of like-minded individuals does not demonstrate a lack of courage or personal initiative. When we are backed by someone who understands our experiences, we can move mountains — even in times of a pandemic and personal trauma. This is real, hands-on courage.
3. Vid Lamonte’ Buggs Jr.: “To persevere and overcome the odds, have a warrior mindset and live a warrior lifestyle”
People often call Vid the “modern Renaissance man”, i.e., a man of many talents. He is an entrepreneur, bestselling author, athlete, public speaker — and that’s just a part of his accomplishments.
Throughout his childhood, it seemed the odds were turned against Vid. Born with a medical condition that made doctors believe he wouldn’t be able to walk or run normally, and facing academic challenges in school, he went on to graduate with the highest honors, obtain multiple degrees, engage in sports, and find his life’s purpose in a hidden talent.
“It was 2013–2014 and I just was waived by an NBDL team. My girlfriend and I were expecting a baby girl. [We were] in Florida without any family to help during one of the most challenging times in my life. However, due to this crossroads, I decided to pursue some goals I had put on the backburner. Those goals were starting a Publishing Company, starting an Enterprise, Publish a book, and Public Speak on a national level. Through basketball training and money I had saved up, I was able to publish my book, ‘You Ain’t Hungry Until I’m Starving’, with the help of Marci Wise. I also was able to start both of my companies.”
Wisdom goes that when we want to change our life, we must start with changing our mindset. As Vid likes to explain, “No matter what we want to do or who we want to be in life, we will go through challenges. People will doubt us, and tell us what odds are against us.
In order, to persevere, overcome the odds and be successful, a person must have a warrior mindset and live a warrior lifestyle.” Acquiring key soft skills like open communication, online and live networking, sales/business negotiation, and an adaptability mindset is key to rapidly pivoting in challenging situations.
4. “Michele Davis: “Take the time to discover what makes you happy and fulfilled in every aspect of your life.”
One day in 2016, Michele took the leap of faith many would’ve considered improbable. At 45 years of age, she became a first-time entrepreneur with no prior experience. Back then, she launched a website design, branding, and SMM company supporting female entrepreneurs.
Through her active learning and perseverance, Michele’s business story soon took off. But only three years later, personal tragedy struck. Michele’s son died, leaving her heartbroken after the greatest challenge a human being can face.
Surprisingly, one day she found the courage and fearlessness to not only rise up but even reinvent her business. It was the emotional feedback from her work that started the chain of healing.
“After I felt emotionally able to return to the world […] I decided to contact clients just to check in on their progress in their business. The more I spoke to the women, the more I realized they needed business mentorship. That’s when I decided to provide [them with] a step-by-step blueprint. My focus with Phenomenal Boss Academy is helping women launch a profitable and sustainable business in 90-days or less.”
For most people, starting a business after 40 out of the blue, with no experience to boot sounds frightening. For Michele, entrepreneurship has become more than a plan B, but an unexpected pillar that helped her awaken to life through awakening others.
More than an inspiration, she is an advocate of the spiritual, mindful approach to business. “I always advise people to take the time to discover what makes you happy and fulfilled in every aspect of your life.
Evaluate what you need spiritually, emotionally, financially, and so forth to make you feel happy and fulfilled.” When your business is about more than “work”, your success becomes a link between other people. To paraphrase Vernon Jordan, standing on the shoulders of others, you lend your own shoulder to those following you.
5. Jen Ngozi: “Cancel Perfectionism!”
Jen Ngozi grew up in a first-generation African immigrant family who came to the U.S. with nothing but $10 in their pockets. Growing up in a minority community, she had no corporate-American parents, birth privilege, or business role models to emulate.
Set on working hard and giving back, Jen fought for and forged her own path in business regardless of obstacles and went on to found NetWerk, a global woman in leadership movement and organization helping everyday women worldwide build the community, confidence, and skills needed to become leaders.
Jen’s movement has met with worldwide acclaim and partnered up with brands like Teen Vogue and the United Nations Foundation. Her secret? Letting go of perfectionism in favor of lifelong learning.
“It’s important to embrace the entire process of building an organization, including mistakes. Throughout my business journey, I learned how detrimental perfectionism is to growth. And I’ve decided that we never really make mistakes, we only get better aligned to our original purpose. [You could say that] mistakes made my vision clearer.”
Cutting out perfectionism — aka the “all or nothing mindset”, is what Jen calls her biggest asset in business and life. If perfectionism is your roadblock, don’t stop doing what you’re doing, she advises aspiring entrepreneurs.
Keep on doing it while you learn more. Jen says that it’s been mentorship that propelled her business forward drastically. She relies on SCORE, the SBA’s volunteer mentor organization from/to small business owners where anyone can connect to a business mentor for free, or sign up to mentor others.
If you’re starting a business, learning practical financial practices, strategies to cut back on business costs, and filling inevitable gaps in your business, sales, or marketing knowledge is a shortcut through mentorship.
Black History Month isn’t just a celebration of roots, courage, and overcoming. It’s also an important lesson for every single community, minority group, and underprivileged society. A lesson about creating our own “luck” — and fate.
Like African American film director Spike Lee said, “I believe in destiny. But I also believe that you can’t just sit back and let destiny happen.”
Don’t wait for destiny to happen. If that’s what you’ve been dreaming about, become an entrepreneur. Beat all the odds.
This story was originally written for MightyCall in honor of Black History Month.
Bilingual pianist & business journalist. Writing about the Human Experience.