Black History’s Impact on Entrepreneurship

Chris Lyons

This month, we recognize the importance of black history and the leaders who paved the way for future generations. African American culture is a driving force behind global culture, a staggering accomplishment. This collective cultural and entrepreneurial genius is what spurs the Cultural Leadership Fund’s mission: to advance more African Americans in technology and venture capital. In the midst of Black History Month, we reflect on the past, refocus on the future, and celebrate the ambition and achievements of African-American women and men. 

We salute civil rights leaders like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Together, they shaped the trajectory of the country, transformed American culture, and empowered eras of African American creators. Garvey’s genius enabled him to amass a huge following, which took great pride in his message of self-determination. In 1919, Garvey started his own cruise ship company, known as the Black Star Line. He raised money by issuing stock and selling it to his followers. He initially bought four ships, hired an all-black staff, and made history. The Black Star Line reached a peak market capitalization of $10,000,000 ($147,000,000 in 2020 dollars). 

We honor breakthrough athletes like Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Earl Lloyd, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Kenny Washington, and many others who excelled while transcending racism and segregation. The great Jack Johnson became the heavyweight champion of the world in 1908, nearly 40 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball. Even more remarkably, Johnson was his own manager; he created a marketing campaign that shamed white fighters into engaging him in the ring. Beyond boxing, he was also a heck of a bass player and owned a desegregated nightclub in Chicago. 

Since we are a venture capital firm, we also celebrate historic and modern entrepreneurs. Madam C. J. Walker, the businesswoman and activist, became the first female self-made millionaire in America. Anyone looking for inspiration on how to develop a brand or advertise effectively can take notes from Walker. She revolutionized the beauty industry, hiring 20,000 women as sales agents by 1917. Black entrepreneurs continue to create opportunities and pave the path for millions of African Americans today. Consider, for example, the story of Richelieu Dennis, the founder of Shea Moisture and one of the Cultural Leadership Fund’s Limited Partners. After escaping the war in Liberia in 1987, Dennis began his entrepreneurial journey selling soap from a card table on a street corner in Harlem. He parlayed those humble beginnings into a multi-billion dollar beauty business, but never forgot where he came from. Dennis now funds more than 100 black entrepreneurs around the globe. 

Finally, we celebrate creators of culture. From the composer Scott Joplin to Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin to Beyonce and Jay-Z, African Americans have originated entire musical art forms, from jazz to blues to rock and roll to hip hop. 

This year, let’s remember not only the heights we have reached, but how far we have come. Through our conviction, creativity, hustle, and skill, we’re building the foundation for the next generation of cultural leaders. 

Chris Lyons manages Andreessen Horowitz’s Cultural Leadership Fund and Influencer Network.

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