African-Americans at the Top of the Corporate Ladder
We take a look at five prominent black Americans who have gained fame as businesspeople.
The stereotypical image of the corporate titan is of an old cigar-smoking man who happens to be white.
Over the years, though, many smart and motivated African-Americans have helped to wipe away that mirage by ascending to the very top of the corporate hierarchy. Many of them are not old, not necessarily male, and certainly not Caucasian.
Space restrictions prohibit us from listing the scores of African-American names that crowd the various Who’s Who business rolls; instead, we’ve selected five of the most prominent over the last few years.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson – Many former athletes retreat from public life once their career is over. When the former Michigan State and Los Angeles Lakers basketball star retired, it seems he was just getting warmed up for the rest of his life.
An eager and ambitious businessman, the Hall of Famer oversees Magic Johnson Enterprises, a company (and accompanying charitable foundation) that concentrates on serving the country’s African-American communities. The tall man never quite gave up on sports, meanwhile. Far from it; recently, his partnership with several other notables won its bid to purchase Major League Baseball’s troubled Los Angeles Dodgers.
Kenneth Chenault – The old tag line was “don’t leave home without it,” and even today many consumers in this country make sure to keep an American Express card in their wallet wherever they go.
Kenneth Chenault is largely responsible for this; he’s been CEO of the company for over fifteen years and chairman of its board of directors since the beginning of 2001. AMEX has been doing particularly well lately, growing both its revenue and net profitability and finding its way into the portfolios of many top-level stock investors.
Oprah Winfrey – Is there anyone in this country who hasn’t heard of Oprah? That’s because she’s been such a fixture on TV and in the nation’s consciousness that it’s hard not to be aware of her. She’s also the classic American rags-to-riches story, being born to unwed teenage parents in a hardscrabble Southern town and suffering terrible sexual and mental abuse at the hands of her mother’s associates while still a young girl.
Undeterred, she found her way to college and before long started working in radio and TV broadcasting. The rest, of course, is well-known history.
Today, Oprah sits atop a vast media empire, although one of that empire’s pillars (the Oprah Winfrey Network) is struggling at the moment.
Richard Parsons – Straddling the twin worlds of politics and business, Richard Parsons has long been considered one of the most powerful men in corporate America.
Trained as a lawyer, he got his start in politics, working for then - New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the early 1970s. From there, he made a big career leap to the White House as counsel to President Gerald Ford. He then moved to the private sector, occupying executive offices in a law office before landing the CEO jobs at Dime Savings Bank.
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In 1991, he became a director of media conglomerate Time Warner, ascending to the CEO chair in 2002. He served five years in that capacity and was also the company’s chairman from 2003 to 2008. At the moment, he serves as chairman of global financial powerhouse Citigroup.
Clarence Otis, Jr. – If you’ve ever eaten at one of the many Red Lobster or Olive Garden restaurants across America, you’ve been fed by Clarence Otis, Jr.
He is the CEO of Darden Restaurants, one of the largest dining establishment operators in the world. Like Oprah, Otis grew up in a Southern family of modest means but transcended these beginnings to attend Williams College in Massachusetts, then California’s Stanford University. At Stanford he earned a law degree and used it to win jobs on Wall Street.
In 1995 he became treasurer at Darden and has stayed with the company ever since, rising through the ranks to gain his current position.
Although many people of color struggle in their working lives, there is hope. All of the people on this list worked hard and overcame obstacles to win their high positions. Their achievements show that anything is possible if enough effort is made.