Women Of Black History: 5 Things To Know About Billion-Dollar Businesswoman Janice Bryant Howroyd

February 17, 2017  |  

As you know, not every person who makes Black history has to do so in the very distant past. Just look at Oprah, or Ursula Burns, or Serena Williams. Or for the sake of this post, entrepreneur Janice Bryant Howroyd. If you’ve never heard her name, you might want to look it up or at least get acquainted with her hustle. Howroyd is the first Black woman to own a billion-dollar company. She is the founder and CEO of The Act-1 group, a workforce solutions company, and the largest privately held woman-owned employment agency of its kind with more than 17,000 clients and 2,600 employees around the world. Act-1 serves the interests of brands in entertainment, finance, energy, government, retail, and much more. So how did she get her start, the woman who calls Madam CJ Walker a role model and who was given an opportunity in the Obama administration? Check out five things to know about businesswoman Janice Bryant Howroyd.

She Was One of 11 Children

Born in 1952 in Tarboro, North Carolina, Janice was the fourth of 11 children. As one of many, she may not have been able to be the first to get or do anything at home, but early in life, she was one of the first students to desegregate her town’s high school. She learned early on that instead of crying in a corner, resilience was everything. That lesson came after a teacher on her first day of class tried to justify slavery. “On the first day of class, I listened to my teacher explain why Africans were so well suited to slavery and how we’d be much poorer as a society if we went any further with this affirmative action,” she told Black Enterprise. After going to her parents about the comments, crying and pleading not to return to the school, her father gave her three choices. He told her that he could either confront the teacher for her, she could transfer to the all-Black high school in their community, or she could keep her head high and go back to school. Janice decided to go back.

A Temp Job at Billboard Magazine Launched a Major Idea

After finishing school at North Carolina State Agricultural and Technical College, in 1976, Janice traveled to California to visit with her sister. She ended up sticking around and was given a temporary job of secretary at Billboard by her brother-in-law, Tom Noonan.

“I started out as a temporary worker and they never wanted me to go,” she told Ebony. “They were fascinated that I knew what needed to happen in an office.”

From there, it was suggested that she make this talent work for her, so Janice came up with the idea to create an employment agency. She saw that quite a few jobs at the magazine were filled by people who had larger aspirations of making it in the entertainment industry, so they wouldn’t stay long. With that in mind, she wanted her agency to help employers find people who were not only better suited for certain jobs, but who truly wanted to have them.

She Turned a Little Over $1,000 Into a Billion-Dollar Business

Janice was able to start her business in a small office space in Beverly Hills with the help of almost $1,000 she saved and an additional $533 loan from her mom and brother. She used that space to set up Act-1 and do business with just a basic telephone line and a phonebook.

“When I founded my business, I did not have the technology that I employ today to help immediate success as well as strategic success,” she told CNBC recently. “All I had was a brain, a phone and a phonebook.”

Still, she managed to make things work. Her first client was Noonan over at Billboard, but her business soon grew exponentially when she contacted businesses with the promise of sending them top-tier talent.

She Adjusted to Keep Her Business Afloat During Rough Economic Times

How does a business that started off small in 1978 manage to grow bigger and bigger every year, despite economic struggles? In Act-1’s case, it was knowing how to adjust. Janice started off finding employees for companies in entertainment, but she eventually started working with clients outside of that industry, especially when widespread layoffs began to happen in the ’80s. Her decision to get into the temp-job field to help businesses find workers on an as-needed basis ended up being a great move. It was such a successful one that she set up the temporary-employment aspect of her company into four sections that focused on clerical work, engineering, entertainment and technical jobs. Her client list kept growing, and Janice’s company went from grossing $75 million in 1997 to $483 million by the time 2002 rolled around.

She Has Looked Past Personal Offenses to Focus on Business

Janice has been open about the sexism and racism she’s had to deal with as she’s built up her company.  In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1997, she gave two pretty egregious examples. One time, after a presentation given to a utility company, the director of the company applauded her by saying, “If more of your people were like you, we wouldn’t have so many problems.”

There was also an incident where she was sexually harassed. An exec said he would make her his primary personnel contractor in exchange for sex.

She was able to handle both situations by remembering that there all people aren’t like the sh-theads you occasionally have to deal with on your way to the top. “You have to depersonalize it,” she said. “You have to be forgiving and remember there’s a lot of nice people out there.”

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