Magazine Founder Championed Black Business

Graves won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 from the National Association of Black Journalists. Photo by Sarah Glover

The first paragraph of the story in Black Enterprise gets it all in: “Black Enterprise Founder and Publisher Earl G. Graves, Sr., the quintessential entrepreneur who created a vehicle of information and advocacy that has inspired four generations of African Americans to build wealth through entrepreneurship, career advancement and money management, has died. According to his son, Black Enterprise CEO Earl ‘Butch’ Graves Jr., he passed away quietly at 9:22 p.m. on April 6, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Graves was 85.”

That story, posted Tuesday by Derek T. Dingle, the magazine’s senior vice president/chief content officer, continues:

“Graves was widely considered to be the ultimate champion of black business, launching

Graves shown with copies of his magazine Black Enterprise.

Black Enterprise in 1970 to not only chronicle the rise of African American entrepreneurs, but also provide the tools for African Americans to succeed in the business mainstream and  ‘achieve their measure of the American dream.’ . . .”

Graves’ success had a direct effect on black journalists, not only in providing a new avenue for their work but in fostering the success of all magazines targeting people of color.

In his business bestseller, “How To Succeed In Business Without Being White: Straight Talk on Making It in America,” Graves recalled that John H. Johnson, who with his wife, Eunice, co-founded Ebony and Jet magazines, at first viewed Graves as a threat, but eventually they worked together, realizing they shared the same objectives as black entrepreneurs.

“Since then, Johnson and I have become close friends, although we remain, in many respects, competitors,” Graves wrote in his 1997 book. “I count his magazine’s ads

Earl G. Graves Sr. in 1997 with his six grandchildren, clockwise, from left : Earl Graves III, 5, Kristin Graves, 6, Carter Graves, newborn, Veronica Graves, 3, Theodore Graves, 2, and Erika Graves, 6, the twin sister of Kristin Graves.
Photo by Eileen Blass, USA Today

regularly and I know he is checking mine, but we are both aware that the real competition is Business Week, Fortune and Forbes, which fight for the same advertising dollars we go after. Many times, he and I have gone together into the den of some reluctant white corporate advertiser and convinced him of the value in advertising his product or service to the African American market.

“On some occasions, we have been joined by a third African American publisher, Ed Lewis of Essence. . . .”

Graves spoke at Johnson’s 2005 funeral, the same year he issued a statement of disapproval after Essence was sold to Time Inc. Both men believed in African American ownership. Essence is now owned by Richelieu Dennis, a Liberia-born entrepreneur.

Along with business leaders, future journalists benefited from Graves’ support of Morgan State University, a historically black institution that renamed its School of Business and Management after the Morgan alumnus.

Working for Black Enterprise came with rules, however.

Mashaun Simon, who in 2006 was a student at Georgia State University and student representative to the board of the National Association of Black Journalists, was told to cut his dreadlocks if he wanted to keep his summer internship at the magazine. He said he happily complied. “I never wanted my hairstyle to become an issue like it has become,” Simon told Journal-isms then. “Black Enterprise is one of the most widely respected magazines in this country and my being here speaks to the talent I possess as a student journalist. . . .”

Graves outlined his philosophy on appearances in a February 2000 “Publisher’s Page” column. “Simply put, we must remove every reason – including things as superficial as our style of hair or dress – that an advertiser, an event sponsor, a subscriber, a job candidate and even a co-worker might have for not wanting to do business with us,” the publisher said.

“What’s alarming about the desire to subordinate traditional dress codes to personal preferences is that too often those who want to make the most radical departures are those who are the most poorly positioned, in terms of career survival and advancement, to do so: young, inexperienced black professionals who are in the vulnerable early stages of their careers. It’s the equivalent of an unproven third-year player trying to enjoy the privileges accorded a 10-time All-Star.”

Black Enterprise has lost much of its cachet since Graves turned over the company to his son, Earl G. (Butch) Graves Jr., in 2006 and the senior Graves developed Alzheimer’s. It no longer supplies figures to the Alliance for Audited Media, but in 2014 its circulation was 517,920. The company does sponsor or co-sponsor golf and tennis tournaments, which can be lucrative.

Nevertheless, that Black Enterprise is still in business after 50 years is a testament.

Graves wrote when he turned over the reins, “According to management consulting firm Grant Thornton, about 70% of family-run businesses never make it to the second generation and 90% don’t make it to the third, even though there is a genuine desire by most owners to see continuation in the family.

“The reasons: poor succession planning and an inability to separate generational issues from business objectives. We know of such horror stories among black-owned companies. For years, we have covered such tragedies on the pages of this magazine.

“However, from the beginning, Butch and I were always on the same page.”

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