Succeed as a Minority Entrepreneur

I first became intrigued with minorities owning businesses and developing our communities 50 years ago on the South Side of Chicago. My early heroes were the bold entrepreneurs who owned tailor shops, grocery stores and beauty salons. They did not make large profits, but they were their own bosses and hired neighborhood residents.

When the civil rights leadership opened doors in the 1960s, many of these entrepreneurs became franchise owners. Others such as John Johnson of Johnson Publishing and George Johnson of Johnson Products became multi-millionaires selling products to minority populations, domestically and internationally. At the same time, corporate America began to hire our more educated and qualified community members.

At first, many of the minorities who first worked in the private sector did not consider careers as entrepreneurs. Like their non-minority counterparts, they aspired to join the C-suites, and some were successful. However, civil rights leaders and the National Minority Supplier Development Council opened doors for minorities to become first-tier suppliers for large corporations. In the late ’70s many left to become entrepreneurs, generating revenues greater than $100 million.

The auto manufacturing industry led the charge. Ford Motor Co.’s procurement program generated more than $1 billion with minority suppliers. It was a good ride for many entrepreneurs who became outstanding business and civic leaders. But many of these entrepreneurs are no longer in business, and there are five reasons why:

1. They did not surround themselves with managers smarter than themselves.
2. They were too rooted in Detroit and dependent on cozy relationships with top management from Ford, Chrysler and GM.
3. They did not diversify into other industries.
4. They did not form strategic partnerships.
5. They did not envision the decline of the auto industry.

A few did envision change and adjust their plans. These entrepreneurs grew larger and more profitable, and none was more successful than William Pickard. Pickard started his career in Cleveland, and did not envision being an entrepreneur. After getting his master’s degree in social work, he sought ways to help the community and those less fortunate than himself.

He worked for the Cleveland Urban League as the director of education and later as the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. After receiving his doctorate, Pickard became a McDonald’s franchise owner with multiple restaurants in Michigan. Having achieved great financial success, he could have stopped at McDonald’s. Instead he chose to invest in minority-owned automobile suppliers.

Pickard acquired 51 percent ownership of six firms, merged them and partnered with others to form his own supplier base, known as the Global Automotive Alliance. He became one of Michigan’s preeminent business leaders and a change agent. In addition to his automotive manufacturing companies, he purchased more McDonald’s restaurants and built several successful media, entertainment and logistics companies.

Understanding the importance of diversification, Pickard acknowledged the risk in the Detroit-based automotive industry. As a result, he moved part of his operation to new manufacturing centers in the South, again forming strategic partnerships with large companies and non-American auto manufacturers. He became a civic leader in Montgomery, Ala., and other Southern cities. Now in his mid-60s, Pickard talks of slowing down, but the people who know him well believe this is idle talk, and he still has more mountains to climb.

Pickard survived and grew while others failed because:

1. He dreamed big.
2. He always reached back to help others.
3. He diversified his business.
4. He formed profitable strategies and partnerships.
5. He moved his operations to stronger regions.

It was a successful strategy implemented by a consummate and prudent business leader. If we had more Pickards, our communities would be stronger and our society richer.