NEW YORK — Ron Lewis launched his own advertising agency in 1969 because he realized Corporate America was not interested in hiring a black man.
“I started a business because I couldn’t get a job,” he said.
Lewis’ entrepreneurial jump paid off. He now runs UniWorld Group Inc., the largest black-owned advertising agency in the country.
“Aspiring black businesspeople need to learn from Lewis’ example and understand that ownership is vital to their success,” participants in a symposium about black business said this week.
John O. Utendahl, whose Utendahl Capital Partners is the nation’s largest black-owned investment bank, said more wealthy black people have to put their money into black-owned companies.
“We have got to gather more equity within our own community,” he said.
That message is being heeded. Black-owned businesses are larger than ever and growing fast. Black Enterprise magazine reported that sales for the top 100 black-owned firms grew 11.8 percent in 1996, exceeding the 9.9 percent revenue jump of Fortune 500 firms.
The discussion was sponsored by Fortune magazine, whose Aug. 4 issue features a cover story titled “The New Black Power” that focuses on emerging black executives.
Many black executives have found success by climbing through corporate ranks but find themselves surrounded in board rooms only by white faces.
“The air gets pretty thin as you rise in the ranks,” said Vikki Pryor, a former senior vice president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts’ customer operations.
The way to create a larger and richer class of successful blacks is to mentor young people, speakers said. They also warned that successful blacks can’t forget about people left behind in inner cities.
“African Americans who have money no longer live in any shape or form in contact with the base population,” Lewis said.
“I don’t want to get too high and mighty and forget,” said Kim M. Green, an executive with Aon Risk Services Inc. and the founder of her own brokerage firm.
Roy S. Johnson, editor-at-large at Fortune who helped put the black business issue together, said publicizing the existence of wealthy and powerful blacks would open the eyes of white America to their existence and perhaps make them role models for blacks.
“If we’re lucky, young people will be able to see there are other ways to achieve than dribbling,” he said.
The message wasn’t lost on 15-year-old Jessica Smalls, a luncheon guest.
“It makes me more confident to see successful black people,” she said. “It just gives me that extra boost.”
Photo by The Associated Press
Kim Green, far left, an executive with Aon Risk Services Inc. and the founder of her own brokerage firm, is one of 13 black business people featured on the cover of the Aug. 4 issue of Fortune magazine. Others are, from left, William Lewis, Managing Director, Morgan Stanley (next to Green); Warren Shaw, CEO, Chancellor Asset Management; Joyce Roche, President, Carson Inc.; Donna Brooks Lucas, President, DBL Multi-Media Group; Michele Hooper, Group President, Caremark International; Dr. Richmond McCoy, CEO, McCoy Realty Group, seated; William Davis, CEO Pulsar Data Systems; Brenda Lauderback, Group President, Nine West; Earvin Johnson, CEO, Magic Johnson Enterprises; Yvette Lee Bowser, Executive Producer, Living Single; Richard Nanula, CFO, Disney; and Karl Kani, Karl Kani Infinity.