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BHM 2024: How Did They Get to Be Billionaires?

The money of black billionaires.

BHM 2024: How Did They Get to Be Billionaires?

Well, the short answer of course is – thank the economy. The investments of multi-millionaires surged in the 2020’s, moving several people up in the food chart. Twelve of the black billionaires on the list are recent additions. But, it’s important not to diminish the work that they did to become millionaires to begin with.

I want to make special mention of Bob Johnson. He is no longer a billionaire, but in 2001, this BET founder became our nation’s first black billionaire when he sold BET to Viacom. Many were disappointed in his sale, hoping to keep BET under black ownership, but obviously, there was no black individual who could afford to buy him out. Johnson fell off the list when he and his 1st wife split the proceeds 50/50. But he was briefly back on the list in 2007-2008 when his RLJ Company had sound investments. Johnson owned the Charlotte Bobcats and sat on numerous Boards for companies such as Lowe’s, US Airways, Hilton Hotels and General Mills. As a philanthropist, he sat on the Board of the United Negro College Fund and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History. Bob Johnson is a Beast, and I wanted to recognize him first.

Everyone knows about Oprah Winfrey. Even though she was not the first black billionaire, she has been on the list for the longest. Her communications empire, from The Oprah Winfrey show to O magazine to the cable network Oxygen, put her on the list in 2003. Even though she has been surpassed by IT tycoons such as David Steward and Robert T. Smith, her name endures. The Oprah Winfrey show ran for 25 years from 1986-2011. Oprah’s financial success was secured from the beginning, when she bought syndication rights to the show which then surpassed Phil Donahue’s show in popularity. Donahue’s show had been one of the first daytime talk shows to air (1967); Oprah’s show reached hundreds of millions of viewers around the world at the height of its popularity. Oprah has starred in 15 films such as The Color Purple in 1985 and a cameo in A Wrinkle in Time in 2018. She also produced the movies Selma and The Great Debaters as well as the remake of the Color Purple in 2023. Oprah even owns 10% shares in Weight Watchers. Oprah is now 70 and still going strong with Oprah’s Next Chapter, a talk/interview show slated for 2024.

It has surprised me that it took Tyler Perry so long to make it on the list.  Perry produced his first Christian comedy play in 1992, and his first Madea play in 1999, when the actress for the role failed to appear; he has since written, directed, produced and/or starred in 20 stage plays, 17 movies, and 17 televisions shows, all from his home base in Atlanta. He has even written a best-selling book: Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life. As producer, Perry has maintained complete control over his franchise since day one. He is now the third highest-paid entertainer in the world. Tyler has had partnerships with Lionsgate, Oprah’s OWN and Viacom’s BET+ network. He even had his studio used in the making of Black Panther in 2015.  Most recently, Perry has signed a deal with Amazon Studios. He just keeps going.

The musical entertainers who have made their way on the black billionaire list: Jay-Z, Kanye West, Rihanna and Sean Combs did so by owning their own music, gathering artists under them and building empires with branding. Jay-Z had 10 platinum albums selling 2 million copies each. He has launched a liquor brand and a clothing brand. His entertainment company, Roc Nation, features stars like Rihanna, a billionaire in her own right thanks to her Fenty line under Louis Vutton which is distributed through the Sephora chain.  Jay-Z even owns an island. Another artist who made his money from clothing is Kanye West. His fortune started with 160 million record sales and his own record label. He then launched the sneaker brand Yeezy, partnering with Adidas. He’s not currently on the list, but with the right investments, he could regain his position. Last on the list with a clothing brand is Sean Combs, owner of Sean John. His income from Bad Boy Records also helps along with a share in Ciroc vodka. So, with each, music starts the enterprise, but investments from name recognition do the rest.

Athletes Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Tiger Woods and LeBron James have all made the black billionaire list, starting with phenomenal sports contracts and prizes, followed by profitable endorsements and investments. Jordan only made $94 million after 15 years in the NBA, but his endorsements with Nike, McDonald’s and Gatorade have earned him over $2 billion. Meanwhile, with only a mere $40 million of his wealth coming from 13 years with the NBA, nearly all of Johnson’s current wealth comes from ownership of the EquiTrust insurance company. He has also made money with theater chains and Starbucks chains. Tiger Woods’ 81 PGA Tour victories were worth $126 million. Wood’s Nike endorsement, a golf course design business and a putting chain also show how lucrative golfing is. Fast forward to 2023 and you can see how 30 years has changed the size of an NBA contract. With 21 years in basketball, James has earned $431 million and is the highest paid active player in the sport. He has endorsements with Nike, PepsiCo and Walmart, but a large part of his money comes from investments in Beats by Dre, Blaze Pizza, SpringHill – a sports entertainment company, and Fenway Sports Group. Obviously, NFL quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, worth a mere $70-80 million, have a lot of catching up to do.

And then there are the 4 technology moguls that you’ve never heard of, two worth more than Oprah Winfrey, and two more new to the list. Robert T. Smith is worth over $8 billion today, making the black billionaire list in 2016. Smith made his money exclusively by investing in software companies through Vista Equity Partners with annualized returns of 31% (it’s privately owned – sorry.) David Steward made his money through World Wide Technology Inc, which distributes computer hardware, software and services to the federal government. Goes to show that a minority-owned company doesn’t have to be small. Steward made the black billionaire list in 2020 and is now worth over $6 billion. New to the list are Tope Awotona and Alexander Karp who became billionaires in 2023. Given the drive and determination of African immigrants, it is actually surprising that there is only one African American immigrant on the list, but Tope Awotona, when frustrated with the challenges of scheduling meetings, created a company called Calendly which provides a free online appointment scheduling platform which is used by eBay, Google and Samsung as well as several universities. Dyslexic and biracial, Alexander Karp made his $1 billion as CEO of the publicly traded Palantir Technologies. Palantir makes software used for counter-terrorism analysts in the government as well as cloud-based security and delivery software. Palantir products are used by government agencies in both the US and UK. PLTR is currently trading for $24 on the stock market.

So there you have it: African-American hustlers, in entertainment, sports and technology have run with initial successes and carved out billion dollar empires that we can all look at in wonder and awe.  I guess the next step is to talk about their philanthropy. A story in and of itself.

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