Sisters In Charge;
Innovative Women Entrepreneurs
Today's Black woman is a go-getter. Not only is she running her own
business, but she is also following her life's passion. And the
numbers bear it out.
The Center for Women's Business Research conservatively
estimates that the 365,110 majority-owned, privately-held firms
owned by African-American women in the United States generate
roughly $ 14.5 billion in sales.
Among those leading the charge are Californian Janice Bryant
Howroyd, who took a $ 1,500 loan and turned it into a
multimillion-dollar employment agency; Deryl McKissack Greene,
an architect who took a family tradition and turned it into one
of the top firm's on the East Coast; Shirley L. Gross-Moore, a
Chicago-area car dealer who built a solid business despite those
who said she would fail; Saundra Parks, a New York floral
designer who has changed our notions about flowers, texture and
color; and Louise Todd, an art publisher and distributor in
Atlanta who left corporate America to turn her love of art into
a living. The
five women on the following pages represent thousands of Black
businesswomen who are letting it shine all over the business
world -- from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., Chicago to New
York and finally down to Atlanta -- and they are doing it their
Janice Bryant Howroyd
ACT•1, Torrance, Calif.
JANICE Bryant Howroyd never saw herself as much
of a gambler. But she managed to parlay a $ 1,500 family loan
into one of the most successful female-owned businesses in
As the owner and chief executive officer of ACT•1, a
personnel servicing company based in Torrance, Calif., that has
75 offices nationwide and projected 2002 revenues of more than $
270 million, she has a roster of clients that includes Ford
Motors, the Gap, Sempra Energy and Toyota Motor Sales. As an
example of the company's effectiveness, since 1997, it has
placed approximately 92,000 workers.
ACT•1, which supplies technical and professional
staffing, is only one of her diversified business ventures. She
also owns a travel agency, a background-check and drug-screening
service, and an electronic records maintenance company. Another
part of her empire is California National University for
Advanced Studies, which focuses on continuous education and
offers degrees in business administration and engineering as
well as human resources certificates. For all her ventures, she
says, the income projections are in excess of $ 520 million
Being a nationally recognized businesswoman was not even on
Bryant Howroyd's radar when she, a painfully shy woman, left her
home in Tarboro, N.C., to relax and visit a sister in Los
Angeles in 1978. But she enjoyed herself and was convinced to
continue extending that trip well beyond her original plans.
"I knew I couldn't become an eternal visitor," she
recalls. "So I needed to be employed, and my sister's
husband gave me a job as his assistant at Billboard magazine. I
started out as a temporary worker and they never wanted me to
go. They were fascinated that I knew what needed to happen in an
Unlike many who have gravitated to Tinsel Town, Bryant Howroyd
wasn't using her job as a stepping-stone to success on the
screen or stage. She realized that she enjoyed organizing
offices and helping people get temporary and direct hire jobs at
Billboard and other firms. Companies, especially the
entertainment-related ones, were impressed that she could send
workers who were dependable and not using the assignments as a
ladder to Hollywood immortality.
After gaining enough confidence to believe that she could go out
on her own, Bryant Howroyd got the $ 1,500 loan in 1978, a
telephone and leased a small space. Then she relied on what she
calls "the WOMB method" to secure business. "I
call it WOMB because it's 'Word Of Mouth, Brother!' That's how I
got to know people and develop business relationships."
To compete with other companies, she decided to make her focus
getting just the right people for the right businesses.
"Back in those days, if it didn't work out, you had to give
the money back," she says. "I focus on keeping the
humanity in human resources and helping people achieve healthy
Word of mouth helped her expand her connections and business
clients for contract labor far beyond the entertainment
business. Soon ACT•1 was supplying temporary and
direct hire workers for manufacturing, pharmaceutical, aerospace,
banking, insurance and telecommunications companies.
Bryant Howroyd had an English degree from North Carolina
A&T, but she found that her business acumen had more to do
with her love for organization than her skills with written
words. She attributes those organizational skills to her
parents, who, with love and high expectations, successfully ran
a home with 11 children.
ACT•1 now has eight members of the Bryant family working
in various capacities. They all came aboard long after they had
enjoyed success in other corporations around the country, she
quickly explains. Her brother Carlton, a vice president of the
company who has a financial background and interest in systems
designs, helped develop software that allows companies to remove
much of the manual processes associated with paying people.
She points out that the software program and others have helped ACT•1
take advantage of technology to remain current in helping
clients with the bottom line.
Bryant Howroyd has an 18-year-old daughter, Katharyn, at the
University of Southern California and a 17-year-old son, Brett,
in high school. Both helped their mother get ACT•1 off
the ground. Her husband, Bernard Howroyd, is also an
entrepreneur who runs his own company in the L.A. area.
Eighty percent of Bryant Howroyd's time is spent outside the
office cultivating and expanding her business relationships. She
has received numerous business awards from various organizations
and wants to use the attention lavished on her to encourage
Black youngsters to focus on education.
The business is far more competitive than when she first entered
it, she recalls. But she manages to keep ACT•1 at the
forefront. "I always surround myself with the best
people." Now, she spends both professional and personal
time pushing Black youngsters to focus on education.
Looking back on her 24 years in the business, Bryant Howroyd
says family and education helped her most, and that she believes
those factors can help other women to achieve their goals.
Deryl McKissack Greene
McKissack & McKissack of Washington
SHE was making a lot of money as executive assistant to the
president of Howard University. But when she left to start her
own architectural firm, Deryl McKissack Greene made only $ 3,000
during her first year of business and had to use her parents'
credit card to buy groceries. "I cried every day,"
McKissack Greene recalls. "I had a bottle of Visine in my
glove compartment because I didn't want my employees to see that
I had been crying."
But hard work and persistence paid off in the end, and now
McKissack & McKissack of Washington is a $ 20 million
operation that handles more than $ 3 billion worth of projects
within the Washington, D.C., area. A product of the famous
McKissack family, which has run the Nashville firm of McKissack
& McKissack since 1905, McKissack Greene has taken a family
tradition started nearly a century ago and built one of the most
prominent architectural firms on the East Coast. "I'm glad
I did this by myself," says the company's president and
CEO. "This is all mine. I can do what I want to do with
After graduating from Howard University with a civil engineering
degree in 1983, McKissack Greene worked as an engineer and a
construction manager before returning to Howard in 1988. As
executive assistant to the president, she managed the 133
buildings and facilities on the university's Washington, D.C.,
campus and a capital budget of $ 200 million.
When she left Howard in 1990, she received a number of job
offers, but none of them excited her. That's when she decided to
start her own business with just $ 1,000. Though her background
was more in engineering than in architecture, she banked on her
family's reputation, which goes back five generations, to the
pre-Civil War 1800s and rural Tennessee.
McKissack Greene started her architectural firm in 1990, at a
time when Washington, D.C., had a miniscule construction
industry. There was one building in the city under construction
and all the major companies in the area were either downsizing
or going out of business, she says. Seeing this as a perfect
opportunity to grab immediate business, McKissack Greene
compiled a list of 150 contacts. Her first contract was a $
5,000 project for Georgetown University, which she got through a
contact from her old position at Howard. Georgetown continued to
give her projects.
Little by little, McKissack Greene received more work with
different colleges. But running a business costs money. After
paying business expenses and salaries, McKissack Greene's
take-home that first year was $ 3,000. She managed a way to live
that first year, with the help of friends and family.
Hairdressers styled her hair for free. Friends paid for meals.
McKissack Greene's business grew consistently -- she made $
6,000 her second year and $ 27,000 the third year -- before she
scored her biggest contract. After she began to receive
contracts for federal projects, the young entrepreneur met with
then-Secretary of Treasury Robert E. Rubin for lunch in 1994.
After that meeting, she either called the office or visited the
Treasury building every two weeks for the next two years, asking
to work on a project. Finally, the department relented and gave
her a $ 200,000 project to review designs.
McKissack Greene's timing was perfect. The day after she signed
her contract with the department in June 1996, she received a
call from the U.S. Secret Service. The Treasury building was
damaged by fire and they needed her at the site. By 6 a.m. the
next day, McKissack Greene had been put in charge of the
cleanup, a $ 10 million project. The firm worked around the
clock and completed the assignment in three months. Because of
that effort, her company was hired to manage the renovation and
restoration of the Treasury Building, a $ 200 million project.
"That really turned my company around," McKissack
During this prosperous time, McKissack Greene married Washington
entrepreneur Marion (Duke) Greene, who also serves as the firm's
executive vice president. The firm also has other high-profile
assignments, including the new Washington Convention Center and
a new headquarters and laboratory facilities for the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Now that her company is doing so well, McKissack Greene says her
next step is to make the McKissack & McKissack name
recognizable on the regional level within the next two to three
years, and hopefully to become national in five years. In order
to do that, McKissack Greene says the firm needs to earn revenue
of more than $ 100 million and expand into other cities.
Shirley L. Gross-Moore
Barrington Dodge, Barrington, Ill.
When Shirley L. Gross-Moore moved into the driver's seat at
Barrington Dodge in November 1988, some people said she would
last only six months; others didn't give her that long. Now,
over 13 years later, Barrington Dodge in suburban Chicago has
not only survived, it has thrived. Moore has expanded to a
second location nearby, and Barrington Dodge is now a Five-Star
dealer, the highest ranking possible from the manufacturer.
Moving from low expectations to the highest standard of
excellence in the male-dominated world of automobiles has been
gratifying for Moore. "It's quite a feeling of
accomplishment knowing that you've done this in a predominantly
male world," says the stylish Moore in an office filled
with various plaques and awards. "I don't see why any woman
can't do this; all it takes is some hard work and common
A native of Detroit, Moore attended Wayne State University and
worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 11 years. It was
through this experience at the IRS that Moore first thought of
the idea of business ownership. But it was running an accounting
firm -- not owning a car dealership -- that she initially had in
mind. Moore wanted to help small minority businesses with their
accounting procedures through her own business.
But her life dreams took a dramatic turn in 1986 while she
worked as the public affairs director at a Detroit television
station. A fellow student in a graduate class at Central
Michigan University suggested that she look into the dealer
development programs offered by the Big Three automakers:
Chrysler (now DaimlerChrysler), Ford and General Motors.
Moore says the Chrysler program attracted her because of, at
that time, its small class size and the guarantee that graduates
would be placed with a dealership. She attended the program for
two-and-a-half years and was trained in all aspects of the
operation, including the "dirty work."
Moore arrived at Barrington Dodge as the general manager in
November 1988 and served in that capacity for two years. She
successfully completed her purchase of the dealership in 1995.
What was at first a struggling business in one building with a
staff of 21 that sold an average of 45 cars per month became a
top-notch dealership with two locations, 50 employees and an
average of 145 cars sold per month. The company had an estimated
$ 63 million in sales for 2001.
"[I accomplished that] by working unbelievable hours and
constantly striving to get the best people available,"
Moore says. "The people make the difference. Longevity
makes a difference as well. After you've been here so long, you
gain credibility . . . There was a lot of hard work, but we
turned it around. By giving my employees responsibilities and
expecting great things from them, I get those things from
Moore's day-to-day responsibilities are managing what she calls
a "wonderful staff," holding management meetings once
per week, signing the ever-important checks and coordinating the
overall functions of the dealership. She has served on numerous
local boards and regularly attends seminars to stay updated on
changes in the community and the industry. Moore was also the
first Black chairperson of the Barrington Chamber of Commerce.
Moore believes any woman can be a viable CEO as long as she is
prepared to do serious work toward completing that goal. All
roads begin with education, says Moore, who has two business
administration degrees: a bachelor of arts from Wayne State
University and a master of arts from Central Michigan
"The first thing a person should do is to get all of the
education [she] can," she says. "It's important that
you have knowledge in so many areas to operate a business,
whether it is small or large."
Establishing good credit to greatly improve the chances of
securing a loan, researching the potential market and having
faith are also important in starting a business, Moore says.
Once the business is up and running, it's just the beginning.
"I am constantly looking for new ideas and new ways to
improve our business," Moore says. "That's a very
important part about being a CEO: to be a visionary, looking to
see what it is out there, what we can do and how we can improve
For the past 13 years, that vision has kept Rams, Durangos,
Dakotas, Neons and other vehicles rolling briskly out of
Saundra B. Parks
The Daily Blossom, New York City
AT one point when New Yorker Saundra B. Parks was working out of
her apartment, trying to get her floral design business off the
ground, her best friend fell asleep on the couch with her coat
on. Flowers need cold air, and the whole apartment had been
refrigerated to protect the delicate petals and blossoms.
It is that type of support and sacrifice from family members and
friends that Parks, who is single, credits with helping her get
where she is today -- owner and president and CEO of The Daily
Blossom, a high-end floral design firm that boasts an A-list of
celebrity clients, including Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton,
Eddie Murphy and Jay-Z. "I was really raised to be an
entrepreneur," says Parks, whose father built his own
landscaping business. "And it was just natural for me to go
It was roughly 12 years ago that Parks stepped off the corporate
ladder at her father's urging and went into the "emotions
business" of flowers. In starting her company, Parks, a
Vassar College graduate, read everything she could about
flowers, took a course in floral design at New York's Botanical
Gardens and used her advertising and marketing background to
peddle sumptuous floral arrangements and original designs.
Today, flowers are flown in from all over the world, including
such exotic locales as the Netherlands, France, New Zealand,
South Africa and Italy, to create designs that have been called
simple, sexy, masculine when necessary, and even traditional
when the client makes such a request. Parks won't divulge how
much her business is worth.
The Daily Blossom also designs centerpieces, table settings and
decorations for special events, such as Toni Morrison's 70th
birthday party and Spike Lee's wedding. Parks and her staff of
15 (usually doubled during the holidays) are often hired to
create the whole mood and ambiance for such occasions. "For
us, every arrangement that we do has a personal style,"
says Parks during a phone interview from the company's
headquarters, a production loft with administrative offices (a
retail boutique is located in Midtown). "Part of the
success of this business is understanding the culture of the
The hardest part about starting The Daily Blossom all those
years ago was standing out in New York, a "tough city"
with a reputation for having some of the best products and
services you can find. Parks' goal was to begin with corporate
clients and build a reputation for on-time delivery, staying
open late to fill a last-minute order, and just exceeding
expectations. "It was about getting out there every day,
breaking down the barriers," says Parks, who has also
designed for American Express and Philip Morris. "We want
to make our client get a rave phone call from a friend the next
Parks feels that what makes her designs stand out are surprising
color, texture and accessories -- color where you would normally
see something in white, bark where you would expect a baby's
breath or fruit where you would expect flowers. People always
want to be surprised or caught off-guard by an arrangement,
Parks says, and that's what she tries to do. She brings
"style into your home."
The Daily Blossom recently started a basket line and is looking
to expand to the home luxury and candle and fragrance business.
Parks also wants to open shops in other areas of the country and
do more work in the entertainment industry. "Floral design
is really a reflection of emotion and feeling," says Parks.
"Flowers punctuate people's lives . . . and at the end of
the day, people feel good."
FINE ARTS by TODD, Atlanta
WHEN Louise Todd was a young girl in Glendale, Ohio, she was
always making money -- cleaning homes, mowing lawns,
babysitting, typing resumes and church bulletins, and sewing
Family members told Todd that she was just like her father, a
man who held down three or four jobs at a time to support his
family -- a man who died when she was just 2 years old.
"My family always said, 'You're just like your
Daddy,'" says Todd, whose life after her father's death was
extremely difficult. "I liked having little jobs in the
community . . . I loved having my own money. I didn't realize
that I was being an entrepreneur."
The love of doing things her way -- of having her own money --
has manifested itself in Fine Arts By Todd, one of the country's
leading publishers and distributors of African-American art.
"It's been wonderful," says Todd, who started
collecting art in the 1960s, shortly after she started working
as a stenographer for Andrew Jergens Co., right out of high
school. "I can remember when many galleries wouldn't even
look at African-American artists."
Acquiring a taste for Black art through her travels and
friendships with various artists, Todd, the company's founder,
president and CEO, started selling artwork part-time out of her
home in 1983 by investing $ 50,000 of her retirement funds and
profit sharing from her then-employer, Procter & Gamble, and
published and sold prints of new artwork.
With the profits, Todd left her job at the Fortune 500 company
and leased a 10,000-square-foot warehouse, which she converted
into administrative offices, a gallery, distribution center and
frame shop, the last of which is managed by her partner, James
Fine Arts by Todd has showcased proven artists such as the late
William Tolliver as well as emerging artists such as Tolliver's
stepbrother, Kenneth Humphrey, Latrell DuBose, Lee White, Alfred
Gorkel and Charles Bibb. "Initially, as a
publisher-distributor, we looked for talent," says Todd,
who mentors young artists. "Now, talent looks for us."
The company was flying high, with reported revenues of more than
$ 500,000 in 1997 and roughly $ 750,000 the following year.
When the economy slowed down, the demand for luxury items
declined, and Todd was forced to close the retail portion of her
business in 2000. "Art is a luxury product, so it's not
something people really think they need," says Todd, a
divorced mother of one adult son, Eric. "The biggest
challenge is to show people how important art can be."
This time, though, people showed her. Loyal customers from the
Afrocentric art gallery asked her to reopen, to try again. Last
year, she found a different, smaller location with more retail
traffic and not only reopened the gallery, but maintained
operations and administrative offices.
The new space is a cozier, more artsy incarnation of Fine Arts
by Todd. "It was almost like people insisted that we
stay," says Todd, who works with corporate and residential
clients to build a collection of just about any art form --
paintings, photographs, sculptures and the like. "And the
world tells us that they love it."
The award-winning entrepreneur supports and is a community
partner in several organizations, including the Atlanta Kiwanis
Club, Atlanta Business League and 100 Black Women. "Not
only are we a growing business and an asset to the community,
but also we're supporting the community," Todd says.
"That's really important to us."
The company is looking to expand into other markets. Todd says
she would like to see African-American art showcased in more
corporations, more movies, television shows and special events.
She wants more people to view art as an investment in our
And so this business-minded woman with the "soul of an
artist" is still doing one thing that brings her joy and
sometimes touches her so deeply that it makes her cry. "I'm
an entrepreneur from my soul," says Todd. "The key to
success is to bring something special. I strive to be the
Director of Marketing