Black, Female and in Charge

During Women's History Month, The Root surveys the accomplishments of 20 black women who became CEOs.

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    Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images; Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

    These 20 black female business leaders have all shared the same title: chief executive officer. But they’re also known as mentors, philanthropists and role models with business savvy and ambition that transcend race and gender. During Women’s History Month, we took a look at their career trajectories and history-making successes.

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    Rosalind G. Brewer

    Glass ceiling? If there was one, Brewer broke right through it and then did it again for good measure. When she took over as Sam’s Club president and CEO in January, she became the first female and first African-American CEO of a Wal-Mart division. It’s no wonder she was asked to serve on the boards of Lockheed Martin and her alma mater, Spelman College.

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    Ursula M. Burns

    She started off paying her dues as a summer intern with Xerox in 1980. By the looks of her career trajectory, she hasn’t stopped working hard since. In 2007 Burns became president of the company, and in 2009 she was named CEO. She didn’t waste any time before making the largest acquisition in Xerox history and accepting an invitation from Barack Obama to chair the President’s Export Council.

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    Johannesburg Stock Exchange

    Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita

    With a production capacity of 7.8 million tons annually, ArcelorMittal South Africa is the biggest steel producer on the African continent, and CEO Nyembezi-Heita has overseen it all since taking on her leadership role with the company in 2008. Her master’s degrees in business administration and science give her the tools to keep the mining giant going in a tough economy, and her extensive business background — including a previous role as chief officer of mergers and acquisitions for the Vodacom Group — probably doesn’t hurt, either.

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    Siza Mzimela

    Mzimela, the CEO of South African Airways since 2003, got her start with the company as a research analyst in 1996 and moved up through the ranks. Her leadership hasn’t gone unnoticed: She was appointed to the International Air Transport Association’s board of directors in 2010, making her the first female member to join in 67 years. Even Oprah recognized this trailblazer, inviting her to sit on the board of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.

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    Desiree Rogers

    Rogers transitioned from serving as White House social secretary for the nation’s first African-American president to a role as CEO at the world’s largest black-owned and -operated publishing company: Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Co. She immediately got to work pulling the Ebony and Jet creator out of a readership crisis. Since she’s been at the helm, circulation has surged.

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    Debra L. Lee

    After joining BET Holdings in 1986 as vice president and general counsel, Lee took charge of strategic business development in 1995 and became chairman and CEO 10 years later. She has said that she heard the criticism “loud and clear” when the network primarily aired music videos that many thought were derogatory to women, and she has worked to change that with programs like Black Girls Rock! Her rule for the network’s programming: “It has to have a message.”

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    Who says you can’t be a fashion icon and a business leader all at once? Born in Somalia and discovered by a photographer in New York, Iman is founder and CEO of Iman Cosmetics, a brand worn by women of color everywhere. After years of modeling, she started the company in 1994, inspired by her own experience matching foundation to her skin tone. On the side, she’s an author and a philanthropist focusing on Congolese women and girls.

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    Oprah Winfrey

    Did anyone really think that Winfrey was going to take a break after the final episode of her daily talk show? As CEO and chief creative officer of OWN, the cable network she launched in partnership with Discovery Communications, she’s behind the scenes now, and she has said that it’s “10 times harder than doing my daily show.”

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    Sheila C. Johnson

    As CEO of Salamander Hospitality — a company she founded in 1995 — Johnson oversees a slew of luxury properties. The founding partner of BET (she pioneered the network’s Teen Summit), she is also the first black woman to have a stake in three professional sports teams. Not to mention, as a dedicated supporter of arts and education, she sits on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

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    Tracey E. Edmonds

    She had years of experience in the entertainment industry as a studio executive and award-winning producer of television, music and film projects, so it was no surprise when Edmonds struck out on her own to create Edmonds Entertainment, where she serves as CEO. She is also the chief operating officer and president of Our Stories Films, where she gives the green light to creative projects geared toward people of color.

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    Janice Bryant Howroyd

    Howroyd says she started Act•1 Personnel Services with a $1,500 loan from a family member, combined with great instincts for matching up temporary workers with the firms that need them. This ambitious CEO didn’t stop there — she also owns a background-check and drug-screening service, a travel agency and an electronic-records-maintenance company. Her motto: “Growing a global business is all about doing something good for the world.”

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    Kim D. Saunders

    Saunders has been president and CEO of M&F Bancorp and its wholly owned subsidiary, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, since 2007. She is the second woman in the history of Mechanics and Farmers Bank to hold those positions. This graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania had the same distinction in her previous career at Consolidated Bank and Trust Co. Under her leadership, that business returned to profitability for the first time in six years.

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    (With Bill Thompson, former NYC comptroller) Jemal Countess

    Suzanne Shank

    A founder and co-owner of municipal finance firm Siebert Brandford Shank & Co., Shank has been its president and CEO since the day it opened and has overseen municipal financings totaling more than $850 billion. She says her long-standing passion for public service (she originally wanted to be a social worker) inspired her to create the Detroit Summer Finance Institute — an internship program for high school students who want to be as successful in the field as she has been.

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    Adriane M. Brown

    Brown‘s Intellectual Ventures funds the creation of new inventions, and as president and COO, she is charged with using her nearly 30 years of management experience to execute the company’s strategy. It was undoubtedly her success in her previous position as CEO of Honeywell Transportation Systems that made her an appealing candidate for the high-powered positions at Intellectual Ventures. She gives back by serving on the board of Jobs for America’s Graduates, the nation’s leading dropout-prevention program, and acting as a mentor to women and girls.

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    Angela Benton

    The CEO of Black Web Media worked in design, marketing, development and digital strategy before taking on the role of publisher at Black Web 2.0, the leading publication for African Americans interested in technology and new media. Benton most recently founded the NewMe Accelerator, which supports minority-led startups.

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    Comfort Cake

    Amy S. Hilliard

    Hilliard‘s Comfort Cake Co. distributes Southern-style pound cakes through food-service and retail chains (United Airlines, Chicago Public Schools and Nordstrom’s, to name a few). Its success got this CEO — an honors graduate of both Howard University and Harvard Business School — elected to the board of directors of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. She’s the first African American ever to hold that position.

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    Roxbury Technology

    Beth Williams

    When Williams‘ father, the founder of Roxbury Technology Corp. (a distributor of recycled toner cartridges), passed away, she had to learn fast to take over as CEO. She eventually launched a new division at the company, despite briefly losing her sight to medical problems.

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    Twitter (@Zuhairah)

    Zuhairah Scott

    A graduate of Harvard’s law and business schools, Scott is founder and CEO of Kahnoodle, a dating startup. With experience at Goldman Sachs, MTV and Booz Allen Hamilton, Scott decided to strike out on her own to build what she calls “the first mobile productivity tool for couples.”

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    Madam C.J. Walker

    The original black CEO, Walker was the country’s first self-made female millionaire. She was president and sole shareholder of all 1,000 shares of stock of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co. of Indiana and an undisputed leader in what she called the “hair-growing business.” When she died in 1919, she had created one of the largest black-owned manufacturing companies in the world.

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    Linda Johnson Rice

    Rice was only 29 years old when she was named president and CEO of Johnson Publishing Co. back in 1987 and remained one of the few black women to hold such a high-ranking position for much of her career. (Desiree Rogers replaced her after she stepped down in 2010; she remains chairman.) Over the years she has spearheaded efforts to develop Johnson products for the global market of African-American women, including Ebony Cosmetics.