The founder and publisher of Black Enterprise, Earl Gilbert Graves Sr., was an internationally recognized authority on black-owned businesses, a guru for African-American entrepreneurs and a tireless advocate for black business and consumer power. Sadly, Graves died Monday night at the age of 85 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, according to his son, current Black Enterprise CEO and president, Earl Butch Graves Jr., who announced the news on Twitter.
Born Jan. 9, 1935, Graves Sr. was raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Graves attributed his success to his upbringing in a middle-class community that was removed from the more raucous nightlife of Harlem. His father worked as a shipping clerk in New York’s garment district and from an early age, Graves was interested in business. At the age of 7, he sold boxed Christmas cards for his uncle, recalling that his father only allowed him to sell to people on the family’s side of the block.
While attending college at Morgan State University, where he joined Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and was in ROTC, the enterprising young Graves cut a deal with two competing florists to sell flowers on campus during the popular and profitable Homecoming Week. The florists, who didn’t like venturing onto the historically black college campus, gave Graves the flowers to sell for a percentage of the earnings.
In 1958, Graves graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics and served for two years in the U.S. Army, where he became a captain in the Green Beret unit. Upon returning home, he worked in real estate and for the Boy Scouts of America before volunteering for the 1964 presidential election campaign of Lyndon B. Johnson. During that same year, he joined the staff of the newly elected Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and spent four years as Kennedy’s administrative assistant. Graves was also in the entourage with Kennedy the evening he was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968.
“The enormity of his death stayed with me,” Graves said in a Los Angeles Times interview 30 years later. “When I went back a year later to Los Angeles, I sat up all night staring out the window, thinking, ‘What would it all have been had Kennedy lived?’ I believe this would be a different country than we have today.”
After Kennedy’s death, Graves, in search of a new venture, joined the advisory board of the Small Business Administration. His experience on the board led Graves to start an annual newsletter that addressed key issues affecting black businesspeople and highlighted the power of black capitalism.
Director of the SBA Howard J. Samuels urged Graves to expand the newsletter into a magazine. Many thought it was ambitious to start up a news publication targeting the black business community, particularly since there were only about 100,000 black-owned ventures at the time. But Graves thought the timing was right. In 2003, he told Fortune Small Business magazine, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 cleared the way for policies designed to level the playing field for minority-owned businesses. In 1968, the SBA launched a program to help minority-owned firms compete for government contracts. In 1969, President Nixon signed Executive Order 11458, which directed the Secretary of Commerce to coordinate the federal government’s efforts to promote minority enterprise, in effect creating the Minority Business Development Agency.”
With a loan from the SBA, in 1970 Graves helped transform the newsletter into Black Enterprise magazine. BE was a hit from its first year and became profitable after just 10 issues. The magazine became known for its ranking of the top black-owned companies by revenue. The listing expanded as the number of black-owned businesses grew and their revenues increased; it’s now divided by industry. The magazine also publishes statistical information on Fortune 500 and other companies that are favorable places for black professionals to work.
Graves also launched Earl G. Graves Ltd., which would become a parent company with various units in addition to the publishing division—including management consulting, marketing, radio, television and event coordinating. Graves and his wife Barbara, whom he married in 1960, had three sons—all of whom have worked at his eponymous firm (including Earl G. Graves, Jr., who became president and CEO of Earl G. Graves Publishing Co.). The parent company is also co-owner of the private equity fund Black Enterprise Greenwich Street Corporate Growth Fund, which invests in and markets established minority-owned or -managed businesses.
As part of a $60 million deal he made with Earvin “Magic” Johnson in 1990, Graves became chairman and chief executive officer of a Washington, D.C.-based Pepsi Cola bottling franchise. (He held the top post until 1998, when Pepsi bought back the franchise.) The venture was the largest minority-owned franchise at the time, and the rare occasion that Pepsi allowed someone outside of the company to buy one of its distribution units.
As a member of the board of directors at Aetna starting in 1994, Graves sat on a number of other company boards, including those of AMR Corp., Daimler AG, Federated Dept. Stores, and Rohm and Haas. He was a member of the board of trustees at Howard University and a member of the professional African-American fraternity Sigma Pi Phi. He published How to Succeed in Business Without Being White in 1998. A fervent believer in the power of education, Graves was a member of the advisory board of the Ron Brown Scholar Program, which provides promising African-American youths with scholarships as well as service and leadership opportunities.
Throughout his life, Graves received more than 60 honorary degrees and numerous awards. In 1988 the Boy Scouts of America honored him with its Silver Buffalo Award. He received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 1999, and in 2002 Fortune magazine named him one of the 50 Most Powerful and Influential African Americans in Corporate America. He was also named one of the Top 100 Business News Luminaries of the Century by the TJFR Group and MasterCard International.
In 1995 his alma mater, Morgan State University, renamed its business school the Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management. In 2006, Graves accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Black Journalists for his contributions to journalism and the publishing industry. At that ceremony, he explained, “When I founded Black Enterprise magazine…my dream was a publication that represented, empowered and spoke the truth about America’s black business and professional class. To a degree, I think that we have succeeded.”
Monée Fields-White is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.