These ten CEOs are at the top of their game. They’ve built impressive careers, made insane fortunes, and influenced their industries. They are also all African Americans, which is unfortunately still a rarity in corporate America. While white men have long dominated the corporate boardrooms of the U.S., we now live in a time when many different cultures, races, and genders are represented at the top of the corporate ladder. Thank God for that! What sets these CEOs apart from other lists of most successful CEOs–a list of the top female CEOs, for example–is the diversity of the paths each of these ten people took in order to achieve their wealth and success. So let’s take a look ten of the most successful African American CEOs of all time.
Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter
CEO, Roc Nation
Net worth: $560 million
Jay-Z isn’t just a rap and hip-hop artist himself; he’s also a very successful record producer and the CEO of Roc Nation. Oh, and like any self-respecting hip-hop mogul, he also has a clothing line. Every single album he’s ever released has gone platinum. He is a successful entrepreneur outside of the music business with investments in clothing and record companies, and he is the co-owner of the 40/40 Clubs in New York City, Atlantic City, and Chicago. He was also part owner of NBA’s New Jersey Nets. But Jay-Z didn’t come from money. He grew up poor in the housing projects in New York City. Today, he is a super star worth more than half a billion dollars, is married to Beyonce, and he is poised to reign at the top of the hip-hop industry for many years to come.
CEO, American Express
Net Worth: $90 million
Kenneth Chenault is the third African American to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Chenault received his B.A. from Bowdoin College in 1973 and J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1976. After spending a few years practicing law, Chenault joined American Express in 1981 as a part of the Strategic Planning Group. He became President and COO of American Express in 1997. In 2001 he was named CEO of American Express.
Sean “P Diddy” Combs
CEO, Bad Boy Entertainment
CEO, Sean John Clothing
Net Worth: $700 million
Whether he’s going by Puffy, Puff Daddy, P Diddy, Diddy, or just plain Sean Combs, he is one of the wealthiest and most successful people in the hip-hop industry. Combs was born in 1969 in Harlem. While attending Howard University in Washington D.C., he started working as a party promoter, eventually landing an internship at Uptown Records in New York City. He dropped out of Howard to devote himself to music and was soon promoted to an executive position at Uptown. While at Uptown, Combs discovered and managed musicians like Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. He went on to create his own label, Bad Boy Records, where his client list included The Notorious B.I.G. and where he produced albums for Usher, Mariah Carey, Boys II Men, and the legendary Aretha Franklin. He then went on to launch his own successful hip-hop career and clothing line, he got involved in high profile relationships, and generally cemented his reputation as a very successful recording executive, producer, rapper, actor, and men’s clothing designer.
CEO, Def Jam Records
Net Worth: $325 million
Russell Simmons co-founded the hip-hop music label Def Jam, launching the cultural movement of hip-hop with artists such as The Beastie Boys, Will Smith, and LL Cool J back in the 1980s. Def Jam either launched or produced pretty much every rap act you can think of at some point in time. He also founded the clothing lines Phat Farm, Argyleculture, and American Classics. Simmons has been described as hip-hop’s third-richest mogul with a net worth of $325 million.
CEO, Dangote Group
Net Worth: $21.6 billion
The only non-American on this list, Aliko Dangote is a Nigerian business magnate who owns the eponymous Dangote Group, which operates in the commodities field. Dangote is based in Nigeria and also does business in other African countries, including Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, South Africa, Togo, and Zambia. Forbes ranks Dangote as the 23rd-richest person in the world and the richest person in Africa. He is also the world’s richest person of African origin. His business has greatly contributed to the economic development of Nigeria, as his is the largest industrial conglomerate in West Africa. The Dangote Group employs more than 11,000 people in industries such as sugar refining, flour mills, food distribution, and cement. In fact, The Dangote Group’s businesses account for one fourth of all businesses on the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
Robert L. Johnson
Founder, former CEO, BET – Black Entertainment Television
Current CEO, RLJ
Net Worth: $550 million
Robert Johnson launched Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 1980. BET was the first television network with programming aimed at African Americans. In 1991, BET also became the first African American controlled company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2000 Viacom acquired BET for $3 billion. Johnson left BET in 2006. Johnson gave the world a vehicle for the voice of all things African American. From movies, to R&B music, to television shows, and hip-hop, BET aired (and continues to air) all of it. Also, keep in mind that Mr. Johnson’s net worth would be much higher, had he not had to pay his ex-wife Sheila Johnson $400 million when they divorced in 2002.
Yearly Salary: $2,487,019
Ursula Burns is a true success story. She is a first-generation American who was raised in the housing projects of New York City by her single, Panamanian mother. She got her bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from NYU in 1980 and her Master’s from Columbia in 1981. She joined Xerox as a summer intern in 1980 and worked her way up through the ranks until she was named CEO in 2009. She is ranked as the 14th-most powerful woman in the world.
CEO, Merck & Co., Inc.
Kenneth Frazier is the first African American to lead a major pharmaceutical company. After getting his J.D. at Harvard Law, he joined Merck & Co. as general counsel and led the company’s defense litigation over the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx. Frazier is also an active and successful pro bono lawyer who was responsible for the release of a wrongly accused Alabama man from death row.
Yearly Salary: $15 million
CEO Bridgeman Foods Inc.
Net Worth: $400 million
Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman is an NBA veteran who had a moderately successful 12-year career playing for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers. Unlike most athletes, Junior was quick to realize that his window of time in the NBA would be relatively short. So, on a whim, Junior decided to purchase a franchise of his favorite fast food restaurant: Wendy’s. After nearly 25 years in business, Bridgeman Foods INC operates more than 160 Wendy’s and more than 120 Chili’s franchises in America. Bridgeman employs over 11,000 people and has annual revenues in excess of $530 million dollars.
CEO, The Oprah Winfrey Network
Net Worth: $2.9 billion
It’s hard to believe it now, but once upon a time Oprah Winfrey was told she wasn’t right for television. Such sentiments, of course, are laughable considering the media empire she has built, the 25 years “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was on the air, and the effect she has had on millions of people’s lives. She is America’s most beloved talk show host, actress, producer, lifestyle maven, magazine owner, and book club president. Her $2.9 billion net worth is a long way from her impoverished beginnings in Tennessee where she grew up wearing potato sack dresses. Now, nearly everything she touches turns into a huge success.