Biography of Earl Gilbert Graves, Jr.
Bith Date: January 9, 1935
Place of Birth: New York, New York, United States
American publishing magnate Earl Graves (born 1935) launched his empire in 1972 with Black Enterprise magazine. Coming less than a decade after new U.S. federal civil rights legislation had been enacted, the magazine soon became the standard-bearer for upwardly mobile African Americans.
Working-Class Family Upbringing
Graves was born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 9, 1935, and grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. His father worked as a shipping clerk in New York's garment district. Bedford-Stuyvesant, far from the nightclubs and jazz of Harlem, was home to many similar working-class black families. Many owned their own homes, as Graves later pointed out in an interview with Los Angeles Times writer Lee Romney. "I swept the sidewalk once a day and God forbid if I didn't bring the garbage cans in after the garbage had been collected," he recalled. "From that environment came the idea of wanting to do something of my own...." Still, entrepreneurship seemed an unlikely avenue to success for a black man in that era; as Graves wrote in his book, How to Succeed in Business Without Being White: Straight Talk on Making It in America, "the concept of being black and in business was still considered to be almost seditious even when I was a student at Morgan State University in Baltimore from 1953 to 1957."
During his time at the historically black college in Baltimore, Maryland, Graves earned money by delivering flowers on campus, at a time when the local florists would not venture there. He earned a degree in economics in 1958 and served two years in the U.S. Army, leaving with the rank of captain in the elite Green Beret unit. Back home in New York City, he dabbled in real estate and worked for the Boy Scouts of America before joining the staff of New York's newly elected U.S. senator, Robert F. Kennedy, in 1964. Graves spent four years as Kennedy's administrative assistant and was in the Kennedy entourage the night the senator, campaigning to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in June 1968. As he told Romney in the Los Angeles Times interview 30 years later, "The enormity of his death stayed with me. 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."
Empowerment Through Economic Success
Devastated, Graves sought a new direction in his life. While serving on an advisory board to the Small Business Administration, he launched his own management consulting firm. By the late 1960s, the civil rights movement had paved the way for black empowerment and the concept of "black capitalism." Proponents believed that a liberated American society would come only when minority communities thrived with their own businesses.
With this in mind, Graves founded Black Enterprise magazine in New York City in 1970. At the time, only the Johnson Company in Chicago issued magazines targeted at black readers in the United States: Ebony and Jet. Many believed Graves was too optimistic in starting a magazine aimed at African American businesspeople. At the time, there were only about 100,000 black-owned businesses in the United States, and most of them were small, family-run, neighborhood operations. Only three of the 3,000 business leaders who were serving on the boards of Fortune 500 companies were African Americans. "Lacking capital, managerial and technical knowledge and crippled by prejudice, the minority businessman has been effectively kept out of the marketplace. We want to help change this," Graves declared in Black Enterprise's first issue in August 1970.
"The BE 100"
Graves's publication was a success within its first year, becoming profitable after just ten issues. In June 1973, the magazine started listing its Black Enterprise 100, ranking the top black-owned companies in America by revenues. At the time, Berry Gordy's music and entertainment company, Motown, was number one on the list, and it remained there for a record eleven years. In time, as black-owned businesses grew in both number and revenues, the magazine expanded its rankings to list banks and insurance companies, auto dealerships, and other enterprises; it also began to publish statistics on Fortune 500 and other companies that were positive places for African Americans to work or to join as franchisees.
Graves expanded his empire over the years. He acquired several radio stations, and in 1990, in a much-heralded deal, joined with Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson to acquire the distribution rights for Pepsi-Cola products in the Washington, D.C. area. It was a $60 million deal, and their venture became the largest minority-owned franchise in the United States at that time. It was all the more remarkable because Pepsi rarely allowed outsiders to acquire its lucrative local distribution franchises. "Pepsi-Cola made the conscious decision, to their credit, to identify a minority person who could be a successful bottler," Graves told Beverage World's Tim Davis. "And I wanted Washington, DC. I looked at other areas that were not necessarily minority. The population here is 80 percent minority, but the fact of the matter is that this is the seat of government for western civilization. And the beverage of choice right now is Pepsi-Cola."
Graves later bought out Johnson's shares and sold the Pepsi franchise back to the company in 1998, taking a post as chairman of Pepsi's customer advisory and ethnic marketing committee. By this time he also sat on the boards of several Fortune 500 corporations, among them Chrysler Corporation, Aetna Inc., American Airlines, and Federated Department Stores. "Let's be frank: African Americans are not invited to join the boards of white-owned companies because the world has run out of smart white people," he wrote in How to Succeed in Business Without Being White. "We are expected to add a unique business perspective and a fresh dimension, just as women are. That is a strength to be leveraged, not a deficit to be hidden away."
Graves's book appeared in 1997. Much of it was a summation of his magazine's editorial focus, with tips on dressing conservatively and how to define and assert personal career goals. A Publishers Weekly review found that "Graves's own reflections on the challenges faced by blacks in business" proved "more interesting" than the standard how-to fare in rest of it. True to form, Graves promoted the book tirelessly, and it enjoyed strong sales in many urban markets. When asked by Romney in the Los Angeles Times about what minorities needed to succeed in corporate America, Graves asserted that "a junkyard-dog mentality" was crucial, "that competitive spirit that comes from the culture in terms of having to be better, having to try harder, and having to be prepared to get up after you get knocked down."
Ardent Civil Rights Champion
Graves has often used the pages of Black Enterprise to call attention to unfinished civil rights business. He urged readers to support historically black colleges and to contribute to the United Negro College Fund. In one "Letter to My Grandchildren," Graves noted that many critical changes had taken place since his own childhood, opening the doors for unparalleled achievement for blacks in the United States. "It is important to remind ourselves from time to time that the entrepreneurial, professional, and economic strides and accomplishments that fill the pages of BE each month were unimaginable just a few short decades ago," he wrote. However, Graves noted, there was still work to be done, particularly with setbacks in affirmative action in the 1990s. "... [E]ven as we pause to congratulate ourselves, our celebration is tempered by deep concerns," he reflected. "I worry that the same legislation and policies that enabled the advances of my generation, and that of your parents' generation, will no longer exist for your generation."
For his longtime commitment to civil rights, Graves was awarded the 1999 Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, its highest honor. At the same time, he announced a new $1.23 million Earl G. Graves/NAACP Scholarship Fund. In 1995, he had given his alma mater, Morgan State University, $1 million, the largest alumni gift in the school's history. Morgan State named its business school in Graves's honor. Graves remained active in Democratic Party politics and supported the mayoral bid of Fernando Ferrer in the 2001 New York City race.
Magazine Entered Fourth Decade
Black Enterprise magazine continued to thrive. In 2001, the company, headquartered on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, enjoyed $5.7 million in sales, with four million readers. The company also included a book publishing arm, sponsored seminars for entrepreneurs, and ran a private equity investment fund. Washington Post writer Linton Weeks called its founder "one of the most influential black businesspeople in the country" and said Graves "has used Black Enterprise to tell the community how to: work together, dress smart, pull strings, borrow money, live revengefully well."
Graves, married in 1960, lived in the posh New York suburb of Scarsdale. Two of his three sons served as executives with his company, while the third held a post with Pepsi-Cola. In addition to the Spingarn Medal, Graves was also the recipient of numerous other awards, including the Entrepreneurial Excellence Award from Dow Jones & Co. in 1992, and the Ernst & Young New York City Entrepreneur of the Year Award three years later. In all, he held 53 honorary degrees, but as he wrote in the 30th anniversary issue of his magazine in 2000, "I have always said that these awards recognize the magazine's role in uplifting African Americans. By showcasing their achievements as well as gaining a forum to address the issues of the day, we helped fuel the aspirations of generations of black entrepreneurs and business people."
In the same issue, he wrote: "We wanted to show our readers a better way and, at the same time, communicate to the business world, from Madison Avenue to Wall Street, that there was a viable black consumer market. It was my vision to show a more positive side of African American participation in the business mainstream. Along the way, we would carve a path for future generations."
- Business Leader Profiles for Students, Volume 1, Gale, 1999.
- Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 35, edited by Ashyia Henderson, Gale, 2002.
- Beverage World, October 1992.
- Black Enterprise, August 1995; February 1998; August 2000.
- Booklist, April 1, 1997.
- Changing Times, November 1990.
- Directors & Boards, Spring 1997.
- Jet, December 21, 1998.
- Library Journal, April 15, 1997.
- Los Angeles Times, October 14, 1998.
- Publishers Weekly, April 7, 1997.
- Washington Post, June 17, 1997.