On a recent winter morning, I had the pleasure of interviewing Earl G. Graves Sr. in his home on Heathcote Road in Scarsdale. [Digital Editor’s note: This piece originally ran in the April 17, 2009 Scarsdale Inquirer print edition, three years after he handed Black Enterprise over to oldest son Earl “Butch” Graves Jr.; Earl Graves Sr. died this past Monday at age 85.]
Every inch of wall space in his warm house is lined with photographs, memorabilia and art — none more precious to him than those that originated with his family — be it photographs of ancestors dating back to the early 1800s or letters from his three sons. The tour was to assure Mr. Graves Sr. I understood how strongly he feels that his success lay with his ancestry and his legacy with his children.
Scarsdale Inquirer:Before I begin, I have been asked by people aware of this interview to express their appreciation of your festive seasonal decorations. I am sure I speak for many Scarsdalians as I too thank you.
Earl Graves Sr.: It’s a pleasure.
Q:Let’s start at the beginning. You were raised in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Your parents were role models. You credit your mother with helping to integrate the swimming pool at the Central YMCA in Brooklyn. Would you say that event helped shape and inspire your crusade for equal opportunities for African-Americans or were there others that also stand out?
A: That event is clearly important, as I can still remember it well. But there were others. I remember my mother took me to the subway so I could learn to ride it. She gave me the nickel, showed me how to get change, to read signs so I could find my way. Most important, the message growing up was that I could be “somebody.” We understood my parents were ahead of their time even back then. My father went to Erasmus High School in Flatbush. In those days, that was the equivalent of a college degree. He was one of three blacks who graduated in his class. He did it as an orphan, he was 17 and he raised his brother, who became a pharmacist. All of that resonated in my head.
Q:After graduating from Morgan College and two years in the Army, first as a commissioned second lieutenant, then as a captain in the Green Berets, you went to work as a federal agent when Robert F. Kennedy was attorney general. Later you became Sen. Kennedy’s administrative assistant. What were those most memorable moments?
A: When he ran for the Senate seat after his brother’s death, he asked me to come to work for him again. I then worked for him from 1965 to 1968. Unfortunately, the most memorable experience was being in Los Angeles with him at the time of his death. My wife Barbara and I were out there with our two older boys (Michael was too young). The boys went to bed and the next day they woke up so excited. They said, “Kennedy won, didn’t he, he won — when can we see him?” I had to tell them, yes, he won, but you’re not going to see him. They didn’t understand. Johnny was a lawyer even then. He said, “What do you mean he’s dead? Who would shoot him? Why did they do it? Did they catch the person?” On and on. It was incredible.
Q:How did those experiences prepare you for your entrepreneurial endeavor?
A: When you work for Robert Kennedy, you learn to do things right the first time! And you learn to do it first class. There were never any loose ends or anything like that. For instance, there were no cellphones back then. So we carried around a phone book.
Q:Black Enterprise was launched in 1970 with a $175,000 SBA guaranteed loan. It was targeted to a black aspirational audience at a time when there were very few high profile African-Americans. You have described your goal as “to ensure that all African-Americans gain the opportunity to participate in the free enterprise system and to gain a considerable measure of the American dream.” You wanted to both educate and encourage. You also noted, “If we’re not saying how to, then we’re not doing our job.” My question is, 39 years later, what do you think, in addition to the guiding force of Black Enterprise, has made possible the successes of the African-American community?
A: It goes to responsibility. You have to be responsible for who you are. Black people were qualified a long time ago; it is just that the climate has changed.
Q:When you got started, there were only approximately 100,000 African-American business owners in the U.S. and only a couple of African-Americans who sat on corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies. Things have changed and today you sit on many boards. While in those meetings, are you particularly conscious of your roots and how does that affect your decision-making?
A: If you look at our February issue, you will find our list of the top 100 most powerful executives in corporate America. They all sit on company boards. There is almost no company today that does not have an African-American sitting on its board. I sit as a director. The other directors are white and various ethnic backgrounds.
We have a responsibility to shareholders for the success of our company. On a board like Aetna, the issue is that people who are less fortunate do not have the health care they need. Fortunately for us, Ron Williams (chairman and CEO) is one of the spokespersons in this country for people in general. I have sat on a lot of corporate boards — American Airlines, Chrysler, Federated Department Stores, Roman Haas, DaimlerChrysler and Aetna. I enjoy these meetings because I am sitting around with a lot of brilliant people. We ponder what do we do, we want to be reasonably in line with the new administration to the extent that we can be.
Whenever there is a health care question, [President Barack] Obama is on the phone with Ron Williams. Not because he is African-American, but because he is one of the most qualified people to be talking with. Obama is not the black president. He is the president of the United States. The answer is, it is not what informs me at all.
Q:Did you ever expect that Black Enterprise and Earl G. Graves, Ltd.would have grown to be such a huge and vital full-fledged media and finance company?
A: Yes. Black Enterprise today consists of the magazine, which provides 4.2 million readers with information on entrepreneurship, careers and financial management. A multimedia company, Black Enterprise also produces television programming including “Our World with Black Enterprise” and “Black Enterprise Business Report.” Our business and lifestyle events include the Women of Power Summit, the Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference and the Golf & Tennis Challenge. We recently relaunched BlackEnterprise.com with all new interactive content, streaming video, and exclusives you won't find anywhere else.
Black Enterprise is the definitive source of information for and about African-American business markets and leaders, and the authority on black business news and trends.
Q:What have been and what continue to be the biggest challenges faced by the magazine and the company as a whole?
A: The economic crisis. Ads. But fortunately, Earl Jr. has diversified the company and continues to be innovative, with the expectation of longevity.
Q:You wrote a highly praised bestseller “How to Succeed in Business Without Being White” (Harper Business ’97). Colin Powell is quoted on the jacket stating: “A clarion call for African-Americans.” Do you believe there can be a competitive advantage to being black (providing all the other tools are in place)?
Q:The American vernacular has changed quite a bit over time. African-Americans were called “colored,” then “Negro,” then “black” and now “African-American.” Do you think African-American will remain the term of choice? Are African-American and black interchangeable?
A: I think that African-American and black are interchangeable. Me, I call people, my friends, black or white pork chop! No, I don’t see the term changing anytime soon.
Q:Do you think there is a ceiling for blacks in the workforce, whereby there are entry opportunities but then stop at middle management? As we stare into a major economic downturn, do you think African-Americans will be more affected than whites?
A: Historically, blacks have been more adversely affected than whites because of racism. And racism is still alive and well in this country. It’s obviously getting better, but it is still alive. I mean, just look at that crazy Rush Limbaugh. There are a lot of ignorant people. But look at the Army today with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of state. The military made a great difference in terms of progress because people realized, “Hey, that guy could be me.”
Q:You are an Obama supporter. By all accounts he has skillfully put the race issue on the table for serious public discourse. From a black businessman’s perspective, do you think Obama can speak to the existing black power structure while bringing the nation forward in the healing of racial inequities?
A: This is a great country. Each time that our country has been at a crossroads when we say, “How are we going to get out of this?” along has come a leader that has made a difference. There was Lincoln and FDR, then there was Kennedy and now you have Obama. Obama gives our country and the world a reason to hope. His abilities inspire Americans to be tolerant, accepting and to be appreciative of the differences of people. But I don’t think racism will ever be completely eradicated.
Q:You are one of the most important living African-Americans and, independent of that, you are one of business’s most important leaders. What do you think your major contributions have been?
A: I have a passion about education and that I may have made a difference in the economic well-being of some people is rewarding. I have about 70 honorary degrees, but that is not the biggest contribution of my life. I have created hundreds of jobs for people. The writers of Black Enterprise have been able to walk into offices and show people articles they wrote, the body of work they produced and use that to their advancement.
It has been amazing to me that when there are some public events in my honor, how many former and retired employees show up. We have been in business for over 40 years. I try to look out for the families.
Also, having my sons come into the business and Earl Jr. taking it over and taking it to new levels is a great honor for me. Recently I received an important honor from UNCF (United Negro College Fund). It is a great honor and my grandson Carter will be there. He will tell his children about it. This perpetuity is a major contribution. Whenever I receive an honor, I bring a grandchild along to witness the accomplishment but also to show them how to succeed in the things that matter. Family is my greatest reward.
Q:You have been a member of the Boule. While many are familiar with Skull & Bones, few are familiar with the Boule. Can you enlighten us about this elite black organization?
A: This is not really relevant to this piece, but I will say that I am not really an active member. I joined the Boule because someone in it really wanted me to and thought I could contribute. I try to make my contributions to organizations in terms of substance and resources. I try to fill my commitments and move on. Now that I am 74, I have vacationed at Camp David, I have been to the White House, it’s all good. But to me the most important thing is family and that is where I like to spend my time.
Q: Finally,I would not be doing my job if I did not ask you about your prominent sideburns — what’s up with those?
A: They hide the fact that there is less hair on the top of my head.