Graves, Earl G.

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Graves, Earl G.

Black Enterprise Magazine


Earl Graves has emerged as an authority on black entrepreneurship through his successful magazine, Black Enterprise, and flourishing business ventures. He is one of the most recognized African American publishers in the United States and also has interests in radio stations across the country. Graves, an advocate of the black middle class, is a role model for aspiring African American business owners and future executives because he does more than just write about the American Dream, he is actively pursuing it.

Personal Life

Earl Gilbert Graves was born in 1935 in New York to Earl Godwin, a shipping clerk, and Winifred Sealy Graves. He graduated from Morgan State College in 1958 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. On July 2, 1960, he married Barbara Kydd, and they eventually had three sons: Earl Gilbert, John, and Michael. All sons are married with children, and are very much involved with the business. Throughout his career, he has served on numerous boards, including Rohm & Hass Corp., New York State Urban Development Corp., Chrysler Corp., AMR Corp. (American Airlines), Federated Department Stores, National Supplier Development Council, Howard University, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Magazine Publishers Association. He also served as chairman of the Black Business Council.

He received several awards over the years, among them: National Award of Excellence, U.S. Department of Commerce, 1972; Black Achiever Award, Talk magazine; Presidential Citation, "One of Ten Most Outstanding Minority Businessmen in the United States," 1973; "Outstanding Citizen of the Year," Omega Psi Phi fraternity, 1974; one of 200 "Future Leaders of the Country," Time; "Outstanding Black Businessman," National Business League; one of 100 "Influential Blacks," Ebony; Poynter Fellow, Yale University, 1978; Free Enterprise Award, International Franchise Association, 1991; Entrepreneurial Excellence Award, Dow Jones & Co., 1992; Ernst & Young New York City Entrepreneur of the Year Award, 1995; and numerous awards from the Boy Scouts of America. In addition, he is the recipient of 37 honorary degrees.

Career Details

When Graves graduated from Morgan University in 1958, he did a brief tour of duty in the U.S. Army, serving from 1958 through 1960, and reached the rank of captain. It was during this period that America was in social upheaval. In the South, Martin Luther King, Jr. was challenging the racist Jim Crow laws which, essentially, legalized separate-but-equal practices in that section of the country. In the North, a Muslim minister, Malcolm X, was shaking up the status quo, forcing blacks and whites to face up to racist practices. It was against this social backdrop that Graves entered the workforce. At first, in the early sixties, he worked in real estate and as the National Commissioner of Scouting for Boy Scouts of America in New York City. In 1965, Graves became an administrative assistant to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York, a position he held until Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.

At that time, Graves decided to strike out on his own, started a management consulting firm and, in 1970, he launched Black Enterprise. Launching a business publication targeted to an African American middle class seemed a bit far-fetched in 1970. Up until then, John Johnson had been the only African American to successfully publish magazines targeted to black readers. Johnson's Ebony and Jet magazines were widely read throughout the black community; Essence magazine, targeted toward black women, was still an idea yet to be born. Clearly, Graves was pioneering new territory, yet he believed there was a void that needed to be filled. The idea for such a magazine was born from a concept for a newsletter, which Graves thought of while serving on an advisory board for the Small Business Administration. After tossing the idea around with some advertising people, he was convinced that he could turn his idea into a profitable magazine.

"Gradually, the magazine took an identity of its own," Graves said in Black Enterprise. "It gained a head of steam in terms of people being interested and wanting to see this thing make it. The bottom line was, there was a need for Black Enterprise."

There were challenges ahead, and obstacles, and there were many who did not see the need for a such a magazine. "In selling Black Enterprise, we had to take on the naysayers who said, 'Oh, there are not enough black people out there interested in business, and there are not enough African Americans'," Graves said in Black Enterprise.

One of his biggest challenges was convincing white advertisers to market their products in a publication targeting black consumers. It was fairly easy to get the cigarette, liquor, and some entry-level car brands to advertise in the publication, as they traditionally advertised to black consumers. Attracting computer, credit card, investment banking, and stock brokerage firms to buy advertising in his publication was quite a different story. Many of these companies ignored black consumers or believed they could market to them through mainstream publications. The idea of advertising directly to a specific ethnic group was still very new 30 years ago.

"The challenge was and continues to be formidable," Graves said in Black Enterprise. "The seventies were the halcyon days when people were enormously optimistic about the progress that was going to be made. Now, not only has that progress slowed down, but there is a myriad of people who are trying to turn the clock back on civil rights and on the progress that has been made to the betterment of this entire country."

Equally important was the need to establish credibility in the black community as well as with mainstream America. Graves concedes that it was paramount from the start for the magazine to become a financial success. Failure to do so would extinguish any hopes of becoming an authority on black business. Through the years, the magazine has grown and prospered. In 1990, the year of its 20th anniversary, Black Enterprise had a circulation of 230,000 and annual revenues of more than $15 million. Its most enduring institution is the BE 100, which tracks the top black businesses in the United States. Graves believes it is important to monitor the growth and activity of black businesses. Since its inception, the combined revenues of the top 100 black-owned businesses have grown to $11.7 billion, up from less than $500,000 in 22 years.

"There was no doubt in mind that the list would grow over the years, and I tell (white) people all the time, if you had gotten out of our way before, we'd be writing a much greater history," Graves said in Black Enterprise. "Racism has held this country back, not just black people. When you look at the impact we have made in the fields of science, in education and the like, imagine what a great country this could be if we could get the issue of race out of the way."

Social and Economic Impact

Graves has worked hard to overcome racism, refusing to allow bigotry to keep him from realizing his dreams. Once the magazine was up and running, Graves decided to branch out into other business ventures. By the 1980s, he had acquired radio stations in several cities. In 1990 Graves teamed up with former Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson to purchase the rights to Pepsi-Cola's Washington, D.C. distribution operations. He is chairman and chief executive officer of that enterprise and is also a general partner of Egoli Partners, L.P., which owns the Pepsi-Cola franchise in South Africa. In 1990, the franchise distributed over 4 million cases of Pepsi annually in the District of Columbia and parts of Maryland, and has been estimated to be worth about $60 million. At the time, Graves and Johnson were Pepsi's largest minority franchisees.

At the age of 62, Graves published a how-to-book, his recipe for success entitled, "How To Succeed In Business Without Being White." In the book, Graves talks about his journey to the top and attempts to dispel myths about racism in the business world. He also gives advice on how to run a successful business. In the book, he notes, "You can never ask a white person to buy your product or service without giving him or her a solid economic reason for doing it. Forget that it's the right thing to do. In this day and age, doing the right thing doesn't mean a thing in the white business community. It has to make economic sense."

Without doubt, Graves has emerged a vocal critic of practices that create unequal playing fields. Through the magazine, his book, and in public appearances, Graves consistently challenges black and white Americans to rise above small differences to reach their economic potential. Graves was once described by the Reverend Jesse Jackson in the Washington Post as the "primary educator in the country on black business—on trends and opportunities and the like."

In 1990 Graves praised the United Way of Scarsdale, New York, a charitable organization, for moving their kick-off dinner from a club that traditionally excluded blacks from membership. In a speech quoted by James Ferron in the New York Times Graves stated that the United Way's action sent "an important signal of equal opportunity, that a primary cause of human suffering was the lack of equal economic opportunity in our minority communities."

Chronology: Earl G. Graves

1935: Born.

1965: Administrative assistant to Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

1968: Organized Earl Graves Associates.

1970: Published first issue of Black Enterprise.

1990: Acquired co-ownership of Pepsi distributorship.

1994: Named to Federated Department Store's board.

1995: Named to AMR Corporation's board.

1997: Authored "How to Succeed In Business Without Being White: Straight Talk in America."

1998: Appointed his eldest son company president.

In the year 2000 Black Enterprise will turn 30 years old, and Graves will be 65 years old. Unlike so many family-owned businesses—black or white—which neglect to groom a successor, Graves has already turned the publishing operations over to the next generation. In 1998, Graves appointed his eldest son, Earl "Butch" Graves, as president of Earl G. Graves Publishing, which publishes the magazine. The younger Graves, who has a Masters degree in business administration from Harvard University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University, holds the title of chief operating officer. The youngest son, Michael, is developing as the top executive at the Washington, D.C. Pepsi Cola distributorship. Johnny, the middle son, leads the newest and highly successful division, Black Enterprise Unlimited.

As Graves looks out into the future, he admits that the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders will face some tough challenges ahead. Perhaps not unlike what Graves faced when he set out some 30 years ago to create a publication that recognized the black middle class as a consumer and contributor to the nation's economic fabric. Moreover, Graves did more than talk about how to do it, he actually went out and did it. And in so doing, made others realize that they too could succeed against many odds.

"It has never been easy to lead a black-owned company in a business environment hostile to the ambitions of African Americans," Graves said in a speech about management succession published in Black Enterprise. "It may get much tougher before it gets better for black entrepreneurs as we enter the twenty-first century. That's why it is critical that we groom worthy successors to the mantle of executive leadership of our enterprises, large and small. If the young lions of Earl G. Graves Ltd. are any indication, the future of black business is in very good hands."

Sources of Information

Contact at: Black Enterprise Magazine
130 Fifth Ave.
NY, NY 10011
Business Phone: (212)242-8000


Adell, Sandra, ed. Dictionary of Twentieth Century Culture. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996.

"Black Enterprise Publisher Earl Graves elected to Board of Directors of AMR Corp. in Ft. Worth." Jet, 10 April 1995.

Contemporary Black Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992

""Earl G. Graves." Jet, 13 June 1994.

"Earl G. Graves, Founder and Publisher of Black Enterprise Magazine, Provides Encouraging, Concrete Advice in How to Succeed in Business Without Being White: Straight Talk on Making it in America." Business Wire Online, 31 March 1997. Available from

""Earl Graves Jr. is Named President of Earl G. Graves Publishing Company." Jet, 16 February 1998.

Edmonds, Alfred, Jr. "Earl G. Graves: On the Record." Black Enterprise, August 1995.

Graves, Earl G. "Grooming Worthy Successors." Black Enterprise, February 1998.

Who's Who among African Americans. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996/1997.

Who's Who in America. Marquis, 1997.

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Graves, Earl G.

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