5 life and career lessons from Black business leaders

“There is nothing like self-empowerment: Feeling like you have the tools within yourself to kind of move forward,” said Bonawyn Eison of XP Investments.

A reckoning is underway in America.

Spurred by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last May and the cries for racial justice and equity, corporate America is starting to listen and address issues of diversity. Yet at the same time, people of color are facing an outsized financial hit from the coronavirus pandemic.

CNBC spoke with Black leaders about their advice for the next generation, as well as their defining career moments and lessons they’ve learned.

Robert Johnson, The RLJ Companies

Robert Johnson, founder and chairman of The RLJ Companies, didn’t grow up with a lot of money, but he knew working hard could give him an opportunity to succeed.

He started Black Entertainment Television with a $15,000 loan in 1980 and in 1991 he launched it as a public company — the first African-American-owned one traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

“My team and I stood on the platform on the Exchange floor and rang the bell, signifying that we were a publicly traded company participating in the U.S. economy like the major companies in this country have done for many years,” said Johnson, who became the country’s first Black billionaire in 2001.

“The fact that we were first, the fact that we symbolized what Black Americans can do if given an opportunity was the proudest, one of the proudest days of my life in business.”

Johnson, who is no longer on the Forbes billionaire list, took BET private in 1998 and sold it to Viacom in 2001 for approximately $3 billion. He then started The RLJ Companies, which is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, and invests in diverse businesses.

Bonawyn Eison, XP Investments

Bonawyn Eison landed in New York after graduating from Stanford University in 2005 and has been building his career in the financial markets ever since. He started trading financial and energy options at JPMorgan Chase and made a few other career moves before taking his current job as managing director of equity derivatives at XP Investments.

“There is nothing like self-empowerment: Feeling like you have the tools within yourself to kind of move forward,” said Eison, who credits his mother for helping shape him into the man he is today.

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He said he hopes those who aspire to become successful adopt the mindset that they have limitless possibilities.

Instead of focusing on what you may need or think you can’t have, find out what it is you truly want in your life and work tirelessly towards that goal, he advised.

“While I understand that you may not have all the luxuries at your disposal, opportunity, met with tireless effort, will lead to results,” Eison said.

Degas Wright, Decatur Capital Management

Degas Wright, founder and CEO of Decatur Capital Management, learned at an early age the importance of investing in himself.

After earning a “D” in eighth-grade algebra, he told his mother that he was one of just two Black students in his class and didn’t want the white students to think he was stupid. She told him that he needed to learn the material and she couldn’t help him.

“The next day I made sure that I asked questions,” recalled Wright, a certified financial planner. “My next report card I had an ‘A.’

“And to this day, math is my favorite subject.”

He also gained a valuable lesson when he was 16 years old. While working at a military commissary unloading grocery carts and delivering the groceries to cars, he would receive tips. Yet it would take a couple of hours to earn enough to pay for lunch, so he decided to bring lunch from home.

“I learned at an early age to live with less.”

George James, licensed therapist

For George James, chief innovation officer at the Council for Relationships and CEO of George Talks, giving advice and counsel is part of his everyday life. While he generally deals with helping people overcome relational struggles, he also focuses on racial trauma and justice.

His advice to Black youths today: Don’t financially limit yourself, no matter what others say to you or believe about you.

“I never believed in financial limits that people tried to put on me, whether it was because of my profession or because of my race, or whether because my family didn’t have money growing up,” James said.

“Believe that you can accomplish and do whatever you need to do for yourself financially.”

James McDonald, Hercules Investments

James McDonald founded his most recent company, Hercules Investments, in 2019 after spending about two decades in the finance industry. Yet it’s not his only passion — he had a 12-year semi-pro football career and also won the 2018 Southern California Heavyweight Boxing Tournament.

He likes to remind young Black men to look at the success others have had before them, most notably the first Black man to sit in the Oval Office, former President Barack Obama.

“We’ve excelled at some of the largest financial institutions and we’ve generated billions in those areas of finance that are most complex,” McDonald said.

“You can do it, too,” he added. “Go after what you want, and be all that you can be.”

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