Earl Graves Sr. Created a Blueprint for Brand-Building
The ‘Black Enterprise’ founder’s visionary legacy
Earl Graves Sr. had a presence.
At nearly 6 feet 4 inches, Graves often dominated the rooms he entered. It wasn’t just his height that commanded respect or his signature sideburns; what made the man truly legendary was his vision. Over his 85 years, the Black Enterprise founder created an ecosystem of business empowerment, and in the process made himself synonymous with the audacity of Black entrepreneurs.
It is no understatement to say that Graves was one of the first entrepreneurs — certainly Black entrepreneurs — who embodied the ethos and aspirations of his own brand. Decades before today’s brand leaders in fashion, music, and sports leveraged their personas into market share, Graves perfected the blueprint. In the ’80s, Jordan became Brand Jordan. In the ’90s, Diddy wore jerseys emblazoned with Bad Boy. But long before that, Graves’ three-piece suits, monogrammed cuff links, full Windsor knot, and wingtip shoes were associated with his empire.
Before he started Black Enterprise, Graves worked in Sen. Robert Kennedy’s office, serving with him from 1965 until the senator’s assassination in 1968. In 1970, only two years after the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Graves set out on his own to launch a publication celebrating Black businesses and entrepreneurs breaking barriers, creating jobs, and building wealth in our community. Black Enterprise launched with a $175,000 loan; it had turned a profit by the 10th issue and would go on to reach a peak circulation of 500,000 in the ’90s.
Graves’ secret? He believed in Black people. Graves’ success stemmed in large part from his own version of the “five forces” business theory framework. Popularized by Harvard professor Michael Porter in 1979, the model teaches entrepreneurs and executives to make informed decisions by looking at the relationship between five areas: rivals, suppliers, cost of entry, potential substitutes, and key customers. By critically analyzing industries, this framework identifies opportunities and challenges to be mastered to…