By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
According to Forbes, as of October 2020, there were 614 American billionaires, the largest number of billionaires in the country’s history. And the vast majority of them are not people of color.
However, there are some Black Americans with a net worth of more than one billion dollars. And of the top seven, probably the two who are the least known are the wealthiest.
- Robert Smith (Net worth: as of March 2021, his net worth was estimated at over $7 billion)
Smith, the founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, an investment firm located in Austin, Tex., is currently the wealthiest Black American. He is a chemical engineer by trade.
Smith was born in Denver, Colorado, December 1, 1962, to Dr. William Robert Smith and Dr. Sylvia Myrna Smith, who were both teachers.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University in 1985 and then in 1994, his MBA from Columbia University. After Smith graduated from Columbia, he worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber and then Kraft General Foods where he obtained two patents in the United States and two in Europe. Also in 1994, he joined Goldman Sachs as part of their tech investment banking team in New York, then in Silicon Valley in California. He was part of the leadership team that oversaw and implemented more than $50 billion in acquisition activity involving tech titans such as Microsoft, Texas Instruments and Apple.
In 2000, Smith founded Vista Equity Partners “to invest in businesses that develop and use technology, software and data to promote economic equity, ecological responsibility and diversity and inclusion for the prosperity of all,” according to the company website.
In May 2019, Smith a fervent philanthropist delivered the keynote address at venerable Morehouse College, the Atlanta HBCU Smith announced he would pay off all the student loans owed the entire graduating class. Further, he agreed to cover the loans of the parents of the 2019 graduates, in all a total of about $34 million according to Morehouse.
- David L. Steward (Net worth: $4 billion)
Steward is the chairman and founder of World Wide Technology (WWT), “a market-leading systems integrator and supply chain solutions provider,” according to the company’s website. WWT is the largest Black-owned company in the United States.
Steward was born in Chicago in 1951, but his family moved to the small rural town of Clinton, Missouri when he was a young child.
He graduated from Central Missouri State University in 1973, and moved to St. Louis where he became the first person of color to be hired by the Missouri Pacific Railroad to sell rail services. He moved on from Missouri Pacific and was hired by Federal Express as a senior account executive and was eventually inducted into the company’s Sales Hall of Fame. After creating two successful startup companies, Steward founded WWT in 1990, with a few employees. Currently the company operates in 20 facilities around the globe, employs more than 7,000 people and generates annual revenue in excess of $13 billion. Steward is also founder and chairman of Kingdom Capital, a values-driven private investment firm.
- Oprah Winfrey (Net worth: $2.7 billion)
Winfrey, born January 29, 1954, in the small rural town of Kosciusko, Mississippi, is one of the most famous and influential people on earth. Known as “the Queen of all Media,” she rose to fame as the host and executive producer of the Oprah Winfrey Show, arguably the most popular television talk show in American history. She parlayed that notoriety as a television personality into iconic movie roles as “Sophia” in The Color Purple, and “Sethe” in Beloved.
Born to a single mother Vernita Lee, Winfrey’s childhood was tumultuous with episodes of physical and sexual abuse. After going back and forth between her mother, a grandmother and her father Vernon Winfrey, Oprah ended up living with her father and attending East Nashville High School where she excelled and thrived. She was an honors student and was voted Most Popular Girl. She joined the high school speech team and placed second in the nation in a dramatic interpretation competition. At age 17, Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant. She also worked part-time at the local Black radio station, WVOL. After she graduated high school she enrolled at the HBCU Tennessee State University in 1971 where she studied communications. During her time at Tennessee State, Winfrey was hired by Nashville’s WLAC-TV, where she was the youngest news anchor and the first Black woman news anchor. In 1976, she moved to Baltimore when she was hired by WJZ-TV to co-anchor the six o’clock news. She was removed from the co-anchor role and in 1978, joined veteran news reporter Richard Sher as co-host of the local television talk show People Are Talking. During those years as co-host of People Are Talking, Winfrey’s extraordinary skill as an interviewer became apparent. In 1983, she left Baltimore for Chicago to host WLS-TV’s AM Chicago. With Winfrey at the helm the show’s ratings skyrocketed overtaking the venerable Donahue as the highest rating talk show in Chicago. Subsequently she signed a syndication deal with King World and the show was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. The rest is literally her story.
- Kanye West (Net worth: $1.8 billion)
One of the most controversial celebrities in the world, West has parlayed his otherworldly talent as a Hip-Hop artist and music producer into a net worth currently over a billion dollars.
West was born (June 8, 1977) in Atlanta, but raised in Chicago. He first gained prominence in Hip Hop as a producer for Roc-A-Fella Records (founded by Jay-Z and Damon Dash) in the early 2000’s. His 2004 debut The College Dropout is widely recognized as one of the most important Hip Hop albums in the last 20 years.
Subsequently, he has become one of the world’s best selling music artists, tallying more than 20 million albums and 140 million singles globally and he has garnered 22 Grammy Awards. Time magazine named him one of the most 100 influential people in the world in 2005 and 2015. West has also crafted a lucrative niche for himself as a fashion designer. He married Kim Kardashian in 2014, and they were one of the most famous couples on earth until their official divorce in February 2021. They have four children together.
- Michael Jordan (Net worth: $1.6 billion)
Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player in the history of the NBA, is an icon to billions around the globe.
He is the current owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, as well as of 23XI Racing in the NASCaR Cup Series. He is the only Black owner of a team in one of the three major U.S. sports leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA).
Born February 17, 1963, Jordan played college basketball at the University of North Carolina and captured the NCAA National Championship in 1982, before being drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984. That was the first year of his endorsement deal with Nike when the company crafted a signature shoe for him called the Air Jordan. Since 1984, Jordan has been paid over $1.3 billion from Nike. And over the years he has been one of the most marketed sports figures in history pitching for companies like Coca-Cola, Wheaties, Hanes, Gatorade and McDonald’s, among others. He played 15 seasons with the Chicago Bulls, winning six championship rings and he played two more seasons with the Washington Wizards.
- Jay-Z (Net worth: $1.4 billion)
Known as one of the greatest and most durable MC’s in the history of Hip-Hop, Jay-Z is also known as a very savvy businessman in the music industry and beyond. He is the first official Hip-Hop billionaire.
He was born Shawn Corey Carter December 4, 1969, in Marcy Houses housing project in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He can be heard as early as the late 1980’s appearing on recordings of his mentor Jaz-O, who he pays homage to with his stage name Jay-Z.
He along with Damon “Dame” Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke created Roc-A-Fella Records, an independent music label in 1995.
He released his first album Reasonable Doubt in 1996, which reached platinum status and is ranked number 248 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Jay-Z has sold more than 50 million albums and 75 million singles globally and has won 23 Grammy Awards, the most by a rapper.
As a businessman Jay-Z founded the clothing retailer Rocawear in 1999, and in 2003, he established the luxury sports bar chain 40/40 Club. He funded the entertainment company Roc Nation in 2008. He acquired the tech company Aspiro in 2015, and took control of their media streaming service Tidal. Last week, he and his wife Beyonce Knowles Carter (one of the wealthiest women in the music industry) allegedly purchased the masters of legendary rapper DMX (worth between an estimated 10 and $12 million), who died on April 9, and gifted them to the late Hip Hop artist’s 17 children.
- Tyler Perry (Net worth: $1 billion)
Actor, author, theater impresario, television and movie mogul Perry, is the mastermind behind the Madea (the tough, elderly Black woman character he created and portrays) franchise of movies and stage plays.
Perry has produced 17 feature films, 20 stage plays and seven television shows. He has also built a multi-million dollar, state of the art production facility, Tyler Perry Studios, based in Atlanta.
Perry was born Emmitt Perry Jr., September 13, 1969, in New Orleans and he has revealed he had a difficult childhood, which included physical and sexual abuse. When he was in his early 20’s he says he watched an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show and a guest talked about the therapeutic benefits of writing. Afterwards, he committed to a career initially in an effort to work through his challenges. A series of letters he wrote to himself evolved into his first play, I Know I’ve Been Changed. Although his initial attempts to produce the play were met with contempt and rejection by many. However, he kept rewriting and refining his work. By 1998, he restaged the play in Atlanta, first at the House of Blues then at the Fox Theater. By 2005, according to Forbes he had sold more than $100 million in tickets and $30 million in videos of the show, as well as $20 million in merchandise. At the time the 300 live shows he produced each year garnered audiences of 35,000 people per week. In October 2012, he completed an exclusive multi-year deal with the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) to produce scripted television content for the network. Tyler Perry Studios, which he broke ground on in 2015, is one of the largest film studios in America and made Perry the first Black American to own a major film studio entirely.
Perry was included in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People issue in 2020.