From Gimlet Media, I’m Alex Blumberg and this is Without Fail, the show were I talk with artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, visionaries of all kinds about their successes and their failures, and what they’ve learned from both.
Today on the show, I’m talking with Janice Bryant Howroyd. 40 years ago, she started her company by herself out of a storefront in LA. And today it’s a huge multinational corporation with thousands of employees, thousands of clients, including some of the top Fortune 500 companies in the world. And revenues of over 1 billion dollars. Making Janice Bryant Howroyd the first African American woman to start and run a billion dollar business.
And in our wide ranging conversation, I talked with Janice about a lot of things. How she started her business of course, but also what it was like growing up with her large family in a segregated town in North Carolina.
Janice’s business is called the Act One Group, it’s a staffing company. It helps place full and part time employees with companies that need them.
Janice over the past 40 years has thought a lot about how to find people jobs. She’s very good at it. I would know. Because before our interview even began..she had a job for me:
<< JBH: Alex, before we begin?
JBH: Would you just say hello to Laila? She’s my friend for the day. Laila is nine years old, she’s from Northern California. And she’s visiting today and she’s working with me today. And I’d love her to know why podcasts are important and the different things people can learn from podcasts before we start.
JBH: Laila say hi to Alex
ALEX: Hi Laila. How are you?
ALEX: You’re 9 years old?
ALEX: My son is 8 years old.
ALEX: Are you in third grade or fourth grade?
ALEX: Fourth grade. And you’re spending the whole day with Mrs. Howroyd?
ALEX: Wow. That’s great.
ALEX: And I’m supposed to tell you why podcasts are important and what you can learn from podcasts?
ALEX: That’s my assignment. You can learn anything from a podcast. There is a podcast on literally any subject in the world that you want to know about….>>
I’ll spare you my full explanation of podcasts, because you are listening to this podcast, so hopefully you know what they are.
Laila is the nine-year old daughter of one of Janice Bryant Howroyd’s employees. And something I discovered about Janice over the course of this interview is how much value she places on mentorship -- either being a mentor, or being mentored. That’s something that she says came about because of the way she grew up.
JBH: To understand how I built my business, Alex, you really have to understand how my family was built. I grew up in Tarboro in North Carolina. There were 11 siblings and mom and dad. We were a very close knit family. And my mom ran our home as a COO.
Alex: What were the obstacles that she was, she was like sort of piloting your family past?
Janice: When you think about it, 11 kids in the Deep South at the time I was growing up, as an African-American. You really it requires some skills to get them successfully educated through the university level.
Alex: Mm-hmm. What was that like for you?
JBH: We were talking about the 1950s and 60s and we talking about small town. Our community was beautiful and my memories of my childhood are wonderful. However it was a very particular time in our nation's history when segregation was fierce. I grew up in a segregated community. Panola street divided Tarboro into two different communities black and white. And my mom and dad really understood the world.
ALEX: Yeah, tell me about your parents.
JBH: My mom, she wanted to make sure we had access to information, we didn't have a library on our side of the town. But my mom she didn't feel that was reason enough for us not to be educated and learn.
So for a quarter a week my mom bought encyclopedias and by the way that quarter was hard come by when you remember you're talking about 13 people in a household on my father's salary. And my father was a non-professional worker. So my mom was dedicated to us to provide that for us and she not only had us read those encyclopedias she read them along with us. When we did assignments she did them with us. She was very invested in our learning and making sure that we got it just right. And so when you grow up in that type of household as I did specifically speaking about myself I came into the broader world with an understanding that I could learn and that I could create ways for myself to gain information that was not handily offered me. I think that's the spirit that she put into us as well. Not just the discipline and not just the focus but also a spirit of wanting to learn.
ALEX: That spirit of wanting to learn stayed with Janice. She was one of the first African American students to desegregate her town’s high school, and eventually she made her way to college at North Carolina A&T State University.
After graduation, she went out for a visit to her sister and her sister’s husband, her brother-in-law, in Los Angeles. It was supposed to be just a short visit, but her sister urged her to stay. And Janice was tempted. But she needed money, and work was hard to come by. To help her make ends meet, her brother-in-law, Tommy, who worked at Billboard Magazine, offered Janice some temp work in his office while he and Janice’s sister went on vacation. Janice showed up in the office and realized right away there were lots of improvements to be made.
JBH: I'm seeing that the office is not functioning as well as it should.
Alex: And what was what was not functioning properly, what were you seeing that wasn't working right?
JBH: Well number one back then we still had what we call files now files today are electronic things and they are kept on computers back then they were very much paper and they were kept in drawers, big metal ones called file drawers.
Alex: Young people don't believe us.
JBH: They don't. They don't know when they look at them they see them as art or furniture not necessarily as office products but that was in a mess. I also saw that there was not a proper system for deliveries and it was really fun it was interesting to be able to organize his office so he saw it as work. But for me it was really a joy.
Alex: So okay, so you reorganized the office. And then, what happens when he comes back?
JBH: I actually was concerned the night before he and my sister were returning that when he would get into his office on that Monday he might be upset that I had moved things around.
Alex: Cause you changed things so much.
JBH: Yeah yeah but he quickly saw the value in it and he saw the value in me.
Alex: It is a little like staying at somebody's house and then sort of rearranging their kitchen a little bit it's sort of like it's a little bit of a risky move.
JBH: It is and you know in my own home I really would not appreciate it if as a guest you came in you decided to change things but he was good with it. He was OK.
ALEX: In fact, when Tommy saw the work his sister-in-law, Janice, had done while he was away, he didn’t just see someone who could help run his office. He saw someone who could run her own office. Janice continued to temp for Tommy but she says, everytime she did something differently that worked, Tommy would tell her to remember that when she started her own company. Or when Janice had a bad day, Tommy would say — when you run your own company you make sure no one feels the way you did today. Always using “when” not “if.” Tommy kept encouraging Janice to start her own company — even thought at 26 that wasn’t something that Janice really had on her radar.
JBH: When I started my business I started it because my brother in law saw more in me at that time than I did in myself. I felt confident that I could do it. I did not necessarily feel inspired to do it.
Alex: What propelled you to sort of take that plunge and be like I'm going to go out on my own and start my own company. Was there a moment where you said I'm going to do this?
JBH: Well my sister and I were slicing beefsteak tomatoes and my sister said You know I think you really should consider what Tommy is saying and that's the first time she'd actually voiced opinion out loud that I should. Her comments that being you can as well, or you have the stuff to do it. And I thought about it and I said you know what. You're right. Otherwise I'm heading back East. And so that's kind of how I evolved into starting my company.
Alex: So your sister says that to you and then you thought like OK there's something to this maybe I'll give it a shot. What did you do to give it a shot. What did you do to take it from something that you were discussing to something you were actually doing.
JBH: Oh that was very simple. I got business license-d up, made a deal with a friend, opened my first office was the front of a rug shop, a very good address, got excellent applicants. Word of mouth. I built my business and started to grow from there.
Alex: What was, at that point very, very early on. What was your business focused on?
JBH: Well we were looking at full time placement back then we called it permanent placement today I don't even think you want to say that from a legal perspective you know. But not not even my job is permanent. And I'm glad of it. But back then we called it permanent placement.
Alex: Got it. What was the first client that you placed in a job.
JBH: It was a friend of my brother in laws who was in the business in the music business and he thought he needed an assistant. Back then you called it a secretary or an admin and he didn't. He needed an executive aid. He ended up getting two people from me. He got an executive aide and then he got a clerical person who can remember those files I told you that are so important. He got someone who could manage those files and manage those phones. And he was thrilled. He was absolutely thrilled with the outcome of that.
Alex: And how’d that feel?
JBH: It felt fantastic. I didn't send him a bill and my brother in law asked me how much did you get paid for that? And I looked at him kind of funny and he was you know you gotta be prepared to ask for what you want. And today we call it knowing your worth. But back then it didn't occur to me that it would be easy to bill him. I had told him what the fee would be and because it was a personal referral I assumed he would pay me. He said no you've gotta do everything from a very business focus, send him a bill. And he said put a time to pay on it and if he doesn't pay by this time show him what the interest is and I was like oh no Tommy that's your friend blah blah blah.
JBH: And he said no Janice you've got to start out the way you're gonna hold out and start your business being very clear upfront. A very good lesson to learn because even today sometimes in much larger engagements I find that my organization and other women who run companies who I mentor we are very attentive to the service but sometimes we don't serve ourselves as well.
Alex: I think it's a really good lesson. I think you're right I think it's very uncomfortable to ask for what you need to get.
JBH: And you know Tommy told me the the greatest distance of time from when you provide the service and you ask to be paid. It becomes debatable. So establish it upfront.
Alex: How are you feeling in that sort of the early the first year is it a roller coaster. Are you feeling super high sometimes? super low sometimes is it like more like a steady state like what's your emotional state in the first year or two of starting the company.
JBH: I started my business in 1978 so it was a good time in music we look back on it now we think it's trashy but I felt the energy of everything that was going on in L.A. I had migrated from the music industry into servicing some of the auxiliary businesses to music. You know the finance, the book keepers, these kinds of companies. So so it put more stability in what I was doing more predictability in what I was doing. And the first year my business was actually a great one for me.
Alex: So the first couple of years. It's sounded like they were pretty good like the music industry was growing You're like finding good applicants for people and the auxiliary businesses there. You're making good money it sounds like?
JBH: I wasn’t making incredible money but I was interested in having fun and sustaining my lifestyle. So I was doing well on the whole. You know what people look for today when they talk about work life balance. That's what I have and that's what I was enjoying. I wasn't. Trust me I wasn't buying real estate on my income but I was paying rent and I was having a great time doing it.
Alex: And so so that's interesting like you had what a classic small business, you know a classic lifestyle business. There's no necessarily indication just from hearing your story from the outside that it's going to grow into what it is today. What took it on a different path?
JBH: There's a lady named Gwen Moore who was a dear friend to me. Gwen Moore was a California elected congresswoman. One of Gwen Moore's legacy moments and she's had many was she saw back then that while it was important to have diversity in your workplace it was equally and in some ways more important to have diversity in your supplier base. I got a call and my sister had come to work for me and she said Gwen Moore wants to speak with you. I knew who Gwen Moore while she was a shero to me. I didn't know the work she'd been doing. After I got over my disbelief and say yes I will meet with this person who says they are Gwen Moore. It was Gwen Moore and she encouraged me that I needed to certify my business and I was like certify my business I have a license. I'm legal I pay my taxes I was very happy thank you with my little ten million dollar business by then. And she explained to me the process of certifying your business as a minority and/or woman owned business. And she explained to me why she thought it was important for me to do that. In a nutshell she said you've run such a successful business and you can be an example to corporations that they can do business without unnecessary fear with women and minorities in business. And she stayed on me so hard I didn't want to bother to certify. It's a very open process. I felt as though I was being strip searched and in many ways I was. But she told me the outcome would be worth it. When I went in and did a good job, it would ease the path for companies to want to do business with other minorities and other women owned businesses and so Gwen Moore changed the dynamic for me of how I looked at my business.
Alex: So your company had been growing pretty well up until that point. You're up and running you're doing good you’re apparently bring in ten million dollars in revenue. That's pretty amazing. And you become certified. And what does that do to the business. Like what. How does that change the trajectory for you?
JBH: It put me in the company of people who not only was I mentoring but people who could mentor me. It put me in the presence of people who could become clients. I was meeting other businesses as well. And other minority businesses became my clients. After all, you have a business you have to hire. You want to hire people who have a reputation for doing the best. And so my name got built up there.
Alex: So you're meeting a lot more people who who who then become clients of yours.
JBH: Absolutely absolutely. And not just clients a network of support that had never existed before and that encouraged me then that perhaps I should look at building my business larger than a California-based business.
Alex: Got it. And so that meant expanding into other states other parts of the country.
JBH: It did and not just from state to state in the United States but from country to country across the globe.
Alex: Got it
Janice: I've heard many people talk about the strain and the difficulty of the first two or three years. All of that happened for me when I transitioned from full time to temporary work. The dynamics of how I did business changed and that's when I started to feel that pressure and that staying up at night. And am I gonna assume this client? Can I afford to assume this client that's when it started to happen for me.
Alex: This is the part now, that we're getting to the sleepless nights
JBH: That's when I started to have more of those thoughts around. Oh my goodness how am I going to do this should I do this that so many people have in the first year of their business I had that perhaps in the second decade of my business.
Alex: Got it
JBH: Now I'm an employer of people and I've got different offices and I'm thinking about making sure that I don't stretch myself in a way that puts at risk the opportunity and the careers of the people who've trusted in me thus far.
ALEX: That second decade of business, where Janice’s company was expanding into new markets and countries, opening new offices: it was just a lot more stressful. Because for the first time, she wasn’t able to pay for things as she went.
She told me and I never really thought about this because I don’t run a staffing company, but you know if you get a big contract from some multinational saying we need 20,000 staff people over this period of time, you have to first hire those staff people yourself, pay for them all and then wait 90 days or whatever to get the money back from the company that’s contracted with you. And what that means is that you’re putting out a lot of money up front and waiting to get paid back. That was new for Janice, and it kept her up at night. Worrying about cash flow, worrying about whether she’s spending too much, worrying about whether she’s putting her employees at risk.
But she says there was one thing that was really standing in the way of her growing her company. And it was something that went deep to the core of who she was and how she thought about herself.
What that was, after these words from our sponsors.
Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Janice Bryant Howroyd. Janice told me there were many factors for her success. She credited divine factors as well as individuals who helped her along the way. But she said the thing that really made her business take off, that really changed its trajectory, was a realization she had about herself not too long ago.
JBH: Until I forgave myself for being female and African-American and smart at the same time I did OK. My business started to really grow the day that I forgave myself for being smart and female.
ALEX: Tell me more about that. What do you mean?
JBH: Well for years I would take my innovations my thoughts my solutions and get them into the hands of employees or males who were in other companies to put forward if I believed in the outcome and I did that as I think a result of the experience I had growing up as a female and as an African-American person. It wasn't always good to be the smart one in the room if you were a woman. I just knew inherently and by experience that being a woman and putting forth the best idea that got solved on or delivered to was not the smart thing and
Alex: You just picked it up socially like there were clues
JBH: It wasn't just social. It wasn't just social, it would harm my business. I had employees. I need to grow a business. I couldn't always be the smart one in the room. I could never be the smartest person in the room. And so I built my business and I’m not proud of it, but I built my business to some degree by gifting my brilliance to someone else.
It might be a text message to someone say this say that or it might be before a meeting walking them through a powerpoint that I set up all night designing to express a new solution.
Alex: So you would you would have you would have a good idea or you'd say we need to do this or this is a thing that our direct direction our company needs to go in and you say, Alex I want you to say this in the meeting. I'm not going to say it.
JBH: Correct, or if we're or if we're in the meeting I would text you what to say because I could anticipate the question coming.
Alex: Wow. And why did you do it that way do you think?
JBH: Alex, I think you get why I did it that way. It was punitive not to do it that way early on. And I decided several years ago I had to stop that practice. I have a daughter who is an adult. She deserved to see that a woman could have the best idea in the room lead the team forward and we could all win from that and it was from my desire to change my behavior based on a conversation she and I had that you don't serve yourself nor the company well to not put forward who you are. You don't need to have to explain who you are every time you walk into a room. Perhaps some of your ideas and your innovations should be put forward under your own name. And it was a deep conversation she and I had around things that were going on in her own life that she encouraged me I needed to be a role model to what I was asking her to do. And she was right. And I will tell you not only were so many women telling me moment to moment just by the change of my behavior not by any declaration of female independence that I made because I made no announcement that I was changing my process. I simply changed it and I saw so many women speak up. I thought you were the one who were so and so, oh wow that really impacted me. Or young women on campuses. Young women on campuses would come up to me. I speak on campuses and they would come up to me and they would tell me what it meant to them to see what I was doing and and it made me understand that there is beauty and there is power. But more importantly, there is authority and there's need to live our best lives fully and do that out loud. And so even though I made the change in how I behaved because of the conversation I was having with my daughter. I do believe that it helped a lot of other daughters.
JBH: And I'll tell you Alex I think it helped a lot of men too because I've had so many men be supportive of how I changed my dynamic. I mean I still wear my stilettos to meetings I haven't you know stopped being the feminine side of me I was back then. I just decided to celebrate that smart is no alien to being feminine. And so I could be me completely. And I do think my business has grown better for it but more importantly I think I enjoy my business more now. In owning my brilliance and being smart out loud. I believe I have also gifted myself with the ability to say when I don't know.
JBH: Saying when I do know, when I do know has given me the permission and the authority to say when I don't know. And that's big.
ALEX: That was my conversation with Janice Bryant Howroyd, founder and CEO of the Act One Group. I was talking to her from our offices in Brooklyn, she was in her office in LA. We sent a field engineer to record her side of the conversation. After we hung up and we got the tape back from the engineer, I realize that little 9-year old Laila had been very patiently waiting for us to finish.
<<LAILA: I need to go to the bathroom.
JBH: I could tell! Okay, so we’re going to leave the room better than what we found that. You always do that.
JBH: What do we do?
LAILA: We push the chairs in.
JBH: Right, we leave the room better than how we found it….>>
Next time on Without Fail. My interview with Ron Johnson, the designer of the iconic Apple Store. He shares the leadership lessons he learned from working closely with Apple co-founder and CEO, Steve Jobs:
<<RON: For my first year at Apple // every night you know 8:00 o'clock sharp. I knew the phone rang. It was Steve. // I kind of felt when I started working for Steve I had the eighth grade girlfriend finally because—
ALEX: You were on the phone with your crush.
RON: I was on the phone with my crush.>>
That’s next time on Without Fail.
Without Fail is hosted by me, and produced by Sarah Platt. It is edited by me, Nazanin Rafsanjani and Devon Taylor. Jarrett Floyd and Peter Leonard mixed the episode. Music by Bobby Lord.
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