I’ve long admired people who have awesome success stories. Many of them happen to be world class celebrities and as such, the details of their lives and their rise to greatness have been public knowledge for a long time.
Particularly inspiring are the rags to riches stories of Black people, because our race adds an extra layer of challenges and roadblocks. I have compiled 4 examples of these amazing stories from high achievers of color who are still writing their legacies in 2020.
I chose people who had troubled childhoods, maybe even coming from a broken home with little to no financial advantage. Their life lessons and remarkable accomplishments serve as the ultimate inspiration to us all.
1. Oprah Winfrey, 66/Media Mogul, Business Executive
In addition to having to overcome the confines of her African-American race, Oprah had to scale the gender hurdle. Born in the Deep South during the racially segregated 1950’s, her life was poverty stricken and devoid of a father. As an adolescent, Winfrey was molested and impregnated, but lost the baby almost immediately before being sent to live with someone who was said to be her father.
At 19, Oprah officially set her career in motion when she landed an anchor job after having had a radio position in high school. But it was her fortuitous position as host of a mediocre talk show called A.M. Chicago in 1984 that perfectly positioned her for the immense success that would soon follow. Oprah dramatically reversed the fortunes of the show and by late summer 1986, it was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show and skyrocketed to the top of the television ratings.
I was a child in elementary school at the time, but the Oprah show was always on the television in our house. She just seemed to get more and more popular, and her show tackled a wide range of topics, often of a sensational nature. Over the final years of the 1980’s, Oprah parlayed her ubiquity and influence into massive financial success, appearing in films and making key decisions that gave her more control and in some cases, ownership of her brand.
Amazingly, Winfrey ended the decade as the wealthiest African-American of the 20th century. She took her success to a different level in the 1990’s, retooling her show to become more focused on personal development and wellness, creating a popular book club, launching a magazine and serving as an executive producer on various film and television projects.
Her magazine hit shelves as the new millennium began, and became one of her most visible endeavors while also becoming a success. In 2003, Oprah’s net worth crossed the $1 billion mark, making her, at 49, the first black female billionaire in history.
In 2011, she ended her world famous talk show after 25 seasons, then soon after launched a television network called OWN. After several early struggles, the network found its footing and added to her ever expanding array of successful ventures and elevated her already mind blowing influence. Her story is a true testament to relentless resilience.
2. Tyler Perry, 50/Actor, Producer, Writer
In a staggering turn of events, Tyler Perry rose from the horrible confines of a sexually abusive childhood to become one of the most prolific and successful writer/playwright/producers of content in the modern era.
Using writing as an escape from the unrelenting cruelty of those early years, he discovered within himself a distinct creative instinct and determination that eventually manifested itself into numerous plays and musicals which he staged and sold tickets to.
After an exhausting run of hundreds of shows, he found his footing when his “Madea” character achieved immense popularity. That led to a partnership with Oprah Winfrey and tremendous success with multiple television series. Perry’s filmography as not only an actor, but also as writer and producer is quite expansive. It ultimately led him to do what was once unthinkable; build his own major film studio.
That endeavor ranks as an historic milestone since it’s the first African-American owned and operated movie studio ever. Personally, I have long admired Tyler Perry’s relentless output and his dedication to do things on his own terms. He is likely best known to most young people as his famous Madea character, but he has created so many other important entities that eschew the standard Black stereotypes.
It was recently reported that his net worth has exceeded $1 billion, an accomplishment so awe-inspiring that it’s nearly impossible to convey the significance of that reality.
His outright ownership of Tyler Perry Studios has raised the standards of Black excellence to a new level. Perry named 12 different sound stages on the sprawling site after prominent African Americans in the entertainment industry, which speaks volumes about his respect for the legends who came before him. In my estimation, Perry is already a legend himself.
3. JAY-Z, 51, Hip-Hop icon/Business Mogul
Out of everyone on this list, Jay’s highly improbable rise from abject poverty, a broken home and a drug dealing adolescence and early 20’s is far and away the most remarkable.
He has embodied the hustler’s spirit from the very beginning, most notably in 1995 when he grew frustrated with being unable to secure a deal with a record company and in turn, teamed up with Kareem “Biggs” Burke and Damon Dash to form their own label, Roc-a-Fella Records.
From there, his debut album, Reasonable Doubt debuted in 1996, detailing his street experiences and how they and his single-mindedness to win at the game of life co-existed. Jay was friends with the Notorious B.I.G., who was significantly more popular and accomplished than was Jay at the time. By the spring of 1997, both Biggie and his superstar rival, 2Pac had been murdered, leaving a giant void in hip-hop that was soon filled by JAY-Z.
It was the September 1998 release of his third album, Vol.2…Hard Knock Life that catapulted the 28-year old MC to international superstardom. As his music career blossomed, earning Jay massive chart success and numerous awards, he was equally focused on building his portfolio beyond that industry. He soon launched his own clothing line, “Rocawear,” as his reputation as a baller/businessman ascended to a new level that the genre had almost never seen before.
His phenomenal giftedness on the microphone and his increasingly luxurious lifestyle earned him the unique status of being almost certainly the best in the game, while also being the epitome of a hip-hop mogul. After a brilliant, eight album run of dominance from 1996 to 2003, JAY-Z retired with an enormous legacy and influence, only to turn up as President of Def Jam shortly thereafter.
While in that corner office, he shrewdly rid his label of artists who were not profitable while replacing them with artists who would make an immediate impact and become highly successful themselves; Kanye West and Rihanna. When he returned to life as an artist in 2006 with his ninth solo album, Kingdom Come, he had become, at 36, something of an elder statesman, even rapping on “The Prelude:”
“I used to think rappin’ at 38 was ill, then last year alone I grossed 38 mill. I know I ain’t quite 38 but still, the flow so special got a 38 feel, the real is back.”
By this point, Jay was almost exclusively wearing expensive tailored suits and designer eyeglasses and shoes, approximating a distinctively “grown and sexy” look. This was definitely a new era for him; two years later he married superstar recording artist Beyoncé, whom he had been dating since 2002. When Barack Obama became the 44th U.S. President in 2009, JAY-Z was one of several celebrities who gained access to his inner circle, even becoming friends.
That alone ranks as a huge accomplishment for a former drug dealer turned rapper, at no time in history would something like that have had a legitimate chance of taking place. Jay and Beyoncé welcomed their first child in 2012, and both continued enjoying the extraordinary fruits of their labor, still touring and making music and of course, setting trends.
JAY-Z had long before eschewed name dropping Cristal champagne in his lyrics due to a controversy involving the brand’s owner. Instead, he invested in his own elite brand called Ace of Spades, which was another example of his exemplary business acuity. He briefly owned a stake in the Brooklyn Nets, has his own music streaming service with Tidal, invested in D’usse cognac, and formed a partnership for his Roc Nation with Live Nation.
When he released his 2017 LP, 4:44, we all became privy to his business executive and investor mindset. In his lyrics, he spoke in specific detail about his less known strategy for his accumulation of wealth, naming his affinity for high end artwork as one of his preferred methods.
In my estimation, it is virtually impossible to accurately convey the sheer magnitude of JAY-Z and his unrelenting dedication, or rather obsession to succeed at the highest of levels. His mythological journey is truly a grand illustration of what true black excellence and black power looks like.
4. LeBron James, 35, Pro Athlete/Business Mogul
LeBron James is a true marvel. What he represents in terms of not only elite athletic achievement, but also in business, social activism and a commitment to fitness cannot be overstated. Born in poverty in the inner city of Akron, Ohio to a single mother, LeBron was never just some kid lucky enough to grow to a towering 6’9,” he was also immensely focused and determined to make something out of what was once a sad tale.
After one of the most incredible prep school careers ever, James jumped straight into the NBA at age 18 in 2003 and somehow managed to exceed the lofty expectations placed on him in high school. He was the obvious choice for Rookie of the Year, which he won after the 2003–04 season came to a close. He led his Cleveland Cavaliers to the playoffs for the first time in his career in 2006, then led them to their first ever NBA finals appearance the following season.
By the time he made the controversial decision to leave the Cavs in 2010 to head to the Miami Heat, he had authored a 7-season career of unfettered excellence, being named league MVP twice and amassing all NBA statistics consistently each season. In the midst of this greatness, LeBron was building an impressive career off the court as one of Nike’s premier endorsers as well as a host of other companies.
He won his first NBA championship in 2012 with Miami and followed that up with another in 2013. By that point, he had become an outspoken social activist and began using his platforms to call attention to injustices such as the Trayvon Martin and Eric Gardner murders. He returned to Cleveland in 2014 and began growing into an elder statesman role, though still enormously dominant as a player.
He developed several multi media companies with the intent to create original content and control his own image and brand. He also dedicated attention to his hometown with the creation of his “I Promise” school in Akron. When he led the Cavaliers to their first ever NBA championship in 2016 in historic fashion, he fulfilled a promise that he made as a rookie and in the process, won his third overall title.
As the years piled up, he continued to defy previous standards of sustained greatness by turning in one amazing season after another. He left the Cavs again in 2018 to join the Los Angeles Lakers (winning his 4th title in his second season with the franchise, while continuing to build his media empire with the development of online, film and television series. Since Donald Trump has taken office, LeBron has been very outspoken against some of Trump’s more petulant tweets.
That led, in part to LeBron’s increased focus on the 2020 election, and likely aided in the record voter turnout. Speaking of which, the very controversial murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota back in May sparked a national outcry for justice, mostly from the black community.
The filmed encounter created a flash point and led to widespread protests, rioting and more violence. James has been among the most famous of people that has spoken out against the systemic racism that made those types of incidents happen so frequently. When the next high profile incident involving a black individual occurred, this time in Wisconsin, LeBron again used his platform to demand social justice.
Police shot a black man named Jacob Blake seven times in his back, paralyzing him with seemingly no remorse. Recognizing that Trump has done little to nothing (except fan the flames) about the racial climate in this country, James built an outlet to help to make it easier for people who share his frustration with the current administration to get out and vote. As I mentioned, it certainly worked.
He was also one of the most vocal NBA players during a brief boycott of games last season in favor of ending it prematurely if league owners hadn’t used their influence, especially with politicians to create meaningful change in the ongoing racially charged injustices plaguing the black community.
As I’ve watch him grow and evolve from a superstar athlete to a legendary athlete and social activist, businessman and role model for many, I have been nothing short of majorly impressed with LeBron James. He is one of a select few who have proven just how powerful black resilience can be while continuing to be a huge inspiration.