Entrepreneurship and Civil Rights: Then and Now

Original post date: November 07, 2014
Article by: Matt Kelly

Florida State University recently hosted distinguished Florida A&M University professor David Jackson for a lecture on the role of business in the Civil Rights Movement. Using his research on Booker T. Washington as a basis, Dr. Jackson introduced his audience to notable 20th century African-American entrepreneurs in Jacksonville, Florida. Many of his examples can be thought of as the social entrepreneurs of their time. Success in business was a quiet form of resistance under Jim Crow era segregation, according to Jackson.

Social entrepreneurs create market-based solutions to social problems, and a focus on social mission deeply informs their business decisions. With a similar mindset, black business people throughout the South offered alternatives to their marginalized customers, strengthening communities as well as making money. Black entrepreneurs like A.L. Lewis of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, and Douglas Anderson, who ran Jacksonville’s first black-friendly bus company, were motivated to solve the social ills of their day and used business as a means to do so.

Entrepreneurship is still a source of empowerment for minorities, and social entrepreneurs recognize that markets are needed for communities to flourish. Today, there is no shortage of creative and successful African-American business people, and the framework of social entrepreneurship continues to play prominently.

Eunice Cofie, an applicant to the Diehl Family Social Enterprise Competition, managed by the DeVoe Moore Center at Florida State University, is one such inheritor of this tradition. Codie founded Nuekie, a health and beauty company that offers dermatological and cosmetic products to people of color. Health and beauty products have existed for millennia, yet African-Americans still have limited options for their unique skincare needs. Most dermatological companies have a one-size-fits-all approach that focuses on treating white skin, and neglects ethnic skin types. Cofie saw this market inefficiency as a social problem that could be solved through entrepreneurship, and took the opportunity to create value for an underserved population.

Cofie told us in an interview that Nuekie’s, “mission is to change the way people of color feel about the science and medical industry by offering them products suited to their needs.” Cofie went on to say, “People of color have a contentious history with the medical industry, and have often been exploited by it. We want to be the place where tradition and science heal.” Cofie uses her knowledge of chemistry, gained from an education at FAMU, to craft innovative dermatological solutions. Many Nuekie products incorporate modern science with herbal remedies used in Ghana, where her parents were born. In 2013, The Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce named NuekieTallahassee’s Startup Business of the Year.

Dr. Jackson’s lecture on the role of business in the Civil Rights Movement highlighted Booker T. Washington’s founding of the National Negro Business League in 1900 as a seminal moment of change. This emphasis casts new light on the struggle for racial equality. Social entrepreneurs like Eunice Cofie have taken to heart these historical insights in order to solve the social problems of our own time, utilizing business as a powerful engine of social progress.

About DeVoe Moore Center

The DeVoe L. Moore Center is conducts economic research and policy analysis focused on state and local policy issues and is located in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee. As an educational institution the DMC provides professional research experience to undergraduate and master’s students through an extensive program of internships and independent study, preparing them for a future in public policy, economic development, public sector accountability and entrepreneurship.
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