John Johnson was the first African-American to appear on the Forbes 400 list, having amassed immense wealth from his successful magazine, EBONY.
Johnson succeeded as an African-American entrepreneur during the 1940’s, thus his story is worth sharing and most remarkable. Johnson came from a very poor family but his leadership skills were exemplified early on, becoming high school student president and the editor of his high school newspaper.
Worth noting is that Johnson would go to class during the day and then read self improvement books at night. Johnson’s passion for continued knowledge helped him to eventually become accepted into the University of Chicago. He also found a mentor in Harry Pace, president of a life insurance company, and worked as his assistant. This job gave Johnson the opportunity to pay his student loans, but a larger opportunity would reveal itself shortly.
The most important aspect of Johnson’s job working for Pace was that he would put together a monthly collection of important news articles, akin to Reader’s Digest, which Pace would read at leisure.
Similar to Marcos Galperin and Mecado Libre, Johnson had the idea to apply a proven business model to an untapped market.
Johnson created his first publication entitled Negro Digest (later named Black World) in 1942, creating a Readers Digest type publication marketed to African-Americans.
Very important to notice is that Johnson used some very innovative methods to finance his first venture.
After being shut down by many banks and the NAACP, Johnson decided to write to everyone on the Supreme Liberty Mailing list, asking for a $2 prepaid subscription. Johnson figured all he needed was a 15% response to finance the publishing. Johnson’s letter to the entire mailing list generated 2,000 responses, and he then used his mother’s furniture as collateral to secure a loan to buy stamps.
Johnson then partnered with Joseph Levy, a magazine distributor, and in six months 50,000 copies of Negro Digest were landing on people’s doormats. The success of Negro Digest, aka Black World, allowed him to later create his flagship magazine EBONY and also JET.
Johnson succeeded as an entrepreneur, which is hard enough as it is, during a time when African Americans were severely oppressed. Johnson died on August 8, 2005 but lives on as a strong example that anything is possible.