A lesson in entrepreneurship

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RECENTLY Earl G. Graves, a successful entrepreneur, pledged a gift of $1 million to Morgan State University. It is among the largest donations ever made by an alumnus to a public, historically black college.

What is equally significant is that Mr. Graves and his family dedicated the donation to Morgan's School of Business to help to create future African-American businesspersons and entrepreneurs -- resources that are greatly needed in the black community.

Sadly, Mr. Graves, publisher and founder of Black Enterprise magazine, is probably unknown to most young African-American males. They're more likely to find their heroes among professional athletes and entertainers. And, typically, the athletes and entertainers they idolize are not such entrepreneurial role models as Bill and Camille Cosby or Julius "Dr. J" Ervin.

Most of the youngsters I have addressed around the country see professional basketball players Michael Jordan and/or Shaquille O'Neal as their role models. A host of rap singers and motion picture stars complete their list of preferred heroes.

While these youngsters know many athletes and entertainers, usually they cannot name a single great African-American physician such as Dr. Ben Carson, the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. They cannot name a great African-American lawyer or judge such as Leon Higginbotham Jr., a federal judge. Or, most important, in our capitalist, free-market economy, they cannot name a single great African-American businessperson or entrepreneur.

This is particularly unfortunate since entrepreneurs are so desperately needed to help the black neighborhoods around the country that have been hurt by the closing or moving of American industry to foreign countries or rural areas.

Among the country's most successful black entrepreneurs are: Earl Graves (also a partner in a Pepsi bottling operation that serves Washington, D.C., and Prince George's County), Bill Cosby (owner of a production company that attempted to buy the NBC television network) and ex-NBA legend Julius Ervin (partner in a Pepsi bottling operation).

Young African-Americans are often shocked and outraged when tell them that athletes such as Michael Jordan often fail to help their people because they don't create business opportunities that return wealth to the community. For example, Michael Jordan, one of the nation's most desirable corporate spokesmen, has helped make Nike's owners richer. But, what if he had contracted under his own name with sneaker manufacturers in Taiwan or China and bought the sneakers named for him for about $5 a pair. Such a venture could have been part of a potentially lasting business that would produce many jobs for African-Americans.

Better yet, he could have built an athletic shoe manufacturing plant in one or more of our numerous enterprise zones located in areas of substantial African-American unemployment. We African-Americans especially need such thinking from our athletes to ameliorate our high youth unemployment rate.

It is tragic that so many young African-American males do not seem to know a real role model when one comes forward. Many African-American entrepreneurs, who are alumni of historically black colleges, have often given major gifts to already well-endowed prestigious institutions.

In announcing his gift to Morgan, Earl Graves set a fitting example for others to follow. In his brief but profound dedication speech, Mr. Graves noted that he was an entrepreneur when he attended Morgan State as a student during the 1950s. He joked about how students complained about the prices he charged for his flower business that spurred a number of romances. He also told how he had a weekend lawn cutting business that was a harbinger of his future business success.

Those concerned with the plight of African-American youth must make an effort to constantly praise and hold up for emulation entrepreneurial models such as Earl Graves.

In the reality of a free-market capitalist economy, African-Americans should model themselves not after athletes like Michael Jordan, but rather Jerry Reinsdorf, the person who decides whether Mike will play and how much he will be paid. Mr. Reinsdorf owns the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago White Sox baseball team.

The more Earl Graves we all celebrate, the less likely our youth will see either the high risk fields of athletics, entertainment, or worst of all, illegal activity as the best way of succeeding in a free-market economy.

Frank L. Morris Sr., Ph.D., is dean of graduate studies and research at Morgan State University.

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