In celebration of Black History month and to honor the entrepreneurship journey of African Americans, we highlight Reginald F. Lewis, the First African American Billionaire.

Reginald F. Lewis was the first African American to build a billion-dollar company on wall street –  TLC Beatrice Corporation. I came to know Reginald F. Lewis when I began my entrepreneurship journey at 18 years old by reading his autobiography titled, “Why should white guys have all the fun? How Reginald Lewis Built a Billion Dollar Business Empire.” 

This book not only inspired me but it gave me the confidence that my dream to be an entrepreneur and build a global organization that served not just African Americans but all races, cultures, and nationalities was possible. Reginald F. Lewis, a graduate of Harvard University, successfully orchestrated a leveraged buyout in the 1980s through shrewd maneuvering without anyone even knowing that the purchase was being made by a black man until the deal was done.  

The First African American Billionaire

He purchased the company for a little less than $1 Billion in 1987, and at its peak in 1996, TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc. had sales of $2.2 billion and was number 512 on Fortune magazine's list of 1,000 largest companies. TLC Beatrice Corporation operated 64 units scattered around 31 countries in South America, Asia, Canada, and Europe. At the time of his death, Reginald F. Lewis’ personal net worth was valued at $400 Million, and he was listed in Fortune Magazine as the 400th wealthiest American. He also started a foundation in his name and among his philanthropy gifts include a $3 Million gift to Harvard University, the largest gift made to the university up to that time. TLC Beatrice Corporation was passed on to his wife Loida Nicolas Lewis after his death.  

How I met Loida Nicolas Lewis

Meeting Mrs. Lewis was the highlight of my entrepreneurship journey. I was 22 years old and had just become a Christian a year earlier. I served as a national teacher for the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship – NFTE, at the time the leading entrepreneurship education organization in the United States. 

Mrs. Lewis wanted to honor her husband’s legacy by sponsoring an entrepreneurship camp for teens and asked NFTE to run the camp for her.  NFTE turned to me and asked if I would lead the camp, honored and amazed I enthusiastically said yes. This was my chance to meet the wife of one of my heroes and to inquire about a man I never met who deeply impacted my entrepreneurial journey.  

Mrs. Lewis was kind, beautiful, smart, and an amazing businesswoman in her own right. She filled the shoes of her husband very well despite the fact that his book revealed that he did not work with her as an equal nor did he leverage her great mind. Unfortunately, my hero was a great businessman but not the best husband. She and I shared a common appreciation for Christianity and the value of faith in our daily lives and business. At the time, I was developing the Biblical Entrepreneurship curriculum and her validation of the role of faith in business encouraged me to pursue my vision to integrate faith in business education and coaching.  

The camp was a major success, and she felt it honored her husband’s legacy. Mrs. Lewis and I talked about working together in the future, and even though this plan has not been realized yet, she left me with great memories.

Lessons I learned from Reginald F. Lewis

  1. Dream big 
  2. Start small 
  3. Be wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove 
  4. Take calculated risks 
  5. Never give up no matter what 
  6. Marry well and work with your wife as a partner – (He married well but did not work with her as a partner)
  7. give back 

These seven guiding success principles are reflected in Lewis’ life and also in our Biblical Entrepreneurship course. Lewis’ wife was a major encouragement to me as I was developing the course while running the Reginald Lewis Entrepreneurship Summer Biz Camp.  

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