Black History Month: British entrepreneurs from the past and present
October is Black History Month in the UK. It's a time to reflect on the amazing but often over-looked or ignored achievements and contributions of British people and communities of African and Caribbean descent to this country and the world, today and over many generations.
So, meet some incredible forgotten pioneers of British industry, as well as some great leaders of today’s businesses, as we celebrate Black British enterprise!
Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780)
Composer, actor, campaigner and grocery shop-owner
Born on a slave ship heading for modern-day Colombia, Ignatius was later orphaned and brought to Greenwich, London, as a toddler where he was given to a family as their slave. They named him ‘Sancho’ (his given name is lost to history). Despite living in a time when slaves were not allowed to be educated, it seems Ignatius read every book, poem, play and manuscript he could get his hands on. A Duke noticed his artistic talent for music and his intelligence, and offered Ignatius a paid job as a butler in his home.
Ignatius later became a free man, which meant he wasn't enslaved anymore. Finally financially independent, he earned money for himself and his family by indulging his passion for theatre – writing, publishing and selling his own songs, dances, music, poetry and plays. A smart businessman, he also bought and ran a grocery shop in Westminster that became a popular hang-out for all the big actors and artists of the day. It’s clear from the portraits and descriptions of him that survive today that his opinions and talent were well-respected. He even became the first known black person of African descent to vote in parliamentary elections in Britain, in 1774 and 1780.
Ignatius wrote letters that passionately argued against the slave trade. These were collected into books after his death in 1780, and the two volumes of ‘The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African’ were a very big hit, leaving Ignatius’ family with more than £500 in royalties – which is about £88,000 in today’s value.
If you are interested in jobs in the creative industries you can search through career profiles here.
Margaret Busby OBE (born 1944)
Founder, book-publisher, journalist
Born in Ghana, Margaret grew up in the UK and become Britain’s youngest and first female book publisher in the 1960’s when she set up her own publishing company.
Margaret also freelances as a writer and journalist for TV, radio, newspapers and websites, sometimes also presenting on programmes. A truly creative ‘renaissance woman’, Margaret has also written stage plays and song lyrics, as well as reviews, anthologies and obituaries that celebrate the achievements of famous writers.
Margaret continues to use her talent and influence to draw attention to new writers, and to campaign for diversity in the publishing industry.
If you’d like to find out more about freelancing, check out Emily’s story: the story of a freelance writer.
Evelyn Dove (1902 – 1987)
International recording artist
The first ever black singer on BBC radio, Evelyn was a trail-blazer with an unforgettable voice. Born mixed-race in 1902, she faced prejudice and discrimination daily, but nothing could hold her back. She attended the Royal Academy of Music and travelled the world performing at the best and biggest venues.
During the second world war, the BBC employed Evelyn to sing over the airwaves to troops around the world and those they left behind at home. In 1947 she was invited to feature as a performer on a BBC TV variety show special celebrating black talent.
As a freelancer performer, Evelyn embodied the entrepreneurial spirit, sometimes going without a paid gig for a while, she once had to apply for a job as a Post Office telephonist but she managed her personal brand and talent all the way to becoming a headline act known internationally, bringing audiences of world leaders and the public to their feet in standing ovations.
If you want to know more about jobs in the performing arts check out this collection.
Bruce Oldfield OBE (born 1950)
Fashion designer and label founder
Bruce is a world-famous fashion designer who has created couture ‘one-off’ pieces for royalty and celebrities as well as redesigning the McDonald’s uniform! He never knew his parents and was fostered as a child in Barnardo’s – a charity for vulnerable children, and those without homes or families.
The same year Bruce graduated from University at St. Martin’s School of Art he launched his first collection in New York. He returned to London and became a popular designer, with famous clients including Princess Diana. He built his brand, opening shops and selling his pieces, and is very well known for his wedding dress lines.
Today, he is still in charge of the fashion business that bears his name and is worth around £1 million!
Kanya King MBE
Founder and CEO of the MOBO awards
Kayna was born in London, the youngest of nine children to a Ghanaian father and Irish mother. She was always passionate about music, but had a difficult start in life when aged 16 she left school to give birth to her son. Nonetheless, she went on to study English Literature at Goldsmiths College.
Kanya worked at different places, including BBC Radio 2 where she booked musicians to appear on programmes. She felt strongly that music awards weren’t reflecting the wide range of black British talent, and over 20 years ago established the MOBO (Music of black origin) organisation. At first, she couldn’t find a financial backer, but she persisted and re-mortgaged her own home to fund the very first MOBO awards ceremony, organising it in only six weeks!
MOBO has focused on putting black musical talent front and centre in British popular culture, shining a light on talents that may otherwise have been resigned to the margins, without mainstream recognition.
We asked ex-Apprentice candidate Jackie Fast what makes a successful entrepreneur. Hint: Think Kanya!
George Africanus (1763 – 1834)
Employment agency entrepreneur and landlord
No depictions of George Afriancus exist, however his legacy as a former slave from Sierra Leone who became a successful entrepreneur in Nottingham still lives on. Growing up as a slave to a wealthy family, George later took on an apprenticeship and learned a trade as a brass founder.
He moved to Nottingham aged 21 and in 1793, together with his wife Esther, created a start-up business. George founded an employment agency called ‘Africanus Register of Servants’, which would have been like a job-matching website in its day!
George is listed as a brass founder as well as waiter and labourer in other trade directories of the time, which shows that while his budding business was taking off he still had to have a diverse portfolio of skills and experience to support his family. And provide for his family he did: he built his Registry’s reputation and bought a home. After his death, Esther continued the family business until she died. The business they began together lasted over 60 years, and now the street in Nottingham where George worked and lived near bears a plaque in his honour.
Editor-In-Chief, interior-design journalist and creative consultancy director
Born in Manchester, Michelle grew up in London. As Editor-In-Chief of ELLE Decoration UK she split her time between her home in Brighton and work at the ELLE magazine in L.A. and London.
Michelle has many strings to her bow as a renowned and award-winning expert on interior design trends and style, including: TV presenter, writer and consultant.
Although Michelle trained as an architect, she is the living embodiment of the ‘jigsaw career’. An influencer with social media savvy, no single path has led to her developing her personal brand, sharpening her skills and instincts for design or building a network of contacts that have led to her being her own boss.
While self-employed, Michelle continued to write freelance for publications, and she has founded her own creative consultancy MO:STUDIO.