Black individuals, in the United States as well as in other countries, have long faced significant hurdles when it comes to investing, and to finance in general. These hurdles include lending discrimination in the U.S. and racism in the insurance industry, among others, which have held back people of color. Yet, despite these difficulties, there has also been a long line of inspiring Black figures in finance and investing.
Some are legendary for their extraordinary achievements within the industry, while others are legendary for their groundbreaking accomplishments during a time when few Black people worked in finance. All are notable for their expertise and influence, both within the industry and in the outside world. Here is a look at the stories of eight legendary Black men and women.
Robert F. Smith
In 2000, Robert F. Smith founded Vista Equity Partners, which invests in technology and software companies that aim to improve economic justice.
Smith’s unique approach to investing—which blends a strong social conscience with rigorous risk management—has seen Vista Equity Partners grow to manage more than $73 billion in assets and achieve annualized returns of 22% since its founding.
Smith’s personal story is also inspiring. He was born in 1964 in Colorado and studied chemical engineering at Cornell University before earning an MBA from Columbia Business School with honors. He joined Goldman Sachs in 1994 and was initially assigned to mergers and acquisitions before striking out on his own in 2000.
Smith has a keen eye for publicity. He made national news in 2019—and simultaneously boosted Vista Equity’s profile—by promising to pay off the student debt of Morehouse College’s graduating class. According to Forbes, Smith has a net worth of more than $5 billion and is the richest Black person in America.
Daymond John came to success the hard way. He was born in New York City in 1969 into very modest circumstances and struggled with dyslexia. John started early (as did many of the Black investors on this list) with a few moneymaking ventures when he was in elementary school and high school.
In 1992, at age 23, John and three childhood friends founded hip-hop-inspired clothing brand FUBU (an acronym for "for us, by us"). The brand was very successful, due in no small part to John’s unusual marketing strategy: He offered clothes free to musical artists, such as LL Cool J, NSYNC, and Snoop Dogg, and leveraged the popularity of the videos and paparazzi shots in which they appeared. FUBU became a $6 billion global brand, but after more than a decade of success, the popularity of the clothing line began to wane, and John started to look for other opportunities.
He found his next job—the one that would catapult him to national fame—on the TV show Shark Tank. As an angel investor, John has invested millions in budding enterprises that have appeared on the show. He has an uncannily accurate eye for startups and entrepreneurs who will achieve success. As a result, John has been one of the most successful investors on the show, having backed breakout brands such as the Comfy Original blanket, Bubba's Q boneless ribs, and the Bombas sock company.
Nowadays, in addition to working on the show, John is CEO of the Shark Group, a brand consulting and speaking firm.
Travers J. Bell, Jr.
Travers J. Bell Jr. was a visionary investor whose short life was filled with financial achievements. Born in 1941 into a poor but ambitious Chicago family, Bell studied for many hours a day from a very young age. He eventually earned degrees from Washington University in St. Louis and the New York Institute of Finance at a time when few Black people attended these prestigious institutions.
Bell got his start at Dempsey-Tegeler & Company, a Midwestern brokerage, where he worked as a messenger and ascended to the role of vice president before striking out on his own. He co-founded Daniels & Bell, the first Black-owned investment firm on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), in 1971. When its work began, the firm had just $175,000 in capital, but this figure grew rapidly as a result of a series of successful (and sometimes ruthless) investment decisions.
Bell made it his business to give back to the community. His firm specialized in underwriting securities for burgeoning minority-owned businesses and municipal bonds for small Southern towns at a time when few institutional investors were interested in these opportunities. By backing firms, individuals, and towns that had been overlooked by a largely White Wall Street, Bell found a successful market while also spurring development in previously poor and underserved parts of the country.
Bell passed away in 1988 at age 46 from a heart attack; by then the firm had a net worth of $15 million. However, his legacy lives on through his son, Gregory S. Bell, a writer at Black Enterprise and the author of In the Black: A History of African Americans on Wall Street. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in the inspiring, difficult, and largely forgotten history of Black investors and entrepreneurs in the U.S.
Suzanne Shank has almost single-handedly revolutionized the world of municipal bond underwriting. Like other investors on this list, Shank didn’t start out in finance but initially studied STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), completing a B.S. in civil engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology before earning an MBA in finance from Wharton.
After graduating from Wharton, Shank gained experience at a number of Wall Street firms before starting her own business. In 1996 she co-founded Siebert Cisneros Shank & Co., which experienced a meteoric rise, becoming the first minority- and/or women-owned business enterprise (MWBE) to be a top 10 U.S. municipal bond underwriter.
In 2019, Shank oversaw one of the biggest mergers of recent years. The firm she had founded (and led as chairperson and CEO) merged with Williams Capital Group to form Siebert Williams Shank. This firm, with Shank as president and CEO, now employs some of the most experienced talent in the world of municipal underwriting and has become a titan of the industry.
Shank has also been keen to inspire and support the next generation of Black investors. She is currently a member of Wharton’s graduate executive board and Spelman College’s board of trustees, where she focuses on providing access to underrepresented minorities.
Mellody Hobson seems to have been marked for greatness from a young age. After an impressive early academic career, she attended Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs and graduated with flying colors. Since then, alongside her business career, she has been a frequent and devoted columnist for a number of industry publications, most notably Black Enterprise, to which she has contributed numerous articles.
Hobson rose rapidly through a number of managerial positions in tech and entertainment firms and served as chair of the board for DreamWorks Animation until the company’s sale to Disney. This position, and her prominence in the world of investing in general, led to Time magazine naming her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2015.
Since then, Hobson has come to focus on investments more specifically. She is currently co-CEO and president of Ariel Investments, a mutual fund firm specializing in value investing with small and medium-size companies. Ariel is now one of the largest minority-owned investment firms in the nation. Hobson has also brought her leadership to several corporate boards. In March 2021, she will become chair of Starbucks.
Finally, Hobson is also notable for the value she places on loyalty in her professional relationships. Her co-CEO at Ariel is John W. Rogers, with whom she founded the company and with whom she has worked for many years.
Kevin Cohee is that rare breed—an investor with a genuine social conscience and a belief in the power of the market to lift disadvantaged people out of poverty. Cohee’s career stands as proof of what can be achieved in that regard.
After working as an entrepreneur and an investment banker at Salomon Brothers, Cohee purchased a majority share in Boston Bank of Commerce and became its CEO in 1996. At this point, however, it was clear that he wanted to create a new type of banking institution—one that was as focused on social capital as it was on its shareholders.
During his tenure at Boston Bank of Commerce, Cohee acquired several community banks around the country. He chose these banks specifically for their ethical approach to lending and incorporated them fully into the management structure. Next, he rebranded his new institution as OneUnited Bank and gave it a new mission: to ease access to capital in disadvantaged communities.
Cohee's model has proved successful. OneUnited Bank is now the largest Black-owned bank in America and has helped many thousands of Black-owned businesses gain access to capital they otherwise would have difficulty obtaining.
Mark Mason, CFO of Citi, recently came to wide public prominence in 2020 as one of the first power players in the finance industry to speak out publicly about the killing of George Floyd. His passionate and powerful post on the Citi blog spoke out against the injustice and deeply ingrained nature of racism in the U.S.
Though this recent critique garnered Mason public attention, he has been a major figure in the world of finance for almost two decades. After graduating from Howard University, for which he now serves as a trustee, he earned an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Mason joined Citibank in 2001 and quickly rose through the ranks. Over the past 20 years, he has held a number of executive-level positions at the bank and its affiliate entities, including CFO of Citi’s Institutional Clients Group, which is responsible for $1.3 trillion in assets and $33 billion in revenue, before becoming CFO of the bank itself.
Russell L. Goings
Like Travers J. Bell Jr., Goings was an early pioneer for African Americans on Wall Street. After joining Shearson, Hammill & Co., Goings made its Harlem investment branch the firm’s most profitable, while also becoming the first Black brokerage manager at an NYSE firm. Goings then purchased the Harlem branch, renamed it First Harlem Securities, and bought a seat on the NYSE for $250,000.
Goings achieved all of this from relatively humble beginnings. He was born during the Great Depression to a family of six kids and, like Daymond John, struggled with dyslexia. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Goings eventually earned a B.A. from Xavier University and played professional football before a knee injury ended his career and he became an over-the-counter trader at J.W. Kaufmann & Co. in 1960.
Goings is also a prolific author and editor. He was a founder and the first chair of Essence magazine and wrote the book-length poem The Children of Children Keep Coming: An Epic Griotsong, illustrated by the artist Romare Bearden, whose work he championed, about the history of African Americans. Goings was also chair of the Studio Museum in Harlem, where he first met Bearden.
The Bottom Line
Each of these investors is inspiring and not just because of the success they achieved in their chosen field. They have triumphed despite the difficulties they have had to overcome in a society that still has massive wage gaps by race, making their achievements even more remarkable.
What's more, many of the investors on this list are also actively using their success to improve the outlook for the next generation, whether by offering capital to Black-owned businesses, through racial justice investing, or by improving the racial mix at their own institutions. It appears that many of the most successful Black investors are also those with the strongest social consciences.