With $1500 and a dream, Janice Bryant Howroyd became the first African-American woman to build and own a billion dollar company

BY Preta Peace Namasaba February 29, 2024 5:06 PM EDT
Janice Bryant Howroyd. Photo credit: Janice Bryant Howroyd

When Janice Bryant Howroyd opened ActOne in a tiny Beverly Hills office in 1978, she had a meagre $1500 and big dreams. She made up for what she lacked in money with a remarkable work ethic, determination and familial support. Along the way, Howroyd became the first African-American woman to build and own a billion dollar company. Her dream has manifested itself into a global personnel firm operating in 33 countries with over 17,000 clients and 2,600 employees.

“I didn’t have a lot of what people typically have to start a business but I did have a lot of intelligence Sometimes when you don’t have anything, you can be bolder than someone who has something and is afraid to lose it,” Howroyd said about her atypical business start.

Growing up in a household of eleven children in North Carolina, Howroyd had early lessons in team building. Her parents assigned each sibling to an older one to act as a mentor. These close sibling bonds would prove to be fundamental in her entrepreneurial journey. But in those early childhood days, becoming an entrepreneur never crossed Howroyd’s mind. She didn’t see many entrepreneurs, only store owners and the business that she would later pursue seemed greatly unlikely.

Living in the Deep South at the time came with other challenges. Howroyd was in a pioneering member of a cohort of African-American students to participate in the desegregation of her town’s high school. In an unsavory experience, a teacher at the integrated school spoke about how Black people were well-suited for slavery and plantation life. Howroyd remembers viciously biting the insides of her mouth so as to not cry for that would be seen as accepting defeat. When she shared her experience with her father, he impressed upon her the importance of knowing who she is.

She studied humanities and English at North Carolina A&T. After college, Howroyd moved to Los Angeles in 1976 with only $900 to start a new life. Her attempt at looking for work in the city was unenjoyable and mostly futile. Her brother-in-law Tom provided a temporary job at Billboard. He noticed entrepreneurial talents and managerial capabilities in the way Howroyd interacted with clients and encouraged her to pursue staffing.

Armed with $1500 including a $900 loan from her mother, Howroyd took the leap and founded ActOne in 1978. She didn’t even own a fax machine in the tiny office she worked out of in Beverly Hills. Initially, Howroyd made full-time job placements for companies needing workers and later shifted to temporary placements. Howroyd managed to compete against bigger companies by preparing her prospective hires and training them in what their employers were looking for in new workers. Ultimately, it was satisfied clients proved to be the best form of advertisement.

“It still matters in business more what someone else says about you than what you say about yourself. You can have the best advertising, but unless someone else certifies what they are saying, you won’t last long. Word of mouth has always been my best referral system,” Howroyd said about how referrals grew her business.

The company kept adding new divisions to fill new employer needs as it grew. ActOne’s services were so good that a company it helped navigate an emergency offered to buy its technology. However, Howroyd’s brother discouraged her from selling the technology. She took his advice and continued selling services, keeping ActOne in the business equation. The business profited from companies becoming security conscious and keen to avoid problem employees. They began to offer additional services screening, vetting and doing background checks on prospective employees.

Going into business as a Black woman with limited access to networks, capital assets,  information, and growth opportunities, Howroyd had to be more than prepared. She chose to find the similarities in her peers and use them to her advantage instead of focusing on the differences. But Howroyd had to also contend with people’s prejudices and ignorance. She learned to recognize other’s doubts and turn her position as a Black, smart and female businesswoman into her power and strength. With these covert tools, Howroyd became the first African-American woman to build and own a billion-dollar company.

From being a temporary job placement agency, ActOne has become a global leader providing customized innovative solutions in the human resources industry. It helps more than 17,000 clients navigate the labor market by keeping current employees engaged and finding ways to attract new ones. Under Howroyd’s able leadership, the ActOne Group has grown into an international multi-billion-dollar award-­winning enterprise with multiple divisions servicing unique areas of employment and talent management.

Beyond business, Howroyd is an educator,  ambassador and philanthropist. She has worked with U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. She was appointed by President Obama as an advisor on HBCUs in 2016 and joined the Diversity Committee of the FCC a year later. The author of two books, Howroyd shares her story in the hopes that she can motivate women and the next generations to achieve their dreams of self-fulfilment.

“What my mind conceives and believes, I achieve. If you do not believe you can achieve it, you are reckoning it as illegal to your life. Allow yourself the freedom of your fullest dreams coming true,” Howroyd said about self-actualization.