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Reginald F. Lewis Was the First African-American to Build A Billion Dollar Business. Here’s How He Did It.

When the late Reginald Lewis was a teenager, he told his friend, “I know that what I’d like to be is the richest Black man in America.”

And by 1992, Lewis’ dream came to fruition: he was the first Black American to launch a billion-dollar company, Beatrice Foods. And, with a net worth of $400 million, Forbes listed Lewis as one of the 400 wealthiest Americans. 

Reginald F. Lewis (Photo: https://reginaldflewis.com/)

“His brilliance was functioning in the white world,” Jean Fugett, Lewis’ brother, told Forbes. “He knew he had to be twice as good.”

Humble Beginnings 

Lewis was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1942. At just 10 years old, Lewis showed his work ethic when he began selling copies of the Baltimore Afro-American, the local Black newspaper. In time, Lewis grew his route from 10 customers to 100. 

By the time Lewis was attending Virginia State University, he was donning tweed jackets and thin British neckties. After all, he needed to look the part of who he one day wanted to be: the richest Black man in America. 

After being accepted into an exclusive summer program for Black students at Harvard University, Lewis pushed the envelope a bit more. Leveraging his academic achievements and networking during the summer program, Lewis was accepted into Harvard Law School — without ever even completing an application. 

Rise to the Top 

Lewis began his career as a corporate attorney, but within two years, he launched one of the first Black-led law firms on Wall Street: Wallace, Murphy, Thorpe and Lewis. The firm was known for supporting fellow Black entrepreneurs through initiatives such as the Minority Enterprise Small Business Investment Companies. In time, its client list grew to include companies such as General Foods, Norton Simon, The Ford Foundation, Aetna Life and Equitable Life. 

Yet Lewis, who had planned on increasing his wealth further, was not satisfied. In 1984, he began buying and selling companies. One of his first huge acquisitions was the McCall Pattern. With a personal investment of $1 million, Lewis purchased the home sewing business for $22.5 million. Three years later, he sold it for $90 million. 

Lewis’ next move would transform his legacy. 

In 1987, Beatrice International was sold via auction by Morgan Stanley and Salomon Brothers. The company had earned $2.5 billion in sales, and Lewis saw his future. 

He quickly placed a bid for $950 million. And with the support of financier Michael Milken, and by increasing his bid to $985 million, Lewis became the owner of Beatrice. 

Building a Legacy 

After purchasing Beatrice, Lewis was able to begin focusing on philanthropic endeavors. Lewis donated $3 million to Harvard University in 1992. Lewis’ donation was the largest gift offered by an individual. As a result, Harvard Law School named its international law building Reginald F. Lewis Law Center, making it the first to be named after a Black person.

Lewis would serve as a role model for many Black-American entrepreneurs to seek wealth. 

Robert Smith, founder and CEO of the private equity firm, Vista Equity Partners, reached billionaire status as a result of Lewis’ drive. 

“As a young man from a rather segregated Denver, Colorado, I was inspired by Reginald Lewis to dream bigger,” Smith told Forbes. “Handed little more in life than the blessings of a brilliant mind and an unshakable spirit, Reginald single-handedly built an empire that changed our perception of what a Black man could accomplish.”

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