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Who was the first black billionaire?

Making history as the first black billionaire is an incredible achievement that few have attained. Becoming a billionaire takes drive, talent, opportunity, and a bit of luck. For black entrepreneurs who broke racial barriers, the journey was often even more challenging.

The Obstacles Facing Black Billionaires

Achieving billionaire status as a black business leader comes with unique hurdles. Racism and discrimination in education, employment, housing, and banking have made it harder for black individuals to access the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Limited access to capital prevents many black entrepreneurs from getting their ideas off the ground or scaling their companies. And unsupported black-owned businesses struggle to thrive and grow.

Despite facing systemic barriers, a select few black business leaders have managed to find enormous success. Though the exact first black billionaire is debated, Robert L. Johnson, founder of BET, and Michael Jordan, NBA legend turned business mogul, are often cited as pioneers.

The First Black Billionaire Contenders

Robert L. Johnson

Robert L. Johnson is often considered the first black billionaire in the world. In 1979, Johnson founded Black Entertainment Television (BET), which became the first black-owned company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. After taking BET public in 1991, Johnson sold the network to Viacom in 2001 for $3 billion. The deal made him the country’s first black billionaire.

Johnson was born in 1946 in Hickory, Mississippi. He served in the military then earned an MBA from Princeton. After working for several years in Washington DC, Johnson saw an opportunity to provide programming for black audiences underserved by mainstream media. Though BET started as a small cable channel, it grew into a powerhouse network under Johnson’s leadership.

BET created a space for black artists, music, news, and culture to thrive on television. As CEO, Johnson invested in original programming and signed major deals to bring black artists to BET. The network appealed to advertisers hoping to reach black consumers.

Though criticized at times for graphic content, BET became hugely successful under Johnson. His savvy deal-making and ability to foresee BET’s growth potential ultimately earned him billionaire status. After selling BET, Johnson went on to launch various new business ventures spanning hotels, financial services, and more.

Michael Jordan

Legendary basketball player Michael Jordan is often cited as the first black sports billionaire. Jordan spent 15 seasons in the NBA, dominating the sport with six championships and five MVP awards. But it was his business deals that cemented his status as a billionaire.

Jordan was born in Brooklyn in 1963 then went on to play basketball at UNC Chapel Hill. After being drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984, he quickly became a household name. His first deal with Nike in 1984 laid the foundations for his future fortune. Nike created Air Jordan sneakers, splitting proceeds with Jordan. As Jordan’s fame grew on the court, so did sales of his iconic shoe line.

Jordan retired from the NBA for good in 2003 with a net worth over $400 million. But his biggest endorsement payday came in 2015 when Nike’s Jordan brand hit $3 billion in revenue. Jordan owns a share of the Jordan brand, and between that stake and other partnerships, his net worth soared. In 2014, Forbes estimated his net worth at $1 billion.

In addition to Nike and other corporate deals, Jordan also owns the Charlotte Hornets NBA team. His current net worth is estimated at around $1.7 billion. Jordan paved the way for other celebrity athlete billionaires including LeBron James and Tiger Woods.

Other Notable Firsts

While Robert Johnson and Michael Jordan stand out as pioneers, a few other black business leaders also have claims as the first black billionaire:

  • Nigerian industrialist Antonio Deinde Fernandez was estimated to be worth $1.2 billion back in the 1980s from his oil business. He was likely one of the first modern black billionaires.
  • Oprah Winfrey became the first black female billionaire in 2003, largely thanks to her successful TV network.
  • Nigerian cement tycoon Aliko Dangote is considered the first black African billionaire, hitting the mark in 2007.

The Rise of Black Billionaires

While reaching billionaire status remains extremely rare, more black business leaders have joined the three comma club in recent decades. Advocacy and initiatives focused on expanding opportunities for black entrepreneurs are beginning to make an impact. And stories of black business success help inspire the next generation.

According to Forbes 2022 rankings, there are currently 12 black or multiracial black billionaires. This includes respected business leaders like David Steward, Janice Bryant Howroyd, and Ursula Burns. The below table summarizes the current black billionaires, their net worth, and source of wealth:

Name Net Worth Source of Wealth
Robert F. Smith $6.7 billion Private equity
David Steward $3.7 billion IT provider
Oprah Winfrey $2.6 billion TV, media
Kanye West $2 billion Music, fashion
Michael Jordan $1.7 billion NBA, endorsements
Aliko Dangote $1.5 billion Cement, sugar
Mike Adenuga $1.3 billion Telecom, oil
Abdulsamad Rabiu $1.2 billion Cement, sugar
Strive Masiyiwa $1.1 billion Telecom
Folorunsho Alakija $1 billion Oil
Patrice Motsepe $1 billion Mining
Michael Lee-Chin $1 billion Investments

Robert Smith remains at the top as the richest black person in the U.S. with a fortune of $6.7 billion. He founded private equity firm Vista Equity Partners in 2000 which quickly prospered. While most black billionaires built their wealth in media, energy, and other industries, Smith succeeded in the elite world of high finance.

Meanwhile, Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote is the richest person in Africa with interests spanning cement, sugar, and food processing. And Strive Masiyiwa joins the list as Zimbabwe’s first billionaire thanks to his Econet Group’s telecom assets across Africa.

As a group, the 12 black billionaires are worth an estimated $26 billion combined. And more black business leaders and entrepreneurs are on track to potentially join their ranks in the future.

A Slowly Diversifying Group

While the increasing number of black billionaires is encouraging, they still only represent a tiny fraction of the total billionaire population. There are over 2,600 billionaires worldwide, the majority of whom are white men from the U.S., Europe, and Asian countries like China and India.

Black billionaires account for just 0.46% of all global billionaires. And women are also disproportionately underrepresented, making up only 12% of the billionaire class.

Additionally, black wealth overall remains far behind white wealth. The net worth gap and homeownership gap have persisted for decades. On average, black families in the U.S. have less than 15% of the wealth that white families have.

There is still a long way to go to build a more equitable business and economic landscape. But the groundwork laid by pioneers like Robert Johnson and Michael Jordan has started to open doors for more diversity at the upper echelons of wealth.


Robert Johnson and Michael Jordan stand out among history’s first black billionaires based on the timing and scale of their business success. Both overcame barriers facing black entrepreneurs by leveraging opportune deals and a keen business sense. But while they reached the remarkable milestone first, the billionaire club is slowly diversifying.

There are now a dozen black billionaires across industries from tech to oil and gas. The increase shows that more opportunities are opening up for ambitious black business leaders to run highly successful companies. Though still far from equal representation, the presence of black billionaires in the modern business world is a promising sign of change.