Taking the Reigns at 'Black Enterprise'

Earl "Butch" Graves talks about his new post as the CEO of Black Enterprise Magazine, and about the ongoing success of the 35-year-old magazine.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Earlier this month, Earl Graves, Sr. rang the ceremonial bell at the New York Stock Exchange. He did so in part to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Black Enterprise Magazine. Graves is founder of Black Enterprise, which spotlights the advancements of African Americans in the world of business. Last January, Graves handed over the reigns of the company to his son, Earl Butch Graves, Jr. The 44 year old takes over at a time when the magazine has enjoyed more than a generation of considerable success.

I wondered if the junior Graves felt any pressure as he took over the business.

Mr. EARL BUTCH GRAVES, JR (CEO, Black Enterprise Magazine): I think that there was a certain pressure. I am Earl, Jr. But it was no more pressure that any of the outside forces of the world put on me that I didn't put on myself. I mean, I had high expectations for myself as well, and I wanted to succeed to be successful regardless of what my name was.

But I think clearly when people are looking at you, when you're carrying the namesake of someone who has been very successful, people look to see, well, what kind of person is the son or daughter of that person. And it was important to me to be able to represent him in the most positive light possible.

So that was a driving force, but I would say that more of a driving force came just from just wanting to be successful in my own right.

GORDON: You have an impressive educational pedigree, graduating with a BA from economics from Yale University, then an MBA at Harvard. But how much of the drive came from needing to make sure that people understand that you're your own man, that you garnered much of this on your own merits versus being the son of?

Mr. GRAVES: Well, I think that's important, and I think anyone that says oh, that doesn't matter, is really not being honest about it. Everyone wants to be able to stand up on their own feet and say they earned something for themselves. So my father's good name could not get me into business school and certainly could not get me through either institution, either Yale or Harvard, just because my father was a respected businessperson.

Certainly, my father and his success helped me to open doors, but more importantly, I think it helped to expose me to all that was possible. But clearly, you know, there is a sense of wanting to be successful to show people that you're successful in your own right, and that you're your own man and you have your own ideas and your own dreams and aspiration. And I think I've been able to do that.

GORDON: I want to talk to you about the future of the company and the future of the magazine in particular under your hands. One of the interesting points today in media is we conglomerates gobbling up just about anything that they can get their hands on. And when you talk about African American outlets, whether it be BET or Essence that have been bought up by bigger companies, when you look at Black Enterprise, when you look at Johnson Publications with Ebony and Jet, these really are the soul entities of African American ownership to a great degree, save Radio and TV One with Cathy Hughes, in our communities. How of a responsibility do you feel to keep that?

Mr. GRAVES: I do feel a responsibility to keep that. I think that one of the dangers of capitalism is that it can take away some independence of minority own firms. And I think that's especially important in the area of media. If we do not have independent voices, if we do not have independent outlets where we will always have voice, then to some degree, you will always be controlled or African Americans will be controlled in some way, shape or form by the general market.

And so while on one hand it's a sign of progress that we could build our firms up to be large enough where the general market media companies would want to purchase us, it's a double edge sword in that as we begin to sell those entities, we also sell some of our independence. It is not my intent, and I can that with a fair amount of certainty, to sell Black Enterprise to someone. This is not about money for me; it's about a passion to empower African Americans to see the possibilities that exist for them in business, and to provide essential how-to information.

And we are no longer just a publication per se; we're a multi-media company now, where we have television shows, and we have a radio show; we have very active interactive website; and we do major events. And I think that you can do all of those things, you can do all of those things independently. Will it put as much money in my pocket as possible? Perhaps, not. But certainly, I live a comfortable lifestyle. I think that my family lives a comfortable lifestyle, and so do our employees. And I would like to remain an African American owned firm. And frankly, one day I would like to be able to pass on a much bigger company to my own children.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, you have guaranteed circulation of a half a million and a readership of almost four million, just plain and simple, a successful magazine, particularly with the longevity of it. But what do you want to do with the magazine, your stamp on it?

Mr. GRAVES: Well, when my father started the magazine 35 years ago, it was very much a magazine geared to entrepreneurs, you know, showing the successes that African Americans have had in business and showing them how to do it. I have adjusted that editorial thrust of the magazine over the past I'd say five years, more specifically to focus on the area of wealth building.

Not to say that we ever gotten away from our entrepreneurial roots or our focus on career development for those people who happen to be working in corporate America. But we feel, and I feel more specifically, that wealth building is the most important obstacle or issue that the African American community faces as a whole. And to the degree that we can help African Americans and empower African Americans to build wealth, to own homes, to own businesses, and to be able to pass that wealth on from one generation to the next, that's the greatest legacy that we can leave to our children.

And while I think that we have garnered rights like civil rights and the ability to vote, and the ability to hold office and do some other things, what we have not been able to do is gain economic parity with the overall market, and that's a very, very important thing; and that can be accomplished through wealth building.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, often people say, why do you put black on a publication or a television network, i.e. Black Entertainment Television, Black Enterprise? Have you ever thought about losing that mantle, or is that of importance. And conversely, what have you heard from whites who either have never thought about picking up the magazine or always pick up the magazine?

Mr. GRAVES: That's a good question. Certainly, that has been a thought; in fact, it's been a thought for two reasons. Number one, when Black Enterprise was formed back in 1970, black was the term. If you go back to roots of Ebony, it started off as Negro. That was originally Negro Digest, before it became Ebony. So technically, people could say, well, why don't change the name to African America Enterprise. But frankly, that's a mouthful, number one, and it's lot easier to print the word, Black Enterprise there. Black Enterprise has gained a reputation as it is with the name.

So I don't think necessarily it is a negative. I think it makes it very clear to our ultimate audience what the publication is and that it is a business publication. Now, does it narrowcast it as it relates to the general market, yes, it does. But you can't be all things to all people, and the most successful media companies today are those that are focused on a niche and become experts in that niche.

We have always been a niche publication. We know what that niche is. And our niche is the middle class and the upper middle class African American markets as a whole; and we're trying to reach deep into those markets and do it not just with the publication, but with other entities that help us to become experts in that area.

And I think you can be very successful in this area. And frankly, the African American market and Latino markets are the fastest growing segments of the population in this country today. So I happen to think that we are in the sweet spot.

GORDON: Earl Butch Graves is the publisher of Black Enterprise Magazine.

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