ActOne Group: Janice Bryant Howroyd In the late 1970s Janice Bryant Howroyd moved to Los Angeles and began temping as a secretary. She soon realized there were many other young people in situations similar to hers. So with $1,500 in her pocket, Janice rented an office in Beverly Hills and created the staffing company ACT-1. Today, ActOne Group is an international workforce management company, making Janice Bryant Howroyd the first African-American woman to own a billion-dollar business. PLUS in our postscript "How You Built That," how Ofer and Helene Webman developed a device that can change the way an acoustic guitar sounds without bulky pedals and amps.
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ActOne Group: Janice Bryant Howroyd

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ActOne Group: Janice Bryant Howroyd

ActOne Group: Janice Bryant Howroyd

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD: I'll tell you candidly - and I'm not proud of it - there were times when I would gift my intelligence to other members of my team and have them go in and make a presentation or them make the pitch so that the client wouldn't have to interact directly with me as an African-American or as a female.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Because you thought they wouldn't want to?

HOWROYD: In some instances, I thought it. In other instances, I knew it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, how a temporary gig as a secretary inspired Janice Bryant Howroyd to build an employment agency that turned into an empire and made Janice the first African-American woman in history to own a billion-dollar business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So hiring employees is one of the hardest things about running a business. If you've listened to this show long enough, you've heard founders talk about how when their company started to scale, hiring enough good people consumed so much of their time - because hiring requires patience and research and, yes, luck. Even the best applicants sometimes flail after they start. And this was an insight that Janice Bryant Howroyd came across early in her career, after working as a secretary for her brother-in-law.

It was the late 1970s, and her brother-in-law, Tom Noonan, needed an assistant for his growing role at Billboard magazine in Hollywood. Janice noticed that lots of other executives in Hollywood needed clerical help, too, and they needed it fast. They just didn't have the time to find the right people. So with all of her money, which was $1,500, Janice rented a small space in front of a rug shop in Beverly Hills. And she started an employment agency.

At the time, Janice was a young, African-American woman starting out in an industry dominated by older, white men. Now today her company, ActOne Group, does an estimated billion dollars a year in sales. ActOne handles hiring and recruiting for all kinds of industries. And it also provides a lot of back-end services, like employee screening and payroll. But when it began, it was just one office, one phone and Janice.

She opened that first office in a city she barely knew when she first arrived to LA in her mid-20s. Janice had spent most of her life in a very different place from Hollywood. She grew up in the 1950s and '60s in a big family in the small town of Tarboro, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOWROYD: I grew up on the other side of the tracks, and that's literally the case because we did have a train that ran through our town. We were a town that was incorporated in the 1700s, so a train track in the middle of the town did indicate some level of prosperity. Now, we were segregated. Make no mistake about that. But we had that Southern etiquette that went along with it. So there was a politeness that occurred amongst people, but we also were very aware of the injustices.

RAZ: How many brothers and sisters did you have growing up?

HOWROYD: Five brothers, five sisters. All Type As.

RAZ: So 11 kids in your house?

HOWROYD: Yeah. You say that like that sounds so much to you.

RAZ: (Laughter) Yeah. It does. It sounds like a lot of kids. It sounds like a chaotic house.

HOWROYD: Oh, my - no. You don't know my mom and dad if you thought there was chaos going on in the Bryant household. As matter of fact, we had a system where the older siblings would take care of the younger ones. And when I say take care, I mean they were responsible that we did chores appropriately, we had personal grooming taken care of - they checked us for and helped us with - and that homework was done. And so Sandy got me. She was first-born. I was fourth-born. And when she went all the way off to Greensboro, N.C. - which, by drive time, is about four hours - it felt like the end of the world had happened for me. Everything just felt so empty to me, yet there were still 12 people left in the house every day if we had no guests come over.

RAZ: Did your parents - I mean, was there ever a sense that, you know, that they were struggling? Or did it always feel like you had everything you needed as a kid?

HOWROYD: Guy, I remember sitting in a class, and I had what Oprah later coined aha moment. And I remember sitting in class and thinking, wow, we are poor - had no concept of poverty growing up.

RAZ: You had no idea.

HOWROYD: None at all. We always had enough for us and some to share. And that meant clothing. That meant food. And that also meant emotional support.

RAZ: When you were little, did you - would you dream about what you would be when you grew up? Or did you already have big ambitions as a kid? Or were they kind of like, you know, I'll see what happens?

HOWROYD: Now, see, print media was really the thing that taught me so much. And books. Print, period. My mom bought encyclopedias, and then she paid them off over time. She also had periodicals that came to our house. There was a magazine called Sepia. There was - Ebony was popular. Jet magazine was popular back then. And so I knew a lot about the world, and I knew a lot about what black people were doing. And so I had role models who fulfilled thoughts about what I might do when I grew up. But as a very young child, I remember admiring my mom so much, which I continue to do to this day. She, even then, I could sense - even though I couldn't put label to it - was quite an efficient person. And she ran our home like a business.

RAZ: And what did your dad do?

HOWROYD: My dad was a foreman. He was a foreman in a dye factory. You know, we're a textile community in North Carolina. And Dad was very integrated in our lives. He made sure that we had our Thursday family meetings. Thursday was payday. And we all had to gather around, and we discussed what we'd done, what we would be doing. In business, we say, we discussed the gaps, and we brought forward the solutions. In my family, Dad just said, let's see where we are and where we're going, kids. That was always his opening comment to us.

RAZ: Wow. Janice, when you were a girl, when you were a kid, did you see entrepreneurs around you, either in your community or in your family?

HOWROYD: Retrospectively, I saw them growing up. I did not know that's what I was looking at. I remember Grandma Dora (ph) walking around Tarboro in high-heeled shoes, coming over to our house. And they ran a barbecue shop. And they had a home that had a beautiful dining room in it, but their dining room was to serve their customers.

RAZ: Oh, they ran it out of their home?

HOWROYD: Yeah. And white people would come over to eat there, which was a big deal - that they were coming over to have dinner there, lunch there. But I didn't look at that as entrepreneurship back then. That's just what Grandma did, you know? I also saw her run - she fed people to-go bags, where they would come and buy their lunches or dinners at the back. And she would charge based on who was working and who was out of work. And she had that sense of justice in her mind about how to run her business. And I think it paid off because she did quite well.

RAZ: So, Janice, I read that when you were in high school, your mom and dad decided to send you to an all-white high school. You were going to be the first African-American student at that school. What do you remember about your first day going in there?

HOWROYD: Well, Mom and Dad didn't send me. We decided as a family that that would happen. Our community wanted to have our best and brightest go to the white school to lessen any fear around whether or not the school would dilapidate in any way by our attending it. And I was one of the first. And I remember my first day going into my English class. And I thought, oh, English has always been one of my better subjects, and I'm going to fail because I couldn't understand my English teacher. She had a twang that sounded so different to me, from my side of Tarboro. Mind you, we're talking about a distance that I could walk to school from my home.

RAZ: Wow.

HOWROYD: But she sounded so different. The communities were truly divided in that way.

RAZ: Yeah.

HOWROYD: And we had a teacher who stood up on the desk that day, the first day I went into his history class, and explained so eloquently, if you can even see the paradox of that, how blacks are so suited to slavery.

RAZ: Wow.

HOWROYD: I remember chewing so hard, saying, God, please don't let me cry. If you just let me get out of here without crying, I'll never come back. That's how intimidated, how fearful and how foreign I felt in a U.S. history class.

RAZ: Did you want to stop going to that school? I mean, I could imagine being 16-year-old - 15-, 16-year-old kid and feeling that level of hostility - and then hearing a teacher say that, somebody with power just to say that.

HOWROYD: I absolutely did want to stop going, and I told my dad I didn't want to go back. And Dad gave me three options. He said, you can come back here and compete against other black kids who are going to need scholarships to go to school. He could go up, and he could floor the teacher and seek retaliation.

RAZ: (Laughter).

HOWROYD: Or I could go back, and I could understand - and this is something that if you say to many black people, they will finish this sentence for you - it's not what they call you. It's what you answer to. And that was my first big lesson from Dad - that I should not listen to what they called me. I could only be what I answer to in life.

RAZ: So you graduated high school, and then you went off to college, to North Carolina A&T. What do you remember about that time?

HOWROYD: I loved that campus, and that's where my older siblings had gone. It was such a wonderful time to be at North Carolina A&T when I graduated. Everybody was full of promise and ideas about what we could do. So much of my adult framing happened on that campus. And by the time I started my own business, I was able to reach back on what I had learned in my home - which is where I gained most of my business education, was in my home - and the ability to meet new people - and not as strangers - that I learned at A&T that was so wonderful.

RAZ: Yeah. And what did you do when you graduated?

HOWROYD: First, I worked in the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. I worked there for about a year and a half. And I went home to visit Mom and Dad. And I remember, one morning, my mom and dad - when we were kids, early morning was always their time. I told you Dad left to work really early in the mornings, and their date time was early morning. And they dated in the kitchen, in the little bay window, where she has a table there to this day.

And I got up to walk through the hall, and I saw them kissing and hugging, just like teenagers, and I thought, ooh (ph). You know, I'm an adult by then, right? That was the last time my mom saw my dad alive. And I, many times since then, have thought, if you have to say goodbye, what a wonderful way for her to know that the last time he saw her alive, he held her and loved her so richly and she him.

RAZ: Did he have a heart attack?

HOWROYD: My dad had taken two young men out on the waters in North Carolina shrimp boat fishing. They were on a shrimp boat. And a storm came up. My dad was taken in the storm.

RAZ: Wow.

HOWROYD: And so I remember my mom took to her bed for a couple of weeks, and I had booked a ticket to come to California to visit my sister Sandy. And I remember I told my mom, I'll stay here with you, Mom, and help you. My mom had been married since she was a teenager. She'd never had any other boyfriend.

RAZ: Wow.

HOWROYD: And I knew there would be some heavy adjustment for her. And she said, no, I'm going to have to learn to live on my own. I better do it now. And then she said, the last thing Dad would want is for me to stop you living your dream because we certainly have lived ours.

RAZ: Wow. So you leave North Carolina. I mean, what a moment in your life, in your mom's life, in your family's life. I mean, this is, like, the late '70s. And you come to LA to visit your sister, and it was supposed to be just a quick visit to see her, a couple days or weeks or something like that?

HOWROYD: I had a couple of weeks planned. It was going to be a good visit. Two weeks back then was a long time. Still is.

RAZ: And you were just a kid. I mean, you were in your mid-20s - right? - or early 20s at that point?

HOWROYD: I was hot and popping.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWROYD: Although let me tell you, when I got to LA, I didn't think so. On the East Coast, I thought I was all of that. When I got to LA, and I saw all these women who worked without pantyhose on - they carried purses with somebody else's name on it - Louis Vuitton. And I was calling it Lewis Vuitton (ph).

RAZ: (Laughter).

HOWROYD: And they were all - all the black people - all the black women I saw were, like, fabulous, gorgeous women, and I felt like this little, nappy-headed, colored girl coming out of North Carolina, amongst all these fabulous people. No, I didn't feel all hot and popping then.

RAZ: What was your first impression of LA at that time? I mean, this is, like, late '70s. It was...

HOWROYD: Palm trees. Gorgeous, gorgeous palm trees. And, you know, you go up and drive all the way up and look out over the city, and it was just so beautiful, so beautiful. LA was wide open. It truly was a fairy-tale kind of existence for me, and I wanted in on it.

RAZ: You wanted to stay.

HOWROYD: I didn't at first. I needed to sustain my stay financially because my sister kept saying stay. I'm the first family member she's got out here from home.

RAZ: So Sandy and her husband Tommy - he worked at Billboard magazine. Is that right?

HOWROYD: He did. He had worked at Motown for years and helped move Motown out to LA.

RAZ: Right.

HOWROYD: And then he went to Billboard. You know, his career had been in the music industry. I remember seeing his name scroll the year he died at the Grammys. And Tommy invented what they call the Hot 100s chart.

RAZ: Oh, the Billboard Hot 100. Yeah.

HOWROYD: Yes. To this day, I keep meeting people who just have such great memories of him. And, certainly, I do. He was an incredible, incredible first-generation Irishman.

RAZ: So you go out to LA to see your sister. And her husband, your brother-in-law Tommy, says, hey, you know, I may have some temp work for you at Billboard. And that's what you did? You kind of went to his office and worked - kind of worked for him?

HOWROYD: Yeah. She and Tommy were going to a NIMC (ph) conference in Italy. And when he came back, I had reorganized things, put things in form as I saw they should be. And he thought I had worked magic. I thought I did what I was supposed to do. And he said, you know, you don't - you really are good, Janice. You should not go back without proving you can make it on your own. And he was the one who seeded the idea that I should hang my own shingle.

RAZ: You were looking for work. And your brother-in-law...

HOWROYD: Correct.

RAZ: ...Essentially says, hey, Janice. Why don't you just open up a business? And you've got your job. You've got your own job.

HOWROYD: He absolutely did. It was that simple for him. He later told me he saw so much enterprise - entrepreneurship in me that I wasn't seeing in myself.

RAZ: So what was the business idea that you guys started to talk about?

HOWROYD: I actually started as a full-time agency.

RAZ: Meaning what?

HOWROYD: We were finding - I found people full-time jobs.

RAZ: You were like a headhunter, sort of.

HOWROYD: Yeah - at the admin level.

RAZ: So what - once you decided that you were going to start this company, this agency to help place people in jobs, what was your first move? I mean, where did you get an office? How did you start it?

HOWROYD: I made a deal with a guy who owned a rug shop. And I set up office in front of the rug shop.

RAZ: Where was the rug shop?

HOWROYD: It was a very, very beautiful - in Beverly Hills.

RAZ: In Beverly Hills.

HOWROYD: Yeah. Location, location, location.

RAZ: You wanted a Beverly Hills address to say...

HOWROYD: No.

RAZ: ...Hey. I'm in - no.

HOWROYD: I had a friend who hooked me up with someone who had a Beverly Hills location.

RAZ: Yeah.

HOWROYD: I was not looking at real estate that way. But it worked out perfectly. The stars were aligned for me.

RAZ: And what did you call it? What'd you call the company?

HOWROYD: ActOne.

RAZ: As in act one, like when you're in a movie?

HOWROYD: (Laughter).

RAZ: That kind of act one?

HOWROYD: You know, because it's located here in Los Angeles area, many people thought that. But for me, it was more around the Biblical sense, the book of Acts.

RAZ: Oh.

HOWROYD: Yeah.

RAZ: Oh, wow.

HOWROYD: Uh-huh.

RAZ: So you get this office space. And what? - you put in a desk and a phone? And there you go. You start?

HOWROYD: Didn't have to - it was there. Didn't have to - it was there.

RAZ: Oh.

HOWROYD: And it worked out very well for me. But I'll tell you something. When I did get my own office, I remember the first day. I got a fax machine. Do you know who Judy Jetson is?

RAZ: Sure, of course. Yeah.

HOWROYD: I thought I was Judy Jetson. Technology hit hard for me. Yes. That was incredible for me. And it also taught me the power of technology. And I think that's why, over the years, my company has evolved more around how we build human-friendly technology than anything else.

RAZ: When you started ActOne, did you need a lot of startup money to get it going?

HOWROYD: I borrowed money from my mom. And I had saved $900 and borrowed $600 from her.

RAZ: But - So you had $1,500 to start this business.

HOWROYD: Yup. Yup.

RAZ: And that was going to get you the office, a lease on the office and, I guess, a phone. But here's what I'm trying to understand. You're so young. And you just - you essentially just got there. So how did you even start? How did you even find people to recruit, to say, hey, you know, you're looking for work? - I can help you?

HOWROYD: Well, finding people to place was not an issue during that time. Finding the jobs was. And the core of our business remains today as it was when I was one desk. And that's understanding the power of the interview. I mean, you've talked with me for a few minutes now. You know a lot about me, and you know...

RAZ: Sure.

HOWROYD: ...A lot of resources to go to gain more information. And that's the way the interview worked, as well. So the power of that interview enabled me to make sure that I understood the individual who was looking for work. I knew where they'd already worked. I knew if they were already employed - that, once they left, there was going to be an opening there. And because of the rich network that I was able to achieve in the social side of how I'd lived with my brother and sister, I knew people who were looking for assistance, people who were looking for people to hire and built it on that. In the early days - I call it the WOMB - word-of-mouth baby - I got most of my leads toward opportunities to fill positions and most of the leads towards applicants by word-of-mouth.

RAZ: So your business model was you'd help companies fill these jobs, mostly clerical jobs. And they would pay you a fee. And how were you able to guarantee that the person you were offering was going to work out?

HOWROYD: Oh, my goodness. There were so many different guarantees that were offered in our industry back then.

RAZ: Huh.

HOWROYD: I haven't thought about this for years. But that's the risk you take on making sure that you're making a good placement.

RAZ: Yeah.

HOWROYD: And that's why I say we had to focus on the applicant because you offered people money back. If they didn't work out, then, you know, you had a reduction in that fee you got. And you got - you had to pay that money back if they didn't last. So nobody wanted to do that.

RAZ: Were you profitable pretty quickly? Or did it take some time?

HOWROYD: Actually, thinking back on it, hitting profitability in a year seems pretty good.

RAZ: Yeah.

HOWROYD: But living through it, it didn't. But, remember; I was in a very low overhead business. And I was in a business that had high transaction. I was as good as my effort allowed me to be.

RAZ: Yeah. In those early days, as you - you know, as you start to grow, things were, like, kind of hectic. In the midst of this, you, like - you got married, too - right? - like, in the early '80s.

HOWROYD: Well, I met my husband at an industry conference, Bernie. I saw this guy. And he was really handsome to me. He had this presence about himself. And he also spoke with this English accent. But he liked me a lot more than I did him. I noticed him. I can't say I didn't notice him. But he liked me a lot more than I liked him. And he chased me for a bit. And I found out that he was the founder of AppleOne.

RAZ: And AppleOne was a temporary employment agency. It was...

HOWROYD: AppleOne was a really respected temporary and full-time placement agency doing business in California.

RAZ: So you married essentially your competitor. How did you keep, like, work and personal life separate?

HOWROYD: My husband and I love each other very much. So definitely we have rich and open conversations. I think it would be the same as if we had been physicians or...

RAZ: Yeah, right.

HOWROYD: ...Scientists.

RAZ: Sure. Sure.

HOWROYD: We are going to share a love of the industry and talk about it. And we're still competent, capable people building a business. My husband is white, European-born man. And I have had instances where there have been inferences in social settings - not ever in business - where people have - oh, you - you're so lucky. You were married to him. You must have learned so much from him. But at the end of the day, I think Bernie in his best honest conversation will tell you that he has rather learned a lot from me.

RAZ: And so when was it clear to you that this wasn't just going to become sustainable but this could actually become really big business? Was it within a year? Was it within two years? Was it after that?

HOWROYD: No, no, no. I would say it was about - oh, I want to say six or seven years in. And I remember a lady named Gwen Moore. Gwen Moore was an elected official, congresswoman out of California here. And she had been very active in championing - and I believe she was one of the original authors of legislation that required public utility companies in California to have diversity spend because she said your ratepayers are diverse...

RAZ: Sure.

HOWROYD: ...So you should be doing business with them. And she contacted me. And she said I want to come see you. And she met with me. And she told me that I had an obligation to get certified.

RAZ: To do what?

HOWROYD: As a minority woman-owned company. And I didn't want to do that. I was doing very well. Thank you. And she said, no. It's not about you doing better, although you will. She said it's about you creating the opportunity for others who won't get a shot.

RAZ: Wow.

HOWROYD: She said, we need some strong businesses that are run by women and run by minorities to certify and go in and do business as such to open the door for others. And even when she was arguing a point as eloquent, as clear as she is, I wasn't getting the point because initially I thought that certification was a strip search. I needed to open up my business to total exposure to someone to in return have them come back and say, yes, you are a minority, yes, you are a woman and, yes, you are running this business. And it just did not align with how I felt that I wanted to be measured.

RAZ: When we come back in just a moment, why Janice wound up changing her mind about that and how she turned ActOne into a billion-dollar business. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. So it's 1992. And Janice Bryant Howroyd's LA-based employment agency, ActOne, is doing pretty well. And after some back-and-forth, she eventually decides to get certified as a woman- and minority-owned enterprise.

HOWROYD: Becoming certified opened up many new client opportunities for me because now companies could look at me as - look at my business as an opportunity to meet numbers and quotas that they had around inclusion, diversity and inclusion. And if it became a choice between me and another company who was not certified, I was going to get that opportunity. I'd never known that existed before I got certified.

RAZ: Yeah.

HOWROYD: And so that's when I started to expand into contract business. Before then, I was doing business on handshakes or on service agreements. But once...

RAZ: Yeah.

HOWROYD: ...I started to go after different types of business, I needed to do it in contracts and had to learn a lot about the process. And one of the failures I've seen occur in my own business as in others is that we create great relationships with people in companies. And definitely we should do that. But people are moving all of the time. And the agreement you have with a person - it may not align with the agreement you have in that contract. And when that person is gone, that contract is still standing. And so you've got to understand the difference between that. And that was one of the biggest lessons I had to learn once I started to expand my business from focusing on one-on-one transactions into contract work.

RAZ: I mean, I just keep thinking - I mean, it seems like you were growing pretty fast. So your head must have been spinning.

HOWROYD: Well, let me tell you two things about that. One, the big thing for me was not so much the exponential growth as it was the adoption of doing the temp work and bringing temp into the fold. Temp work - you're paying people long before the client pays you. And so there's another element of risk in there. You're also the employer of that worker. And so...

RAZ: Oh, wow.

HOWROYD: ...You assume the employer risk. So you've got two dynamic, new and very strong differences in place here. And you're competing against larger entities who are going in and able because of their scale to offer a much better pricing. And you are - for me and many companies like me, woman-owned, you are the minority company, or you are the diverse company. So you are getting...

RAZ: Yeah.

HOWROYD: ...One-tenth that that business against one larger vendor. And I still had to meet the same pricing as the larger company. To do that efficiently, to do that sustainably, I needed to integrate technology in a different way. And I didn't find any over-the-shelf technology. So that's when I started to hire people, and we built our own technology solutions.

RAZ: And I guess we should just mention here, Janice, that some of the solutions that you came up with internally, they - these actually became a huge part of your business.

HOWROYD: Yeah. So our technology suite is called Acceleration. And it really was about that detailed reporting we were able to give to clients that they weren't getting anywhere else. And so I had a client up north who had a very bad experience with a publicly held company call me on a Friday morning and ask if I would come up. So I actually ran over to the airport with my brother, another employee. And the three of us went up north - Northern California to the client.

And we found out that they had an issue where this publicly held company was not negotiating well with them and had walked out. And they had several hundred temps who had to be paid. And we had to get all of that work together, transition those people. And on Monday morning, all of the work was done, everyone was paid, and they had reports on their desk.

RAZ: Wow.

HOWROYD: I got a call from the lady who was head of HR and said, my goodness, Janice. How were you able to do this? And I explained that we used for her what we use in our own company, technologies that enable us to do that. And she said, we've been working with this company for 12 years, and they've never been able to give us the detail of reporting that you have here. And they started to want conversations around how to buy my technology. And my brother Carlton said, Janice, let's pause. Don't sell them the technology. Sell them the service.

RAZ: Yeah.

HOWROYD: I said, Carlton, what are you - he said, no. Don't sell your technology to them. Sell them the service. And we went up and had a different conversation with them. And they became our first Acceleration customer.

RAZ: And I guess I should mention here, Janice, that - you mentioned your brother - several members of your family actually work for the company, for ActOne.

HOWROYD: Absolutely. My sister Sandy was my first employee. And since then, I went on to hire seven of the siblings into my business. And they have just been incredible for all of those emotional and those value support systems that you need in place as you're growing a business up. Everyone needs that. I needed that. And I had that in siblings. Now, one of the things that I insisted from my family members before they could come into my company is that they either had to work for three years in a larger company somewhere else or have three promotions before they could come to work for me. I wanted to make sure that they brought into my business some learning, not just the ability to sustain for three years but the ability to have learned and have grown within someone else's organization and then bring that value into mine.

RAZ: I guess, at a certain point - this is like 2007, 2008 - your business is worth well over half a billion dollars by that point. And you decide to merge with Bernard's business, with your husband's business. Tell me - why did that happen? Did it just - was it just the - sort of the natural point to kind of bring your businesses together?

HOWROYD: When Bernie (ph) and I were leaving a conference in San Diego, we decided to take the scenic route back to LA, and we were having a discussion about our children. And I remember my brother had said to me - Carlton had said, you know, Janice. You and Bernie have something that nobody else in this industry has. And I asked him what he meant. He said, well, you guys work from completely different sets of strengths, oftentimes. And if you were a combined that, that could be dynamic in the industry. And I thought that was nice, and I mentioned it to Bernie. And Bernie said, that makes sense. I said, but it's not enough to merge our companies, and we talked more.

And then, I said, you know, Bernie? I think the thing that would make it interesting for me is that our son not have to decide which one of us he wants to work for because, by then, our son was looking at our industry as a future for himself. And he had worked in my company. He had worked in his dad's company as a kid. And I said, Bernie, I don't think he should have to make a choice, and it is a lot better succession planning for us to go ahead and do this now. Let's not have him have to do it later. And that was the decision - that was the thought around how we would blend the companies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Janice, I'm wondering, you know, looking back as your company grew, I mean, for a long time, you were a minority within a minority. You were a small company with big competitors. You're a woman of color in an industry that was, I'm assuming, dominated by white men, did you run into circumstances, a lot of circumstances, where you were judged because of who you are or where things were made much harder because of who you are?

HOWROYD: Very often - very often I ran into that. I'll tell you candidly - and I'm not proud of it - there were times when I would gift my intelligence to other members of my team and have them go in and make a presentation or them make the pitch so that the client wouldn't have to interact directly with me as an African-American or as a female.

RAZ: But - because you thought they wouldn't want to?

HOWROYD: In some instances, I thought it. In other instances, I knew it.

RAZ: That if they saw an African-American woman making the pitch, they wouldn't want to work with you.

HOWROYD: I think the questioning and the scrutiny would be different. There would be more question of can we than how will we...

RAZ: Right.

HOWROYD: ...Whereas if I sent someone different on my team in, the questions around how are we going to do this happened a lot quicker in the conversation. And there are women who will tell you today that's still the case.

RAZ: How have you sort of grown as a leader over that time? I mean, were there things that you did earlier on that were mistakes that you learned from and you thought, well, you know, that was not the way to go?

HOWROYD: Certainly, I've made mistakes. The bigger of my mistakes were the mistakes I made where I have held myself back because of things that were latent from my childhood and sometimes very active, you know, in businesses around the isms, whether that be racism or sexism or whatever. But those have been where I think my bigger errors have been made.

RAZ: When - you say when you held yourself back by, for example, not taking those meetings or by sending somebody else in your place, what other ways did you hold yourself back?

HOWROYD: Holding myself back from taking risks around expanding or investments that weren't right in the core of what I'm doing. But I always saw myself as, you know, driving in my lane and understanding where my lane was.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, it sounds like even though you have had incredible success, by nature, you're not sort of a kamikaze risk taker.

HOWROYD: Well, I'm not going to be the bull in a china shop, if that's what you're saying (laughter). I'm not going to rush through and, you know, break things on the way toward a higher goal. Perhaps the one decision I would change in my career would be that I would forgive myself for being smart and being female a lot sooner. Everything else, I think, has been integrated toward the good of a solid business that has a strong future.

RAZ: Today, ActOne is either the largest or certainly one of the largest privately held women-and-minority-owned workforce management companies in the U.S. Your - you and your family own this company, I believe, 100 percent outright. That's a billion-dollar business. I mean, that's amazing. I mean, it's - I mean, just think about that for a moment. You came to LA for a two or three-week trip and built a billion-dollar business.

HOWROYD: It's a blessing. This is what we built. This is what all of the people who really believed in me and trusted in me have built. And in our company, we teach that there are five things you can't teach people.

You can't teach people experience. You can't teach people common sense. You can't teach people confidence. You cannot teach people anything if they don't want to learn it. And you can't teach them anything if they know it all. And I think when I look at where you see the amazement in building a billion-dollar enterprise, I think it's because those things that you can't teach, I've learned.

RAZ: How much of all that you've achieved do you think is because of the hard work you put in and your determination and your skill, and how much is just because of luck?

HOWROYD: I don't think luck had anything to do with it. I do believe that I've been blessed, and I have received those blessings by honoring them with hard work. All of the challenges, all of the people, all of the clients and applicants - my life has been a kaleidoscopic opportunity.

RAZ: I keep going back to that moment where your mom in mourning told you to leave, told you to go.

HOWROYD: She did.

RAZ: That your dad would want you to pursue whatever it was that you were going to pursue. And you didn't know what that was going to be, right? I mean...

HOWROYD: Yeah.

RAZ: ...Can you imagine what your dad would make of this, like, his daughter running the largest women-and-minority-owned business of this kind in the world? I mean, (laughter) what do you think he would say or think?

HOWROYD: I absolutely can't imagine what Dad would say or what Dad would think. My dad is the one who told us it was our attitude, not our aptitude. My dad was the one who told us education is freedom. My dad was the one who taught us that we wake up on purpose, you know? And I think about him so often.

And you can't not think about him when you're with Mom. I was voted princess in high school, and I remember asking for a new gown to wear on a float. And Dad said, oh, we can't afford it. We've worked so hard for you guys. And I remember my mom putting her hand on my dad's hand and said, no, Daddy - they called each other Mommy and Daddy - she said, no, Daddy, don't tell Janice we've worked hard for our kids. We've worked hard because of the decisions we made.

And I've kept that in my mind as I built my business. And I've made a point never to tell my children. I don't work hard to give them what they want. I work hard because of the decision I've made, you know? And for me, it's a joy. It's a joy to do what I do.

RAZ: That's Janice Bryant Howroyd, founder and CEO of ActOne Group. From that one little office that she opened in Beverly Hills with just 1,500 bucks, she now has an estimated net worth of $315 million. And she's also donated some of that money to education, 10 million to support scholarships at USC in her adopted city of LA and another 10 million set aside for her much-loved alma mater, North Carolina A&T.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And please do stick around because in just a moment, we're going to hear from you about the things you're building.

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RAZ: Hey, thanks so much for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. So let's set the scene here. It's 2013, and Ofer Webman and his wife, Helene, are living in Phoenix. They're both in their 50s, and they're feeling a little restless.

HELENE WEBMAN: I think we dearly wanted to do something different.

OFER WEBMAN: But we were also completely broke.

RAZ: Not exactly living-on-the-street broke, but they did have one daughter in college, and they lost a ton of money in the housing crash. So it was not a good situation. And they decided to come up with a plan.

O. WEBMAN: And I said to myself, find something that we love to do and maybe we can sell to people. And we almost had to do it.

RAZ: And the thing they wound up doing - it actually grew out of Ofer's love for music. He would come home at night and doodle on his acoustic guitar. But as he was doing this, he was thinking, you know, this is fine, but this experience - it could be a lot better.

O. WEBMAN: Yeah. I want to have what the electric guitar players have, you know? They get all the toys, all the gadgets. They can attach any sound that they want. They can paint the music in any way they want.

RAZ: So Ofer's thinking, I want to do that, too; I want to make my acoustic guitar sound more dynamic, more electric. But I want to do it in a really simple way with no bulky amplifiers, nothing to plug into a wall. So he comes up with an idea for a little box.

O. WEBMAN: Try to imagine this. It's the size of a big iPhone.

RAZ: So then imagine that you take this thing, and you attach it to the back of your guitar. And then you give it some battery power. You build in some electronics.

O. WEBMAN: And then the only thing that you need to do is push one button.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

O. WEBMAN: And you start playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

O. WEBMAN: And suddenly from the back of the guitar, you don't hear only your guitar, but you're also hearing different kinds of effects.

RAZ: OK. This is not much of a spoiler, but this is a spoiler alert. We are obviously listening to Ofer's invention as I speak. It's called the ToneWoodAmp. And it's pretty much how he envisioned it. It's a battery-powered box that attaches to the back of your acoustic guitar. And in the box are a bunch of electronics that can make all kinds of cool effects - reverb, delay, tremolo, overdrive.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

O. WEBMAN: You can feel that you are inside Carnegie Hall. It's like if I couldn't sing, suddenly I could sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

RAZ: And it sounds pretty impressive now, but let's not get too ahead of ourselves. I mean, the ToneWoodAmp didn't just fall out of the sky fully formed. Back in 2013, Ofer was working on the very first prototype in his kitchen. And his wife, Helene, used to watch him work.

H. WEBMAN: I would see him come back with these bags, like, from Hobby Lobby or wherever he was. And I'm like, oh, God, like, what is he up to?

O. WEBMAN: In this case, it was actually, believe it or not, a sponge that I went to Hobby Lobby and I bought. And it was electrician tape that held everything together and some electronic devices that I had at home that I basically put together.

RAZ: And, yeah, that first prototype was kind of janky-looking. But Ofer eventually got together with an electronic engineer to make the next version. And by the summer of 2014, they were ready to show it off at a trade show in Nashville.

H. WEBMAN: And the first really impressive musician that walked down the lane was Larry Mitchell, who is a Grammy winner. And I went up to him. I said, would you like to try the ToneWoodAmp? And he went with Ofer to the whisper room. And when he came out, he said to other musicians, I don't even know how to explain it; you just got to go try it.

RAZ: And that basically became Helene and Ofer's marketing strategy. They'd ask all these well-known musicians to try the ToneWoodAmp and then get them to make videos of themselves playing it.

H. WEBMAN: You know, we're here in Phoenix, Ariz., and George Benson heard about us.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

H. WEBMAN: And then many artists introduced it to artists like Travis Toy from the Rascal Flatts.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

H. WEBMAN: Kaki King - we went to her home.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

H. WEBMAN: Janis Ian, Joe Bonamassa, Vince Gill - the word kept on spreading and spreading. And you've got folks using it all over the world.

RAZ: And Helene and Ofer took some of these videos...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

H. WEBMAN: I flip a switch.

RAZ: ...And used them to launch a Kickstarter campaign. They raised $120,000, enough to get two factories in Phoenix to start making the device. That was just four years ago. And today they've sold close to 30,000 units. And they expect to gross more than $2 million this year alone, which means they're no longer feeling as pinched for cash as they were when they started.

O. WEBMAN: Moving from really being on the brink of being broke to profitable - that was a real blessing for us.

H. WEBMAN: And when you're midlife and you don't really have savings and you don't really like what you're doing, you become more hungry. So this was like a really important adventure.

RAZ: If you want to find out more about the Webmans and the ToneWoodAmp or hear previous episodes, head to our podcast page, howibuiltthis.npr.org. And of course if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. And thanks so much for listening to the show this week. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, please do give us a review.

You can also write to us at hibt@npr.org. And if you want to send a tweet, it's @HowIBuiltThis. And please do be sure to check your podcast feed all this month because we've got some amazing episodes coming up from the HOW I BUILT THIS summit. We've got brand new live interviews with Lisa Price of Carol's Daughter, Joe Gebbia of Airbnb and Katrina Lake of Stitch Fix and more.

Our show was produced this week by James Delahoussaye with music composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to J.C. Howard, Nour Coudsi, Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is Mia Venkat. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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