R&L: Why was Black Enterprise magazine started? How has it grown?
Edmond: The first issue of Black Enterprise magazine came out in August of 1970. It was started by our chairman and publisher Earl G. Graves, Sr. who was a former aide to Senator Robert Kennedy. In the early seventies, Nixon was president, and he introduced this whole Black Capitalism initiative. This resulted in the creation of the Office of Minority Business Development, which we now know as the Minority Business Development Agency, and a whole bunch of other programs that we take for granted now. Mr. Graves' original idea was to create this newsletter that was going to be a kind of resource to African American business people around the country, most of whom wouldn't necessarily know how to negotiate the bureaucracies and the red tape in Washington. This newsletter was supposed to help African American business people get connected with all these new agencies and programs that the Nixon administration was rolling out. When Mr. Graves was trying to promote his idea for a newsletter, somebody said, “Hey, have you sold some advertising? You could make some money off of this.” Voila! Black Enterprise was born.
R&L: What are your circulation numbers and sales numbers today?
Edmond: Our guaranteed rate base as of this year is half a million, and that's come a long way because when the magazine started out in 1970, it was a controlled circulation publication. I'd be surprised if it was more than 100,000. It went on newsstands, for the first time, in 1980. I'm in my seventeenth year here, but when I came here the circulation was at 230,000. We more than doubled that in the last five years.
R&L: Why has it grown so fast in the last five years?
Edmond: I think it was because of a shift in focus. From day one we've covered three core areas: entrepreneurialship and small business, African American professionals and corporate executives, and money management and investing. We started as a resource for African American entrepreneurs. During the '80s, everyone wanted to get the corner office and climb the corporate ladder, so our focus shifted heavily toward African Americans in corporate America. During the '90s, African Americans were finally growing into the idea that they should be investors. Around that time Earl “Butch” Graves, Jr., my boss and Earl Graves' oldest son, was made president of the publishing company. He really challenged us to become a great personal finance magazine and not just a business magazine that happened to cover personal finance. Once we really decided we wanted to make a name for ourselves in our third area of expertise—personal finance, money management, and investing—you no longer needed to be an executive climbing the corporate ladder to think Black Enterprise was for you. You could be a recent college graduate. You could be a single mom. You could be a divorcee with four kids. You could be about to plan for your retirement. You could be a blue collar professional. No matter what your life goals are, everyone needs to be able to manage money, plan for retirement, and buy homes. This opened a door to a whole bunch of people who had previously overlooked the magazine.
R&L: So what is the core message of Black Enterprise?
Edmond: We identify everything we do under the umbrella of wealth building and helping our audience manage multi-generational wealth. In the year 2000, we launched the Black Wealth Initiative, which was our big initiative to get African Americans focused on principles of wealth building. These are the same principles that everyone who is wealthy follows, but we really needed to identify that for all of our audience.
R&L: You have a “Declaration of Empowerment” that you promote in Black Enterprise. What exactly is financial empowerment?
Edmond: Financial empowerment has to do with maintaining good stewardship over your resources. In America, even for most African Americans, we really don't know poverty. Our poverty is not one of lack. It's one of poor stewardship. We think poverty is, “I can't buy Air Jordans. I can only buy regular Nikes. I can't buy name brand jeans. I can only buy regular jeans.” Whereas in other parts of the world, poverty means the shirt that you're wearing is the only article of clothing you own. You're going to get one meal a day if you're fortunate. That's true, absolute poverty. That doesn't mean that in America everything is right, good, and fair, but we have far greater resources, even among disadvantaged African Americans. I was born and raised by a single mom on welfare. I can look back and we didn't have much, but we had enough to work with, and that idea that you have enough to work with is kind of an anchor of our whole wealth building initiative. We stress this thing that you can't really build wealth unless you really commit to saving at least five percent of whatever income you get. Spending more than you make, which the vast majority of all Americans do regardless of their ethnicity, is poverty. I don't care what kind of car you have in your garage, how big your house is, what kind of clothes you wear on your back, the definition of wealth is you have something leftover when you're done spending. Financial empowerment results from being wealthy, and that only comes through good financial stewardship.
R&L: What moral reasons, if any, do you have for promoting financial empowerment?
Edmond: Our goal is a crusade to close what we call the “black wealth gap.” People talk about the digital divide. They talk about the African American gap in education and all types of different gaps. Our belief is that if we solve the black wealth gap that will give us the resources to deal with some of these other disparities. But individuals must actually change the way they do things. They need to be committed not to buy yet another pair of shoes. They need to pass on the five-dollar Starbucks coffee if they are really struggling to pay debts and buy a home. They have to be willing to do something different with their resources if they want to get something different out of those resources than they have in the past. This would be better for these individuals and for society as a whole.
R&L: So you're trying to form people's understanding of consumerism so that they can properly manage their freedom to consume?
Edmond: Yes. What we're saying is whatever wealth you accumulate is a reflection of your own behavior. You have to understand your behavior. We aren't saying you should always deprive yourself. Our point is you have to decide what your priorities are. We try to inform, and then we try to inspire. If you have the information but you're not motivated to use it, you'll be very knowledgeable, but the situation won't change because knowledge unused is worthless. You can be the best-educated person in the world but if you don't use what you've learned, nothing happens.
R&L: Some critics might say that essentially you are encouraging greed on the part of African Americans and that you're promoting greed as a primary motivator for transactions in the market place. Would you agree with that?
Edmond: There are people who are motivated by greed. I'm not naïve. But greed doesn't manifest itself in how much money you have. It manifests itself in how you got the money. Did you get the money immorally or illegally? Or did you get it in fair and legal transactions that benefited both parties? Greed also manifests itself in the reason for obtaining wealth. Are you are accumulating wealth just to indulge yourself? That's no good. Not everyone who accumulates wealth uses it just to indulge themselves. Look at Bill Cosby. Look at Oprah Winfrey. They've done all kinds of altruistic things with their money and resources. It's not how much you make and how much you have. Again, it's how those resources are used. Again, it's stewardship. You could be very wealthy but if you're a poor steward with that wealth, you will still lose it. There are plenty of lottery winners who use the money just to buy a big house, fifteen cars, and a bunch of clothes and then go bankrupt. I would say that greed has proven again and again not to be profitable in the long run. The top entrepreneurs that I've talked to over the past seventeen years, including Mr. Graves himself, don't spend all of their time figuring out how they're going to spend their money on themselves. Most successful and wealthy people that I've had the chance to come across measure their wealth by what they can do with that wealth, not by how many zeroes are on their checks, or by how much money they have sitting in the bank, or by how big their house is, or by how big their car is. They may have nice houses and big cars but that's not the point.
R&L: Do you see a relationship between a virtuous lifestyle and economic prosperity?
Edmond: Absolutely. If I teach you behaviors that get you what you want, you automatically assign positive attributes to those behaviors. If your dream is to be able to own your own home, and we provide information that actually helps you get there when you thought it wasn't possible, then that almost automatically creates an aura of goodwill. We simply stress that there are certain rules to building wealth. There is a certain way to make money. There is a certain definition to what success is, and it is tied into how you live your life.
R&L: Do you see a relationship between religion or faith and free enterprise?
Edmond: I think free enterprise is morally neutral. There are people who use free enterprise to do very evil things. There are people who use free enterprise to do very godly things. But free enterprise in itself has no magical or divine morality. An evil person or institution that does not have a right spirit within it can take free enterprise and do terrible things with it and still be successful by industry standards in terms of how big it is, how much money it makes, and how dominant it is. We can't confuse might with right. At the same time, just because a company or business is successful doesn't mean it's wrong. Unfortunately, in many African American communities and some African American churches there is this idea that if someone is wealthy, there is something wrong. They get that whole thing confused about the root of all evil. It's not the money that's the root of all evil, but the love of money. It's what a person brings to this morally neutral marketplace that decides whether it's going to be used as a tool or a weapon.
R&L: In the coming years, what role will African American entrepreneurs play in being national and local leaders? Some have argued that African American entrepreneurs represent a new paradigm in African American leadership. Is this statement accurate?
Edmond: People who say that don't know what people like John Johnson have been doing. They don't know what Arthur G. Gaston did in his over one hundred years of life. They don't know about all of the African American business owners and business leaders around the country who were and are always kind of the backbone of the African American communities and political movements. We recognize the role that such well known people like Dr. Martin Luther King have had within the African American community, and someone like Dr. King deserves everything he gets in terms of how he is perceived and the tributes he receives. Arthur G. Gaston, who is probably not nearly as well known, was one of the African American entrepreneurs that put Dr. King up in hotels. In fact, the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was killed was an African American owned hotel. You remember we couldn't stay in white hotels. There has always been this tradition of African American entrepreneurs providing leadership, providing guidance, providing the money that is still the fuel of many grass roots efforts. Somebody has to feed people. Somebody has to put people up in shelter. Somebody has to provide transportation. Somebody has to bail people out of jail. The legacy of African American entrepreneurship didn't start in 1970. In the Black, a book we published as part of our book series, indicates that there were even African Americans involved on Wall Street dating back before the Civil War. It's not new that African Americans have played a vital role in leadership in America. What is new, thanks to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, is our ability to enter into mainstream society. Now African American businesses can sell to people other than African Americans. Under segregation, we could only have commerce with ourselves, and we were only twelve percent of the market. Now the largest African American owned businesses don't just sell to African American people. African American entrepreneurs have become more visible because the African American community isn't isolated anymore.
R&L: Overall, as a Christian, how does your faith really motivate you in your current vocation?
Edmond: I was called to journalism in the way that people talk about being called to ministry. I believe that we are all called to a purpose. We don't have to be ministers to be called. If you answer that call, you'll never work another day in your life. You'll be doing work. You'll be laboring. You'll be productive, but it won't be burdensome to you. It won't feel like work. I didn't study journalism in college. I wanted to be in art. I never took one journalism course. When I was called, I didn't respond necessarily willingly. My experience was that I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into becoming the editor-in-chief of a college publication that was for African Americans and Latinos at Rutgers where I went to college. The year after I ran that newspaper on campus, even though I had no intention of changing my major, I knew what I was going to do for a living. I view being a journalist and an editor as my calling, and my calling is to get people the information they need and to give them the encouragement to use it, to tell them the truth and to give them honest, truthful information that they can use to enhance their lives. When I got to Black Enterprise, I felt as if I had found my ministry, and I consider my work here to be my ministry. Once again, I didn't know this is where I was going to end up. I wasn't interested in business at all before I came here. I was not a business journalist when I came here. Through no planning on my part, I got put in the right place at the right time to do what I needed to do. It'll be seventeen years this coming March. I'm doing just what I need to be doing. I believe in the company. I believe that I'm doing good work. I don't mean good only in terms of my proficiency, but good in terms of being pleasing to God in God's sight. That's extremely helpful when you get frustrated, when you have discouragement, when you face crises in confidence. I don't pretend to have all of the answers in terms of how I get through the day. I was taught how to pray a long time ago, and I never forgot that lesson.