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Women's History Month Exclusive: Interview With Businesswoman Janice Bryant-Howroyd

Women's History Month Exclusive: Interview With Businesswoman Janice Bryant-Howroyd

Published March 9, 2009

Janice Bryant-Howroyd balances her poise and style with intelligence and depth. They all come together in the presence of an elegant, commanding leader and accomplished businesswoman.

She epitomizes the the modern day working woman as well as an innovative pioneer whose entrepreneurial knack led her to grow the business she started with less than two thousand dollars into a multi-million dollar corporation over the last 30 years. She is founder and CEO of ACT-1 Group, the largest minority, woman-owned employment agency in the nation.

Her sharp business acumen is complemented by her philanthropy. She has donated over $10 million to educational institutions.

Howroyd is a part of a group of dynamic African-American leaders who enjoy mainstream popularity, success and connections but remain firmly rooted in the African-American community. President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Henry Louis Gates, Ben Carson and others come to mind.

She inspires women and young girls across the world who dare to dream for a better future and refuse to take no for an answer. 

BET.com scored an interview with her. We talked about her accomplishments, Michelle Obama's example, her book and she shared her thoughts on Women’s History Month


What does women's history mean to you?
 
One of the exciting things about being a woman is also one of the challenges, and that is the complexity of the tapestry of our existence.  Whether you embrace Eve in the Garden of Eden or Eve as archaeologically found in Africa, no one denies our first place in the existence of humanity. Yet we have been dismissed in the importance of our contributions to it. Europe struggled with the acknowledgement of women's history, and gave it a day - March 8 - in 1911.  The U.S. gave us a week in 1981, and as late as 1987, Women's History Month was made official.
 
Segregating women's history to a month speaks loudly to the need and effort to repair the error of acknowledgement and education, AND it also highlights a time for celebrating women.  It is bittersweet. 
 
How does it feel to be a pioneer and leader in the business community?
 
There was a time when I shied away from the idea that I represented a leadership role outside of my own enterprise.  Today, I acknowledge and embrace it.  While the honors and awards that I've received have illuminated my leadership role, a strong education of what this means has come to me from the many letters and personal approaches I consistently receive from young people looking for mentoring or thanking me for inspiring them. 

Meeting the responsibility of my leadership is overwhelmingly rewarded by the opportunity to determine what is important to me, and deliver on that.  Access to education is my big passion, and for a long time now, success has allowed me a platform to support the universities I care deeply about. Recently, I gained an added passion and that is the National Cares Mentoring Movement, which Susan Taylor [past Essence Editor] introduced me to. 
 
The other thing about my leadership role is that in many ways I am a pioneer in business.  It feels great to lead an organization that creates new and valuable solutions to ensure that employers and their employees enjoy mutual benefits from our service. 
 
What inspired you to start ACT-1 Personnel Services?
 
Divine intervention inspired me to begin my business.  Now, understand that there was a journey of jobs and trials along the way.  However, when a visit with my sister in Los Angeles approached an end, she just did not want me to return back east.  So, I took a job in her husband's office, made improvements to his processes and hired staff for him during one of his trips out of the country.  He returned, thought I was a genius, and encouraged me to assist a friend who needed to hire several employees, too.  When I did a great job for his friend, he encouraged me to hang my shingle and my sister was elated that I wouldn't be leaving. An empire was born.
 
How did you grow your business?
 
By faith, family and fortitude.
 
Do you think the perception and role of African-American women have changed since we have an African-American first lady?
 
It's not clear to me if I think - or at best, hope - that the fullness of African-American women is better appreciated now that Michelle Obama is this nation's first lady. One thing is certain:  Mrs. Obama is an outstanding woman, and so anyone with any level of intelligence who is not rooted by preconception, is going to see possibility and change through her. This first lady can positively influence African-American girls and women on the roles that we can fulfill and enjoy, as well as show the world the sameness we have with all other women: the gift of beauty and strength!
 
How did you feel on inauguration day, seeing the first African-American president being sworn in?
 
Let me be clear: Sean Penn was correct and on point during his acceptance speech as best actor at the Oscars when he expressed pride at living in a nation capable of electing as its leader an elegant man. 
 
Regardless of political party or candidate preference, prior to the inauguration, I, like so many others, had engaged in the whole election process with ripe discussions along the way.  So, I included along with my water bottle and disposable heating pads, tissues to wipe the tears that I knew would fall when the moment came. My girlfriend and I were seated several hundred feet from the ceremony, and my family was present throughout the mall.  When President-elect Obama's hand went up and his first swearing-in words fell across the mall, I fell to my knees, oblivious to the freezing ground.  My friend and I looked at each other and began giggling like schoolgirls sharing a great secret.  The tears came later. 
 
I think I'll always remember what one of the two nuns said who sat in the seats next to me: "God comes when we need Him most."  My mother had often said over the course of our lives, "God may not always come when you call, but God is always on time!"  Well, in answer to a prayer for an America capable of electing a leader absent of racial or gender prejudice,  I felt that God came that day!
 
Tell us about your new book and initiatives.
 
The book!  "The Art of Work: How to Make Your Work, Work for You."  I'm so excited to get this book to print.  Actually, I did not know that I had a book inside waiting to get out until I took a friend's advice and started to pen some of my life's lessons.  That's just what my book is: Lessons on how to get the most out of your work, and how to own and enjoy the process!  What's really great about the book is each chapter is a lesson, and is followed with an exercise that helps the reader to practice what they've just learned.  The exercises are fun and easy to understand, and will really help anyone who is committed to following them through. 
 
I'm really proud of getting this book done right now, too, because there's never been a more needed time to give people a guide to how to make their jobs work for them.  As soon as it's available, I'll let BET.com have the first advance notice!
 
Thanks, we feel honored! What advice do you have for young women who are trying to follow your path?
 
Blaze your own paths! Yes, follow the examples of anyone who lives with the success or joy you seek.  Employ the techniques that transfer well to your goals...but please respect the gift of your individuality.  Get to know yourself, take as long as you need to really get to know You!  Make it a life-long lesson; never stop learning who you really are because I promise you that you will never stop evolving. That is part of the beauty of being you and of being a woman. 

One thing I truly think is that until every young woman has the opportunity and wisdom to write her story, history is not well served. 

To find out more about Janice Bryant Howroyd’s company, visit her company's Web site.

Written by Angel Elliott, BET.com News

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