After thinking about my career journey as an ambitious southern bell, the irony of going from first generation college student to post-corporate small business titan hit me like a bolt of lightning. While my ancestors were late to the game as far as post secondary education goes, I grew up with the knowledge that both my dad and two great grandmothers had owned businesses throughout their adult working lives. When one is looking for inspiration, our immediate surroundings can often serve as our best source. I had heard about the blue-print over and over again from my dad as a way to establish myself independent of anyone outside of the Creator. With the re-discovery of my identity and its meaning, I experienced a mental Shangri-la of sorts. I came to the realization that this was written in the stars after all.
The blue-print, as my dad calls it, is fairly simple. While I did not exactly listen with bated breath when I was younger as he admonished, “you’ll never be happy until you work for yourself”, I did hear enough to recount and act upon it years later. The blue-print is this: 1) Graduate from school (updated to college specifically for my generation); 2) Get a good job at a reputable company; 3) Work for a few years to gain experience; 4) Save some money; 5) Start your business on paper and work it part-time; and 6) When it gets off the ground, resign your full-time gig and establish yourself as an independent professional. This is a pretty well-known blue-print throughout the world, and is not unique to my family. However, what is significant for my family is how atypical it was for African Americans in rural, Jim Crow south to not only execute this plan, but to do so successfully. My great-grandmother owned 100+ acres of property in a rural area just south of Atlanta, Georgia. As an independent farmer with the ability to make business decisions at her own discretion, she was not exactly common. As described in the USDA’s research paper, Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000 :
“Black farmers in America have had a long and arduous struggle to own land and to
operate independently. For more than a century after the Civil War, deficient civil rights
and various economic and social barriers were applied to maintaining a system where
many blacks worked as farm operators with a limited and often total lack of opportunity
to achieve ownership and operating independence. Diminished civil rights also limited
collective action strategies, such as cooperatives and unions.”
– Bruce J. Reynolds, USDA Economist
The story goes that my great-grandfather died in an accident related to working on the railroad. My great-grandmother took part of the proceeds from the life insurance payout to purchase 100 acres of property sometime in the early 1900s. Not that far removed from slavery, her generation still retained both the agricultural and generational know-how for turning a profit from the land. From that point forward, she farmed and sold from her harvest to feed herself, as well as her extended family. Upon her death, half of the property had been willed to my grandmother and the other half was left intestate to her heirs.
This property has been the site of return for our family’s prodigal sons and daughters, down-on-their luck sojourners, black sheep, and the regular run of the mill returnees weary from life in the outside world and needing respite and peace. It serves as our family’s home-base and a sort of defense mechanism in that no matter how hard or how low we might fall, there is still a place to come home to. The ability to fail and know that you will be picked up until you’re ready to try again is its own kind of peace. It certainly cancelled my fear of going out on my own professionally. In other words, we still live on and prosper from my great-grandmother’s gift in 2017 and you could say that my foray into sole proprietorship is a birthright. I may be a first generation college graduate, but I am a third generation business owner. The realization that the achievement of my goals is written into my DNA has emboldened me as nothing else could. Apparently, I was born ready.