Spelman College boasts notable alumni like Marian Wright Edelman, Alice Walker and Stacey Abrams. As brilliant and accomplished as those women are, no one would have believed Spelman would produce such world-changing figures when the school started. The school, in fact, wasn’t even named Spelman when it was launched. HBCUs have a special place in the Black narrative and as we celebrate Black History Month, they offer a particularly good lesson for all striving Black entrepreneurs: it’s okay to start small.
Spelman College started out as Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, which was launched in the basement of Friendship Baptist Church, in Atlanta. Harriet E. Giles and Sophia B. Packard, two teachers from the Oread Institute of Worcester, Massachusetts, started the school with 11 Black women and $100, given to them by the First Baptist Church, in Medford, Massachusetts. Giles and Packard traveled to Atlanta for the express purpose of starting a school for Black freedwomen. Fortunately, they found a willing supporter in Frank Quarles, the pastor of Friendship Baptist Church.
Bethune-Cookman University didn’t even start out as a college. In 1904, Mary McLeod Bethune founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls with $1.50 — that’s one dollar and fifty cents. The very first students met in the home of John Henry and Alice Smith Williams. The school merged with the Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida in 1923 and became a co-ed high school: not a college, a high school. By 1931 the school had become a junior college and by 1941, a four-year college. In 2007 it officially became Bethune-Cookman University.
Every HBCU has a story and so does every Black entrepreneur. It’s perfectly okay to start out small, so long as you maintain big ambitions. HBCUs have produced some of the greatest Black leaders in world history. From church basements and the like, these institutions have grown into powerful forces. Black entrepreneurs should pay close attention and model their businesses after HBCUs: start small, grow and impact the world. Just as no one predicted schools started for former slaves would pump out Ph.Ds, few are predicting the level of success you will have. Keep striving for even in your small beginning, you can definitely reach the world.