Every year, Forbes compiles a list of billionaires around the world. And the 2020 list included a surprise: even though the U.S. had 615 billionaires as of the time of publication, only seven of them are black. Of the seven black billionaires, only one is female.
Even though the Forbes list isn’t intended to be political, it paints a stark picture of race relations within the country. But it also gives us an opportunity to celebrate and elevate these black voices as we dive deeper into what made them rich and famous.
Who, then, are these black billionaires, and how did they land on this list? Here are America’s black billionaires and their net worths, in order of ascending wealth.
Jay-Z — $1 billion
Old-school fans might think of Jay-Z first and foremost as a hip-hop artist. However, he wisely parlayed his success as a musician into other fields. Nowadays, he is known just as much for being a businessman and producer as he is for being a hip-hop pioneer.
It’s easy to cheer for Jay-Z when you know his life story. He grew up in public housing in Brooklyn, and his early songs often focused on the rough and violent surroundings he grew up in.
Jay-Z became a household name with the success of his 1998 album Vol.2… Hard Knock Life. He earned a Grammy for Best Rap Album, but it wouldn’t be his last award. Over the years, he’s accumulated 22 Grammys across 14 studio albums. Now, when he’s not producing music, he’s launching clothing lines like Rocawear and various other businesses.
And with his stake in Uber, Jay-z’s fortunes can only go up from here!
Tyler Perry — $1 billion
Tyler Perry is famous around the world for his hilarious movies that he writes, produces, directs, and stars in. But he had to fight very hard to be the most successful black creator in Hollywood. And for the most part, he had to do it alone.
Perry grew up with an abusive father. He ended up dropping out of high school and taking on various jobs that helped him learn more about movies and television. This eventually led to him creating and touring his own plays.
The plays became popular among largely African-American audiences. To break into Hollywood, Perry used the profits to shoot the sitcom House of Payne, which first aired in 2006. It became a success, and thanks to Perry retaining the rights, things like syndication deals helped make him rich and famous at the same time.
Now, he took that wealth and fame and turned it into a Hollywood empire.
Kayne West — $1.3 billion
Kanye West is one of the more controversial figures on this list. This is due in part to his political statements and even affiliations changing over time as he became even wealthier.
Though we mostly know Kanye West thanks to his music, he started out as a producer for Jay-Z and other talented musicians. This helped him learn enough about music and the industry to launch his own album, The College Dropout, in 2004.
That album earned three Grammys, and his next album cemented him as a household name with the impossibly catchy single “Gold Digger.” West now has 21 Grammys and focuses on other opportunities beyond music.
He has a famous sneaker brand named (what else?) Yeezy. Between this, his property assets, and his royalties, West is sitting pretty.
Michael Jordan — $2.1 billion
Michael Jordan is most famous for an NBA career that is nothing short of legendary. But what is almost more impressive is how easily he transitioned from success in sports to success in business.
After making waves playing college ball, Jordan joined the Chicago Bulls in 1984. After a few years, he practically had too many victories to count, including being NBA Finals MVP six times, NBA Champion six times, and NBA All-Star 14 times.
In his heyday as a player, Jordan made a lot of money through various sponsorships. And he clearly learned a lot about being a businessman: most of his wealth now comes from his majority ownership in the Charlotte Hornets and his insanely successful Jordan brand of Nike shoes.
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Oprah Winfrey — $2.6 billion
Oprah Winfrey is the only black woman on this list. Her success story is especially poignant because she comes from such a humble beginning.
Oprah was born to a teenage mom in rural Mississippi. Her mother worked as a housemaid, and Oprah herself spent a lot of time shuffling between living with her mother, father, and grandmother.
Privately, she dealt with horrors like sexual abuse. Publicly, though, she amazed in high school, showcasing skills in speech, drama, and student government. She got a scholarship to Tennessee State University and actually began a career as a local news anchor.
This became popular enough that she got her own talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, which ran for 25 years. She made herself into a worldwide name through this show as well as some acting roles. She also invested heavily in real estate, stock, and her Oprah Winfrey Network.
It’s a testament to her success that the Oprah brand is now stronger than ever.
David Steward — $3.5 billion
David Steward may not be as famous as these earlier names, but he is wealthier. What’s his secret? IT!
Specifically, Steward is the chairman of World Wide Technology, which he also co-founded. They provide IT support services to major names like Citi, Verizon, and even the U.S. government!
One thing Steward does have in common with other names on this list is his humble upbringing. Born in 1951, he grew up in segregated Missouri and learned the value of hard work from his father. Steward ended up studying business at Central Missouri State University and taking on management roles for several different companies.
In 1990, he launched World Wide Technology. While he financially struggled in those early days, his early tech venture eventually blossomed into a $12 billion industrial giant.
Robert F. Smith — $5 billion
Robert F. Smith is another name that isn’t instantly recognizable like Oprah or Kanye. But he’s made a number of savvy business decisions that helped make him the wealthiest black man in the country.
Born in 1962, Smith was academically and professionally driven from a young age. When he was still a junior in high school and making killer grades, he snagged a coveted Bell Labs internship after pestering them for five months. He went on to study chemical engineering at Cornell and, after bouncing from a few different companies, went to Columbia for a master’s in business.
After that, he shocked his family by focusing on investment banking. He became a big name at Goldman Sachs and then launched his own firm, Vista Equity Partners, in 2000.
Smith is known by some for his charity and philanthropy, and he even signed The Giving Pledge — a promise to give away the majority of his wealth before he passes away. Aside from the philanthropy and occasional commencement speech, though, he enjoys being mostly unknown. That’s why he has the nickname “The Quiet Billionaire.”