Sunday, February 11, 2007

Forerunner: Advocate for Business & Social Change in Africa

Today we are going to talk about a legendary individual, an African American who we seldomly hear about in the context of African business. Yet, he almost handedly changed the socio-political landscape of South Africa and he championed the cause of free enterprise and entrepreneurship almost all across SSA. Indeed, when this gentleman talked governments listened, creditor nations forgave debts, and America began thinking differently about Africa as an important business and investment destination. Rev. Leon Sullivan was a very rare individual in that he dutifully fulfilled four posts in life-to such an extent that someone could perhaps write four separate best selling “how to” books on leadership based upon his life and legacy. One on how to be a minister in the church, one on being a business man, another on being a parent and a father, and another on being an agent of social change. To me what is most amazing about this trailblazer is that he proved that a person can be an advocate of progressive business and economic policy change , while at the same time being effective at bringing about serious social reform. Before going further, below are two quotes that I'd like for you to read about Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan. One highlights his social relevance and the other one illustrates what he meant to free enterprise in Africa and vice versa.

Quote from Former US President Bill Clinton on Leon Sullivan:

“When Leon Sullivan was eight years old, he walked into a grocery store, slapped a nickel on the counter and said, "I want a Coke." The place, being in segregated South Carolina, the shopkeeper threw him out. That moment was the beginning of his life's work. The pastor of two churches by the time he was at the ripe old age of 17, Reverend Sullivan went on to write "The Sullivan Principles," which called upon companies all around the world to act in a socially responsible manner. By compelling dozens of businesses to desegregate their plants in South Africa, his work helped to pull down apartheid.

Today, as the author of the new Global Sullivan Principle, Leon Sullivan is still changing the world. He's too big for anyone to deny him a Coke, but he has helped to win that right for millions of others who aren't so large.

Reverend Sullivan, thank you for keeping your eyes on the prize for nearly 80 years now.”

Source: The White House press

Another quote on Sullivan’s contribution to thoughts on African enterprise via the Leon Sullivan Summit from John Hope Bryant
Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Operation HOPE:

With former U.S. President Bill Clinton, 17 Heads of State from Africa, a Presidential Delegation from U.S. President George W. Bush, led by HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, and more than 1,000 delegates from government, community and the private sector in attendance, 200 of which are African-Americans representing the diaspora traveling from the United States, and delegations from more than 40 African nations, all traveling to be here in Abuja, Nigeria, yes, the late Reverend Leon H. Sullivan, a mentor to me and a hero to us all, would indeed be proud. Good job Ms. Hope Sullivan.

There is no better way to honor Reverend Sullivan’s legacy than the passionate continuation of his life empowering work. Just like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s annual holiday in the United States of America is as much about a “day on” (service to others) than a “day off,” Reverend Sullivan’s lasting legacy is and will continue to be about “the work” here in Africa.

This issue of understanding the free-enterprise system and making it work for us, has to become a core part of any discussion we have around “African entrepreneurship” today, because in a very real sense the future of Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and other forward leaning countries I have visited recently, literally lies with the ultimate success of its African entrepreneurs and its business class.

What I mean to say is that African governments should be increasingly fed and funded by a healthy and robust and growing tax base, and not foreign aid.

Bottom line, you cannot do this without creating real private-sector jobs and real economic opportunity. In other words, Africa must create a dominant class of very successful African entrepreneurs, at all levels of African society, from the “self-employment project” businessman of sorts, selling his or her wares in the local neighborhood, to the owner of a major telecommunications enterprise providing cell service to millions of African people. Individuals focused on creating wealth (their own), and not simply distributing it (others).

Or as we here at Operation HOPE continue to say, we must be focused on “converting cash economy customers into banking customers, renters into homeowners, small business dreamers into small business owners and entrepreneurs, minimum wage workers into living wage workers with new, marketable job skills, and the economically uneducated into the economically empowered. That education is the ultimate poverty eradication tool, because when you know better, you tend to do better. And when you do this, you move individuals from the poverty rolls into the payrolls. And in so doing, you are creating the new working class and middle class taxpayers that African governments ultimately will need if progressive African countries are ever going to become truly self-sustaining.

Source: Operation Hope

Even today, there is no one else besides Rev. Sullivan that I can immediately think of who fits this unique mold of furthering the cause of free enterprise and entrepreneurship, while simultaneously championing the cause of human rights and social justice. I guess the reality is that it is just so much easier for someone to say “I’m all about business” or “I’m all about the people” and this is very natural for us to do. Sometimes, I even catch myself having to be reminded that Africa benefits not just from free-enterprise; but also from socio-political reform. One almost couldn't exist without the other and to me Rev. Sullivan embodied that message.

So, that being said, this post could go on for a very long time if we decided to chronicle every aspect of his life. To keep the length of this post to a minimum our blog we will only be able to briefly summarize two aspects of his life-business and social change agent. Also though we won’t go into details on his church life, I think that it is worth noting that the business principles which he promoted were firmly rooted upon his faith. For those of you who’d like to learn more about this legendary forerunner to today’s “Friends of African Business” you may find an extensive list of resources and links at the end of this post.

So just who is Rev. Leon H. Sullivan? Well, something tells me that if we were to ask any of his close associates or friends that question today, the answer that you might get is that he was a minister both inside and out of the church who believed in helping others.

For those of you who may not be very familiar with pre-civil rights era America, Rev. Leon H. Sullivan grew up in a time and a place that made it very difficult to be a black American. His childhood was marked by both segregation and poverty. But out of despair comes hope and so it is from this obscurity a young eight year old Leon became who he was throughout the rest of his life-a social and economic reformer extraordinaire. His life from that point on was all about equipping black populations, both in America and in Africa, with the tools that it takes to fight social and economic injustice-education, a voice, and economic sustainability. Today there are millions of black people from America to Africa who are the direct beneficiaries of his dream.

Well while still obtaining his Master’s and Doctorate degrees he, with the support of Adam Clayton Powell, became an assistant pastor at a local church, while also becoming an active participant in America's civil rights movement. He also met his wife to be-Grace Banks during this period in his life; it should be noted that Grace was a very large part of his success. This period of his life watered the proverbial seeds that later matured into several initiatives and organizations:


  • Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC)
    • Very successful training center model, which Rev Sullivan started in 1964. This program trained and placed disadvantaged African American workers into jobs across the United States. By 1980 the program had amassed over $130m per year in funding!
  • Zion Investment Associates
    • Leon strongly believed that the best way for black people to progress, as a group, economically was through self-help. This was especially true in areas such as careers and finance. So in 1962 he started a company called Zion Investment Associates, which the purpose was to help build ownership, employment, and pride. It acted as a holdings company. He offered shares in the company to his church congregation at $10 per week for 36 weeks. As a result 650 people joined and four very notable businesses came out of it. There was an apartment complex, a shopping mall, a garment manufacturing company, and an aerospace technicians training company-which won over $2m in contracts from General Electric Company.
  • International Foundation for Education and Self-Help. (IFESH)
    • In 1982 Leon started the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help. This began with the idea that black people in Africa and in America should work together to help one another. This organization reminds me a little bit of the Peace Corps. As a matter of fact, while living in Ghana I met several IFESH volunteers-they mainly worked or volunteered as professors at local universities-their emphasis was on global competitiveness. These volunteers were very advanced education and career-wise and back then I had no idea why they were willing to put extremely successful careers on the line for volunteer work. For instance, I met a volunteer who, prior to leaving America, was a merger & acquisition consultant. She worked at one of the then-big ten consulting and accounting firms. There was another person who was a medical doctor, the last that I checked after arriving back in America, he was appointed to a high medical related post in the US government.


  • Selective Patronage
    • Selective patronage is the movement that we now know as boycotting. Mr. Sullivan was one of the first leaders to use this method of “behind the scenes protesting” This method was later adopted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It worked such that if a business refused to treat members of a particular group with equity, in this case people affiliated with Leon or any of his organizations, then the members of the victimized group would officially and publicly agree to stop buying all products from that particular business-until the problem is fixed.
  • The Sullivan Principles
    • Catalyst for promoting social responsibility in a corporate setting. Encouraged US corporations with South African investments to withdraw investment funds from South African companies who supported or contributed to the deliberate disenfranchisement of black South Africans. Through the Sullivan Principles Leon is credited with helping to bring the apartheid regime down.
  • African and African-American Summit (Later Renamed the Leon H. Sullivan Summit)
    • This organization started out with a large (1000 plus) and prominent group of African Americans meeting in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, back in 1991, to discuss ways that African Americans could assist Africa in healing, helping, and building. Today the biannual summit brings together the top political, human rights, and business leaders from all over the globe to find solutions to help improve upon Africa’s economic and socio-political climate. One of the most notable by-products of the first summit was the cancellation of billions of $USD of debt was forgiven by major nations.
  • "People's Investment For Africa" (PIFA)
    • When it started this organization was under the IFESH umbrella. It began with a $ 1m loan commitment from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. This organization received the bulk of it’s financing through individual Americans. The goal of this organization was to address the needs of self-sustainability in Africa through supporting and funding micro-enterprises.

Another position which gave Rev. Sullivan additional leverage to simultaneously address both social and business concerns was his appointment onto the General Motors Board of Directors in 1971. He was actually one of the first black Americans to do sit on the board of a fortune 500 corporation. He used this post as a platform both to help more African Americans become owners of auto dealerships and to help in securing employment, as well.

Well in closing, I hope that you have enjoyed reading this post about this giant of a change agent, Rev. Leon Sullivan. Just to recap two key and recurring themes which he espoused and which are also shared in common by myself are 1) it is possible to address the social needs in various parts of Africa, while also propagating the message of entrepreneurship and free enterprise and 2) that doing so goes a long way towards helping various economies in Africa to become self sustaining. Additionally, let me just reiterate that because of the vast amount of steps, initiatives, movements, businesses, and organizations that Leon was involved in my aim here was not necessarily to give you an entire life story, but rather to implore you (especially if you are thinking of starting a business in Africa) to find some time to study the essence and importance of Rev. Sullivan's message as it pertains to entrepreneurship and socio economic structures within Africa.

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Kaunda said...

This appreciation of Leon Sullivan is brilliant and very much appreciated. In my own life I've seen first hand how much difference the "Sullivan Principles" made in my community.

Commons-based peer production is a new term. You have enterprise on your mind, and yet participate in peer production through this wonderful blog. People all have different gifts. Sometimes it seems different is seen as opposing, but that's not always the case.

Perhaps it was because the Reverend Sullivan led a church that he understood how enterprise rested upon pillars of community support. So to create more economic opportunity Rev. Sullivan understood that the pillars needed to be shored up too. The OICs are a perfect example.

From your past comments I gather that social entrepreneurship seems to cut across the grain you are planing. And surely it's true that many well-intentioned do-gooders manage to mix things up. But it seems vitally important that ways of talking and working together among those with a business perspective and those whose perspectives are more directed towards shoring the pillars of community be found.

Benin "Mwangi" said...


Your comments are very thoughtful. Thanks also for the kind words. I guess this is a form of peer production, until you said it it never really occured to me in that way. And again, you are also perceptive as to my thoughts and appreciation of social entrepreneurship. For right now, until the exact direction for me to go in is more apparent I am thoroughly happy with mediums such as this one. There are a few projects that are in the works, though and what is most important to me is doing something that is able to uplift communities through entrepreneurship.

Thanks again, Kaunda!


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