10 Black Americans Who Have Shaped the CPG Industry
Can you imagine living without frozen pizza, potato chips, ice cream or Tennessee whiskey? These staples and more would likely not exist today if it wasn’t for the innovative minds of these 10 African Americans. While this is not intended to be a definitive list of historically prominent Black Americans in the CPG industry, it can serve as a starting point on your own educational journey.
Madam C.J. Walker
Inspired by her own experience with hair loss, Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) created a specialized hair care product named Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower that became the foundation of her business empire. The Madam C.J. Walker Company expanded to offer a whole system of hair care products and employed over three thousand people at the height of production, largely Black women who sold Walker’s products door-to-door. Considered the first Black woman millionaire in America, Madam C.J. Walker’s inspiring story was recently adapted into a Netflix drama series called “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.”
George Washington Carver
Lovingly known as “The Peanut Man,” George Washington Carver (born George Carver) was an agricultural chemist who initially rose to influence in Southern farms due to his theory on how to use crop rotation to increase cotton yields. He got his nickname by developing over 300 alternative uses for the surplus peanuts that were an unintended consequence of his crop rotation method. Many of these alternative uses were the foundation of future CPG applications, such as cooking and salad oils, Worcestershire sauce, soaps, milk, cosmetics and flour.
Nathan “Nearest” Green
Jack Daniel’s, the world’s largest whiskey brand, would likely never have been founded if it wasn’t for Nearest Green. As a young boy in the late 1850s, Jack Daniel went to work on Reverend Dan Call’s farm. That 338-acre Tennessee farm also included a whiskey still, and Nearest Green was its main distiller. As Jack Daniel grew older and more curious about the distillery, he began receiving close tutelage from Nearest Green. After the Civil War, Reverend Call was forced to sell his distillery to Jack Daniel, who hired Nearest Green as the first-ever head distiller at the Jack Daniel Distillery. Fawn Weaver, historian and co-founder of the Nearest Green Foundation, launched the premium whiskey brand Uncle Nearest in 2017 to honor the lost legacy of a Tennessee whiskey legend.
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner
Even as a young child, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner (born Mary Beatrice Davidson) was fascinated with trying to make everyday life more convenient. While she filed a total of five patents throughout her life, it was her first in 1957 that would have the most impact on the CPG industry. This revolutionary invention was an adjustable elastic belt that held sanitary napkins in place and was far superior at preventing leaks compared to the cloth pads and rags used at the time.
Frederick McKinley Jones
While more than 60 patents are impressively assigned to his name, Frederick McKinley Jones is most notable within the CPG industry as the inventor of the portable air-cooling unit for trucks. In 1940, Frederick McKinley Jones co-founded U.S. Thermo Control Company, which now operates under the name Thermo King. Without this foundational innovation in cold chain distribution, it’s hard to imagine the modern grocery industry. The refrigerated truck was vital in the ability to move perishable and frozen goods longer distances to large supermarkets without spoilage. Frederick McKinley Jones was the first African American to receive the National Medal of Technology in 1991.
Encouraged by her mother Carol, Lisa Price began selling her homemade natural skin and hair care products at a local flea market in 1993. Noticing a scarceness of natural products for Black women at the time, Lisa Price found massive success across large retail channels with her brand Carol’s Daughter. Carol’s Daughter products and retail placements were pivotal in jumpstarting the billion-dollar Black hair care market. In 2014, Lisa Price sold Carol’s Daughter to beauty conglomerate L’Oreal. If you’re interested in learning more about Lisa Price’s inspirational entrepreneurial journey, I would suggest listening to her episode on NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast.
Reginald F. Lewis
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Reginald F. Lewis began practicing corporate law in New York City, where he later co-founded Wall Street’s first African American law firm. Working around corporate mergers and acquisitions for 15 years, Reginald F. Lewis wanted to taste one of these deals himself and started the TLC Group. Only a few years later, TLC Group would purchase the international assets of Beatrice Foods, which included 64 companies in 31 countries. By 1992, the newly formed TLC Beatrice International would grow to over a billion dollars in annual revenue, making it the first Black-owned business in history to reach that business milestone.
While not the official inventor of the original potato chip recipe, American chef George Crum (born George Speck) is likely a cornerstone reason why we eat billions of dollars’ worth of these deliciously salty snacks today. At his upstate New York restaurant, which was frequented by the likes of the Vanderbilt family and Jay Gould, George Crum would place a basket of potato chips on every table. The upscale restaurant opened in 1860 and operated for three decades, but there was never any attempt to mass produce or distribute the potato chips. Several years after the restaurant closed, William Tappendon began to commercialize packaged potato chips and sell them in grocery stores.
When Thomas Jefferson became the U.S. Minister to France in 1784, he selected James Hemings to accompany him, and Hemings became the first African American trained as a French chef. Hemings went on to cook arguably one of the most historic meals in American history, between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Though packaged food wasn’t invented yet, it’s said that James Hemings introduced Americans to French fries, crème brûlée, ice cream, and macaroni and cheese.
Samuel T. Wilcox
Gaining experience in trading as a boat steward, Samuel T. Wilcox built a wholesale grocery business in 1850. His “Fancy & Staple Groceries” store was a pioneer in offering many premium brands that attracted mostly wealthy customers. More than 30 years before Kroger would call Cincinnati home, Samuel T. Wilcox became known as “the largest dealer of provisions in the city.” With his grocery retail success, Samuel T. Wilcox expanded his wholesale business in cities like New York and Boston.