The Wharton Club of D.C. held its 45th Annual Joseph Wharton Award Dinner on the night of Nov. 18, 2015, at the Park-Hyatt Hotel in Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C., and gave its first Madam C. J. Walker Award to Catherine L. Hughes, a woman very much of the 21st century.
Hughes is an African-American entrepreneur, radio and television personality, and business executive. According to the Huffington Post in 2012, “When Cathy Hughes got pregnant at age 16, her friends said her life was over. Her mother kicked her out of the house. Hughes said she ‘was in shock.’”
She went on to start the largest African-American-owned and -operated broadcast company in the U.S. and became the first African-American woman to head a publicly traded company. Her Washington, D.C.-based Radio One has 53 radio stations in 16 urban markets, with revenues of $441 million for the past fiscal year. She still serves as chairperson of the board and secretary.
As CEO, president and treasurer, Hughes’ son Alfred Liggins III WG95 has expanded Radio One into TV and online ventures. TV One, for which Liggins serves as president, is joint venture between Radio One and NBCUniversal. Liggins, a graduate of the Wharton MBA for Executives Program, was one of the Joseph Wharton awardees that night.
It was her son’s idea to diversify and grow, Hughes recalled.
“When he got his MBA from Wharton, he said, ‘We’re not going to be a mom-and-son operation anymore. We’re going public,’ ” Hughes said. “This all started from being a family, and even as a public corporation, we operate as a family business. Too much of American industry is focused on the bottom line and not enough is focused on the front lines.”
The Wharton award bestowed on Hughes represents recognition of the achievements of women in business and enterprise. Madam C. J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in America, is the perfect example of the embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit in women. She made her fortune by developing and marketing a line of beauty and hair products for black women under the company she founded, Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, she was the first child in her family born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
A’Lelia Bundles, a former ABC Network News producer, author, journalist and public speaker, is her great-great-granddaughter and runs the official Madam C. J. Walker website. As Madam C.J. Walker’s official biographer, Bundles has posted the following commentary from her famous ancestor who delivered the words at the National Negro Business League Convention in July 1912:
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations … I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
The Wharton Club of D.C. hosted a great dinner, honoring a great lady, an entrepreneur, philanthropist and American leader who rose from building not just a better life but a better world. It was a great idea to begin this award with the recognition of Hughes, a great idea that should be continued, honoring Wharton women entrepreneurs every year.
Editor’s note: Congratulations to all of the Joseph Wharton Award honorees—Liggins, Hughes, as well as Amanda E Eversole WG13, SVP at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Devin Schain C88, founder and CEO of CampusDirect; and Dan Tangherlini WG01, COO of Artemis Real Estate.