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Ideas in the Wild: How Janice Bryant Howroyd Used Down-Home Wisdom to Start a Billion Dollar Company

Janice Bryant Howroyd grew up in a small, segregated town in North Carolina as one of eleven children raised by two loving parents. In 1976, she left her hometown armed with just $900. Two years later, Janice founded ActOne, which she grew into an organization that now leads the human resources industry. The journey wasn’t […]



Janice Bryant Howroyd grew up in a small, segregated town in North Carolina as one of eleven children raised by two loving parents. In 1976, she left her hometown armed with just $900.

Two years later, Janice founded ActOne, which she grew into an organization that now leads the human resources industry. The journey wasn’t easy, though. Along the way, Janice faced racism and sexism in addition to the challenges faced by every new business owner. None of that stopped her from becoming the first black woman to own a billion-dollar business.

In her new book, Acting Up: Winning in Business and Life Using Down-Home Wisdom, Janice shares the life lessons that helped her become a leader who works for good, not just for profit. In this interview, she shares how she decided to write the book, her favorite piece of advice for business owners, and how she’s applied the lessons in her book to her own life.

What happened that made you decide to write the book? What was the exact moment when you realized these ideas needed to get out there?

I was attending a conference put on by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) along with many other women business owners I respected. During the conference, I was approached by more than a dozen women asking questions on business, life balance, and in particular, my story. Repeating myself — as the truth bears repeating — it occurred to me that it would be a good thing to share the essence and particulars in a book. After all, the questions I was being asked at this conference were iterations of questions I’m so often asked.

What’s your favorite specific, actionable idea in the book?

It’s the idea behind the idea that makes our company, ActOne Group, so special: “The candidate is the center of the universe.” The idea behind that idea is that the most important person in the room is the person you’re speaking with. This is a mantra in our company. Our employees know the answer isn’t the most powerful person, the biggest client, or the CEO.

The correct answer is “the person you’re speaking with.” We teach our employees this mantra because it produces so many positive results, including understanding the importance of the person in front of you. In addition, it helps us to focus, which enables total learning and eliminates waste, hurt feelings and disappointments, and builds bridges.

What’s a story of how you’ve applied this lesson in your own life? What has this lesson done for you?

One of the things about my company that I love so dearly is that the people who report directly to me are also friends. They are really great human beings. They care about each other, about me, and I care about them. When one of us has an issue, or somebody can’t make a flight, the other ones don’t hesitate to jump in and support. That speaks to our culture.

As part of that culture, I believe you can’t call yourself a leader if you’re living in a nice home and your family’s well taken care of, but the people you’re leading aren’t. That’s why, when a VP asked me what my next measure of success would look like for our company during a President’s Council meeting, I answered, “What would really please me is if everybody who works in our company who wants to own a home can afford to own one.”

Near the end of that year, he brought a big present to me during the meeting all wrapped up with big, beautiful gold ribbons on it. When we unwrapped it, I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was a framed collage of smaller pictures of all the employees in that VP’s region standing in front of the homes they had bought that year. These were all brand-new homeowners. There must have been a hundred of them. I lost it. The tears just started flowing down my cheeks, and I lost it.

The following year, I got another frame sent to me for my birthday from a different regional VP. Same thing. Dozens of pictures of employees who were all first-time homeowners.

One of my great joys is seeing my employees succeed and achieve their goals, professionally and personally. I cherish those photos and what they represent, and as our company moves forward, I’m keeping that focus on making sure our employees are taken care of.

For more advice on becoming a business leader who works for good, check out Acting Up: Winning in Business and Life Using Down-Home Wisdom on Amazon.

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