Janice Bryant Howroyd founded The ActOne Group in the front of a rug shop in California 45 years ago. Since then, she’s vastly grown the global employment and management company, and she recently made Forbes’ list of the wealthiest self-made women in the US. She’s the author several books, including Acting Up: Winning in Business and Life Using Down-Home Wisdom.
For this episode of our video series “The New World of Work”, Howroyd sat down with HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius to discuss:
- Starting and growing a business from scratch as a Black woman in a sector traditionally dominated by white men.
- Recent trends in the employment space as companies seek more flexible models of hiring and retaining top talent.
- The importance of staying true to your core values, even as you make the necessary choices to get ahead. “Never compromise who you are personally to become who you wish to be professionally,” she says.
“The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius talks to a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. He also shares an inside look at these conversations —and solicits questions for future discussions — in a newsletter just for HBR subscribers. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.
Welcome, Janice, to The New World of Work.
JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD:
Hey Adi, it’s great to be here.
We have a global audience and not everyone knows you and your story, so I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about how you started the business.
JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD:
Well, although officially I began ActOne Group in 1978, I believe I went into a business frame of mind my 11th grade year in high school. This is actually paradoxical because I never dreamed of being an entrepreneur in those early days of life. I didn’t see many entrepreneurs. I saw store owners who certainly were entrepreneurial, but neither did I think about owning a professional services organization. I just didn’t think that was likely. Yet Adi, the seeds of impetus were planted for me that year. It was one of the most outstanding years of my life in a positive outcome way, but a very negative experience.
I’m interested when you talk about the negative experience, and I’m interested to then fast forward to how you got to build up this big global company.
JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD:
Most people who know me know that I’m a southern girl, southern United States, and I was born into a segregated society. Our hometown was small. It was an early-founded town in this nation, in the late 1700s. And in many ways, it retained a lot of the ideologies and ideas about how life should work that it had back then, yet it was a very nurturing community that I lived in. So around my 11th grade year, the United States government put into place initiatives that basically said, unless you integrate the schools, you’ll lose funding. And our town’s attempt to that integration in the first years was to select some of the higher performing students from my side of town to go over to the white school. Our community determined that some of the smarter kids would be the ones who did that, both out of a sense of pride, but also to show white people that their schools wouldn’t just fall apart because we were too dumb to learn.
It was a horrible year for me. I had the experience in my US history class of having a young man who was teaching stand up on his desk and proceed to talk about why slavery was appropriate in Black people, which he didn’t refer to us with that term, were appropriate to the slave and plantation life. I bit the insides of my mouth, and you may be able to see that even today. I still have some residual effect from that. And I just pray to God, “Don’t let me cry in front of all these people and I’ll never come back.”
When I got home and I shared my experience with my dad, he began then to teach me about the importance of knowing myself and that I had everything I need to be, everything I need to be. So he gave me choices, one of which was to not go back to the school. Let’s just say I went back, and if it didn’t frame, it certainly informed so much of my following adulthood. By the time I came to California to visit my sister on a vacation, some might say I’m still on that vacation, it was this kaleidoscopic hope with a lot of edgier experience than I would’ve thought I wanted. That experience also helped to inform me on how people want to be treated and that everything you say matters. And that’s built into the culture of how I started the company, which by the way, was started in the front of a rug shop with a very good address.
That is a troubling and inspiring story. Thank you for sharing that. You have succeeded in the business world, which is still dominated by white males. I’ve read your book. You talk openly about making it as a woman, making it as an African American woman. Talk a little bit more about the barriers you’ve had to overcome in the business world, trying to establish yourself in a world that maybe was sometimes hostile to you.
JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD:
Almost always I do talk about prevailing in business and the journey that requires. Now, in the early days, the journeys were supported by my family, and many of them still are a part of the company. Later, post our tech revolution with Acceleration, our workforce technology suite, growth introduced me to NGOs that have been tremendous in networking into companies and executives who have appetites, disciplines and, Adi, knowledge to bury a break. So these include, and they’re not limited to, organizations like WBENC, NMSDC, NUDC, WPO, and NGLCC. There have been nights before I joined those organizations and began to benefit from the work they do, many years of being in business, when I told myself it just wasn’t worth the pain and pressure, but there’s never been a morning I didn’t awaken on purpose.
Interestingly, during the early years between 2012 and 2016, it seemed as though, in the US specifically, inclusion was mapped as an objective for almost all companies, regardless of their size or industry. Within these later years, there appears to be a burgeoning marketing and branding for DE&I that the efforts in effect just are blurring around. I don’t know if this is from weariness or retreats to bottom line or fears of exposure, but there’s a lot of work left to do here.
So certainly for me, race has mattered and gender has mattered. But if I bring you up to speed on what matters, for me, size matters. We’re not a small company by designation. We operate in 34 countries, and our technology is speaking over 50 languages. However, we’re not an enterprise-sized one. So we deliver enterprise-level services, but some procurement agents don’t know our sector well enough to realize that, like with a bank, customers don’t borrow nor withdraw all on the same day. And unlike a bank, when emergencies do arrive, ActOne can pivot, decision made, we aggregate a lot immediately. We do these things immediately.
So we’re also closer to talent markets than they trust us to be. We’re working globally, we affect locally, we engage locally. And several of our clients who are the largest in the world in their markets, I might add, Adi, have realized this. And they benefit from it greatly, not only in talent delivery circumstances, importantly in times of data risks and other circumstances such as Covid we’ve just lived through. But unfortunately, many decision makers and potential client companies retain some outdated, possibly never true, ideas about who can do what and the burden of competing in these environments is heavy and it’s often ridiculous.
This is a moment, and HBR’s coverage reflects this, where certainly in the US companies are trying to make progress where they’ve been talking and achieving very little over the years. This is a moment to get it right, and employees are like, you’ve got to get it right. You can’t just talk the talk. From your perspective, both as a business leader but also in the employment sector, are you encouraged by the progress or frustrated that there isn’t more.
JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD:
First of all, let’s go back a little bit. You talked about getting it right. That kind of depends on what right is. I don’t mean to sound like Bill Clinton with that depends on what “is” is. In this instance, it is appropriate to ask that. For many companies, getting it right is simply about bottom line, and then they’ll do the good things if they happen to support that, and that’s appropriate in some spaces. But the bottom line can have a hard and immediate return. It can also have a soft and long return.
So if you’re talking about getting it right around DE&I, diversity, equity and inclusion, that can be a rub for some companies while an encouragement for others. There’s a bit of both. Encouragement that population swell will through democratic and capitalist processes demand change. Yeah, I’m encouraged that will happen. Then supply and demand kick in. Frustration is a different word than I use encountering that though. Let’s think about it this way, that love is such a puzzle for people who individually all want the same things, the promise of democratic constitutions. These are promises we don’t learn from history, even with the evidence of ages. So we experience the war of have-and-have-not to exhaustion in our daily lives and we’re losing threads of sanity that teaches us together we win.
Think about this: when Covid first became community fear, I gave the call to my global organization that we will not simply go through this, we will grow through this, and we did. Just as countries like the United States, Germany, France, and the UK have done from war years before. Did we need those war years to grow though? Did we need them to innovate or to unite? Do we as human beings require danger to recognize our commonalities are strong and beautiful? I’m not wanting to be a Pollyanna here, but I can tell you, Adi, that my faith has taught me as strongly as my experience does, we’re going to be good. We just have to work through it and we have to make sure we’re working from some of the same definitions. Technology is a tremendous enabler for us to take advantage of that, and not suffer, use it to speak from uninformed platforms.
What would be your advice then for women of color who want to have the kind of success you’ve had, what would your advice be for the approaches or the paths that people might take?
JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD:
Often women ask me after speaking engagements, or even during work in industry community events, especially on university campuses, how they can become like me, and I’m always floored by that because I carry a lot of my history with me and being like me wasn’t something I wanted to be. Yet I realized and respect that they’re talking about who they see today, and how I present in a public and business forum. So my response to them is, do you. Learn from my experiences, which I openly—sometimes too transparently—share, and they’re shared in my books as you mentioned, in my Ask JBH website and socials, but specifically to the question of what I tell these women, it’s the same thing I tell men, whether they’re younger women, younger men, humans of any age or gender: never compromise who you are personally to become who you wish to be professionally.
Now compromise is key to growth when it comes to contracting business, but I think it’s detrimental when it comes to selling your values and your core for business. This may sound simple, Adi, but as I teach, simple is not always easy. There are footnotes I make to women, none of them should have to feel the need to subjugate their intelligence or their presence in the manner I’ve had to over the course of leading my company. And my brother during some of our presentations would kick me under the table and tell me that I needed to quiet down a little bit. Very much similar to when Michelle Obama was on the campaign trail their first season of campaigning for presidency and people were getting adjusted to this different kind of cultural energy she brought forward with her passion and intelligence.
Or Adi, I had circumstances where I would text answers to white men in my organization during presentations and gift them with the solutions and the data that was in my head. Giving consultation as proof of ability versus being able to bill for it as a service with companies. All of these things that are footnotes to the young women who I’m talking with. And I also encourage them, they don’t have to compromise who they are personally to be who they wish to be professionally. They simply need to be very in tune and iteratively understanding who they are personally in order that they can bring that forward with a sense of humility as well as authority.
I want to shift gears a little bit. ActOne Group is an employment services company. You must have a window, an aggregated window, on what’s happening in the economy. To what extent do you see the world of work, the world of employment, evolving in one way or another?
JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD:
Let’s be really clear about that. Employment services is a key part of what ActOne Group offers. However, we are workforce solutions group delivering what we call TTP, which is talent, technology and processes, to companies of various sizes, scales, and disciplines. So given this, Adi, we do have a clear window to how work and employment are evolving now.
Some smart companies are using this time to invest in attracting new talent as opposed to simply trying to conserve human capital expense. 74% of the companies in the United States are still talking about expanding their workforce. And we get to see this as an evolution in how our clients are utilizing their own internal fulfillment teams.
They’re running leaner with their full-time recruiting assets and using flexible models with staffing partners to meet their hiring needs. This is engaging shared accountability structures for them. It’s making them more flexible with brand investment and they’re able to place more emphasis on the cost of talent and the benefits and incentives associated with it. AI is a real and strong thing in ways that both threaten and support the workforce. And, Adi it’s an exotic occurrence I think that’s happening in that companies are requiring re-skilled and upskilled people to deliver work at the same time that they’re relenting on four year degrees in other areas. Soft skills are big, big considerations for companies, especially companies where leadership remains over the millennial age group, I would say. And in companies where multinational cultures intersect, we see this as well.
Now think about this, obviously there’s a continued insistence on workers wanting to work remotely despite company policies that are starting to require them to return with regularity. And we see this in the news each day, don’t we? Certainly there are huge layoffs in the tech industry, and they’ve softened that stance somewhat but it still remains, so we’re going to see a continuing demand for gig work versus the typical 40-hour work week. And the trend will only continue to grow, especially as new workers enter the age space for personal financial responsibility.
Here’s something though that I think is really important to your point. The economy and reality—or not—of a recession certainly has some companies, ours included, poised for growth through difficult times, but also playing it conservatively in terms of hiring new headcount.
I talked about upskilling and re-skilling. Well, those are options that mid-size companies are embracing quite aggressively. As a member of an organization called CEO Connection, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but Kenny Beck is the CEO of this organization, Adi, and would be a brilliant guest for you, and I’m sure he will affirm what I marvel at, which is the ingenuity and the social consciousness that CEOs of mid-size companies have here in the USA alone. Now across the globe, mid-size companies are often aware differently of their local positioning and responsibilities, so they tend to make decisions differently. I think regardless of companies’ sizes, the importance of contingent workers are going to continue to grow in these evolving times, and this is going to allow companies to flex up and down more easily.
It’s especially important outside of the US where local laws can make it very difficult to impact headcounts quickly. We like to pivot, we like flexibility, and Covid showed us that that’s very important, but the laws and employee awareness in the US are shifting company behaviors and concerns, I think. Adi, technology is allowing entrepreneurs and their companies to compete for talent differently and more aggressively than any time before, especially as our markets and governments are looking to learn from what we call the talent space. And so I think all of these create quite an “appealing” opportunity. I used the word appealing in quotes for companies to not only rethink and reset, they can revisit where they’ve actually seen value when it comes to my space, which is the workforce community.
We’re getting some really good questions from our audience. This is from Sean who says he’s from Tucson, Arizona, and it really picks up on what you were talking about, but more for your company. How do you stay on the innovative edge when recruiting and hiring and focusing on retention?
JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD:
Well, I really appreciate that question because it also allows me to talk about how we actually are differentiating ourselves. My mama taught my 10 siblings and me that in order to be outstanding, you’ve got to be willing to stand out. And our dad taught us that together, we could win, so we could win with anything that we put our minds to. These early childhood teachings have manifested into how we’ve designed and iterated our company culture. We stand on our principles of FEET. Basically, FEET is freedom to innovate, excellence in delivery, and because everything and everyone matters, invest the time to understand. Our mantras, which I’ve mentioned to you already, one of them, “together we win”, supporters as well as workers are the center of our universe. When we think like this, it requires us to be bold. In the early days of acquiring new clients, it requires us to be bold and truthful and keep the commitments we make to people who come into our organization.
We are beginning our distinction, Adi and Sean in Arizona, with the hiring of our people. The tenure in our company is crazy wonderful. People don’t stay with that one group because they’re comfortable, they stay with us because they’re believed in. They’re supported and encouraged to be beyond comfortable, and that requires us to be bold, it requires them to be bold.
Now here’s something we do, we set budgets that are reasonable but necessary, and those who exceed those budgets in a dynamic way are recognized for it by their peers and by the company. And one way we do this that everybody enjoys, and in two weeks, I’m going to be hosting the highest achieving team members and their guests. Each gets to bring a guest of their choice with them to what we’ve named our Founders Club. This year it’s going to be in Cancun, so in two weeks, I’ll be there, and at the conclusion of our five-day stay, we have an incredible reveal for what the next year’s Founders will be.
And then we allow people to set their own individual budgets, approved by their leadership, and we work with them to achieve that. We check with them. Certainly we use technology to help them keep on track and to continuously upskill themselves, but we’re also working with them in a very people way. Many executives and other companies have told us that post-COVID, there is no need to continue to invest this additional financial burden the way we do, but to us, it’s an investment in our people and it’s a way to say thank you for doing the work that keeps our beliefs alive and our culture strong.
Let me share this with you. Years ago, one of our highest performing team members pulled me aside in the Dominican Republic where Founders was that year, and she told me that she never thought of real estate as a way to expand her family security before we introduced her to the consideration and assisted her in that process. And then she wept as she continued to say that she had never seen anywhere outside of her home state until we invited her to attend her first Founders event. Now this is true for many of the people who join our organization, and it’s true for many of the excited, talented, and passionately committed faces that I was looking on yesterday, Adi, at our virtual presidents’ council. It’s a quarterly two-day event, and we invite and share across markets what’s working, what needs to be adjusted, pivoted, and what’s expected with each of our team leaders.
Some of these people are the most talented human beings on this planet, and they were sitting there facing me. My son led that meeting, and I knew that everybody present understands that we are not simply a company, we are a family. Some of them have children who’ve chosen to work at ActOne Group, and they work here because their parents come home, many of them work from home, and they’re saying great things about the organization they work in, the people they work with, and the clients they help to improve. It’s why I think my own children work here, Adi, and these people are why I continue to work here. I hope I’ve answered Sean’s question well enough for him to understand.
I think extremely well. We have a very global audience watching, so this is a question from Jane in Normandy, in France, and she’s curious, why did you choose the sector you did for your business, and how have you tried to improve this business sector?
JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD:
Jane, thank you. Merci, merci. We do business in France as well. We do business in over 34 countries, and our technologies speak over 15 languages, and that’s a long road from when I started my company in front of a rug shop, I shared with you earlier. When I came to California on vacation to visit my sister and her husband, I didn’t have, even then, the vision of starting a company. I had the experience of looking for work, and the experience that I had looking for work after the experiences I had in a segregated educational system really influenced me that it could be better. I was about to go back to North Carolina to visit my mom, who was still recovering from the passing of my dad. My dad passed in a boating accident on one of those rocky moments on the East Coast, and my sister’s husband, Tommy, sat me down and he said, “You owe it to yourself to see how far you can succeed here. If you want to go home in three years, go home in three years, but go home knowing you can succeed anywhere you plant yourself.” And that was huge for me, that this—and I’ve said this publicly before—this nappy-headed little colored girl could come to California where everybody was blonde and gorgeous. Now I’m blonde and gorgeous, Adi, but everybody was blonde and gorgeous back then, and I accept me. And a lot of importance was placed on appearance regardless of what industry you worked in. And Tommy had the confidence that what was going on in my head could outweigh what was going on outside of my head. And he was right.
So he and my sister went on an extended vacation, after a conference they were attending in Europe. He left me in charge of his office and when he returned, he thought I had revolutionized it. I simply thought I was doing work. He loved one of the things in particular that I did, even beyond the reorganization of his files and his systems. And that was hiring a couple of people who were better suited to the work. Now, historically and still, people who would take jobs in that industry were actually looking to perform in that industry or be writers in that industry, and they take administrative and clerical positions to be in front of people to present themselves and their craft. I looked for people who actually were looking to do the work and wanted to excel in that. And he thought that was genius. I thought it was necessary.
He then had me assist friends of his to staff an office that they were setting up. I did it. They said, “Thank you,” and I left. And Tommy said, “But how much did you charge them?” “I charged them nothing.” I didn’t know the value of my work. And he said, “Well, you’ve got to send them a bill.” And I did it, and I was nervous. I felt my Christian values kicked in, my southern Christian values kicked in. And so I felt a sense of guilt about charging them for something that, for me, was kind of inherent and innate to do. They paid it. They paid it quickly, and I was shocked. And he encouraged me then, “You should set up your own shingle here and see how far you can go.” And so I’ve grown the business and I guess I’m still on that vacation, as I’ve said before.
Sounds like a good vacation. You’ve talked about family, you’ve talked about other people who influence you, but I’d love to ask the question more broadly. Who or what are some of your biggest influences, maybe entrepreneurs, maybe books, maybe articles? Who are your biggest influences?
JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD:
I have said very publicly, my parents were greater influences on me than anyone. They taught us what love looks like, how it works, and how to nurture it. Certainly the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Mandela, MLK, and more recently, Bishop T. D. Jakes, because I am a faith-based person. Andraé Crouch said years ago on an album back when we had vinyl–I still have vinyl, my daughter still has vinyl, she’s so cool to me that she plays it—Andraé Crouch on his album, Take Me Back, I’ll para-quote him, okay? I’ll say what it meant to me. He was sharing that religion is a search for God. Faith is a relationship with God. I think those people who I truly see as great influences in my life are people who treat their faith that way, irrespective of their religion.
Some of my clients, who I won’t mention their names right now, especially those champions who are working in DE&I, procurement and HR are battling their companies to come forward with more thoughtful and innovative solutions around how they hire and how they procure are tremendous champions to me, and they’re also incredible human beings in influencing me. And your own work, learning and from what you’re doing has become something that I look forward to, Adi, and being able to learn from the people who come on your shows. I’m a big YouTuber and the book I think that has influenced me the most beyond the great religious tomes, is As a Man Thinketh, which I rewrote with legal permission into As a Person Thinks. And it’s a very small book. It’s a leaflet really.
We’re a little bit over time, and there are a lot of questions that I couldn’t get to from the audience, but thank you for being on the show. Thank you for bringing the energy. It was pleasure to talk with you today. Thank you for being on The New World of Work.
JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD:
Thank you, Adi, for the tremendous work you’re doing. And please remember, no matter who you call God, call God every day and never compromise who you are personally to become who you wish to be professionally.