Marilyn French Hubbard reinvents the National Association for Black Women Entrepreneurs
Marilyn French Hubbard may have broken down the barriers in her genes.
At the very least, that’s the central theme of his resume.
His mother, Mabel J. French, was Michigan’s first black mortgage banker. While still a teenager, French Hubbard was one of the first black women to hold a salaried office position at General Motors Corp., and after earning an associate’s degree from Ferris State College in 1968, she became one of the few black female court reporters in Detroit.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Detroit Mercy, French Hubbard went self-employed and started a coaching and professional development business for women. Through this work, she discovered an unmet need.
“People were reaching out to me, telling me they wanted to be like me, they wanted to be in business. Well, I knew my business, but I didn’t really know about entrepreneurship,” she said.
So in 1979, she founded the National Association of Black Women Entrepreneurs, a Detroit-based networking and advocacy group that grew to connect 5,000 people across the country. It was the first organization dedicated to serving “the entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial needs of African American women,” said French Hubbard.
“We didn’t know we were making history,” Hubbard said. “We were just entrepreneurs trying to make it happen.”
The network has been featured in Black Enterprise, Essence, and the Wall Street Journal, among other national outlets. Its conferences – the largest attended by 1,000 people – have attracted corporate sponsors such as Comerica Bank, Federal Express and Anheuser-Busch.
French Hubbard ran NABWE as a volunteer, forging his own path in corporate life at the same time. Chrysler Corp. recruited her to become one of its first black car dealerships, and although she went through a two-year training program, she ultimately decided that a dealership wasn’t for her. Instead, she embarked on a 20-year career in healthcare, working in training and organizational development for Health Alliance Plan and as a vice president at Henry Ford Health System. She earned an MBA and an honorary doctorate from Central Michigan University along the way. She retired from Henry Ford 12 years ago as Vice President of Community Partnerships and Director of Diversity.
But his work is not finished. Today, she is reinventing NABWE as a hub for intergenerational learning and a chance to pass on the legacy of pioneering black women in business. She is also a care advocate, working with the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation on a program that aims to support family caregivers.
“My life’s mission and passion is to improve the legacy, economic status, health and well-being of women, their families and their communities,” said French Hubbard, who is 75. “Most of the work I’ve done has been driven by this mission.”
She spoke to Crain’s Detroit Business about her journey as an entrepreneur, the burdens and blessings of being “unmanageable,” and her hopes for the future of black women’s entrepreneurship.
- Tell me a bit about your childhood and your career.
I grew up in Lansing, Michigan. My mom was an entrepreneur, real estate professional, and mortgage banker. … My father worked for the state government, but my mother was the main breadwinner. My dad was stability and had the traditional 9 to 5, and was really the wind under his wings. But it was she who was innovating and who was there. … I didn’t know it was anything special. But my mother laid the foundation.
My first career, I was a court reporter. I started this career because court reporters made a lot of money and I could type. So I went to (what was then) Ferris State College and became a certified court reporter. My first job was in the criminal courts of Detroit, back when (there were few) African American court reporters – I wasn’t the first, but I was one of the first.
I had been kind of sheltered, living in Lansing and Big Rapids. My family origins are in Iowa. … But when I moved to Detroit, and as a court reporter, some of the cases I took were about police brutality and a lot of things related to racism. I received a very good education while I was doing that. But while I was a court reporter, I realized that wasn’t really my natural skill and ability. … I like to talk, I like to be creative, and that’s not what you do as a court reporter. I wanted my voice to be heard. I started teaching court reporting at the Detroit Institute of Commerce, one of the first black business schools in Detroit. When I taught there, my students were graduating in record numbers, so they asked me if I would do continuing education for their other instructors because they wanted to know what I was doing to improve those graduation rates. I’ve always had this servant-leader attitude, so I was helping others like I was helping myself, working my way out of something that wasn’t really serving me.
- Who are the people who have supervised you or influenced your work?
Of course, my first great role model was my mother. But the person who put me on the map was Esther Gordy Edwards. She took me under her arm. When I started Black Women Entrepreneurs, she encouraged me – she just thought it was so wonderful. She served on several boards, and on two boards, when she resigned, she recommended that I take her place. I was on the board of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and also on the board of the Book Cadillac Hotel. … I wrote a book in 2000, “Sisters Are Cashing In: How Every Woman Can Make Her Financial Dreams Come True” … and Esther Edwards wrote the foreword for me. She was probably my most visible and influential mentor.
- What has been the hardest part of your career?
To integrate, in the American companies. I was an entrepreneur, by spirit. I wanted to fix things, make them happen, and in American companies there were structures that had to be followed. … Basically, I was unmanageable. I worked for bosses who figured out how to handle me and let me do my own thing. Learning to fit in was a challenge. And to fit in, I often had to be less who I really was. I could contribute more than the job required. So luckily, my calling was Black Women Entrepreneurs (the 501c3 behind NABWE) and helping women on the sidelines, so that’s where I always found my fulfillment and my ability to be the best I could be. Because the system didn’t allow me to really be me.
- Do you think it was hard to fit in just because of who you are – your personality? Or was it being a woman, a black woman, in the corporate world?
A combination of everything. I was taught to do my best to always excel. It was the culture I grew up in, giving your best. And I really didn’t grow up feeling racial barriers. I didn’t realize that until much later in my career. When I grew up and went to elementary school and college, G. Mennen Williams was the governor, and his daughter went to school with me, and her mother Nancy Williams was our leader scout. We always spent the night at the governor’s mansion. It was normal for me, because I grew up. I just felt like I could be anything I wanted to be. With that came an attitude – if it’s broken, find a way to fix it. I’ve never seen failure – I thought, “Well, if this method doesn’t work, let me figure out how to improve it.”
- Tell me more about the work you are currently doing.
I look for innovative ways to support the health and well-being of caregivers. After my retirement, I became a family caregiver. … I started helping my family and friends, and it grew from there. My mother had three elderly aunts who lived in Florida, and they all made me power of attorney and executor. So I was always running to Florida to help them get to the doctor, do their advanced directives. I didn’t know I was a caregiver. I was just doing what I do.
… I work with the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation – they have grants for caregivers in Michigan and Buffalo. I help them understand, how can we improve this? How to help caregivers to live well? Often caregiving causes stress and strain, often (caregivers) die before the people they care for.
For me, it’s a legacy work. I even see it as a throwback to black women entrepreneurs – your career, your life could be just fine, and then your mom or your dad might get sick, and you have to stop and be a caregiver. It changes the trajectory of your whole life. I am truly an advocate for anyone planning for the inevitable. What if I had to become a caregiver? Am I ready if someone should come and become a caregiver for me?
- How do you think things are different today for black female entrepreneurs?
When I started, we were pioneers and there were very few of us. I’m excited about growth, I’m excited about second and third generation entrepreneurs. Women entrepreneurs are the fastest growing segment of the economy, and black women in large numbers.
My concern is the income that black women entrepreneurs earn. We are many, but our income is not high. …I’m excited about the numbers but concerned about the sustainability. And that’s what I hope we can do with the new version of Black Women Entrepreneurs.
There are many acquaintances among retired women like me who want to give back. We’re going to use Black Women Entrepreneurs as a platform, to mentor and coach in one way or another. To help the entrepreneurs of today and the new entrepreneurs of tomorrow. … Previously, we focused on success, survival and success. Our goal now is to live our legacies. I consider entrepreneurship as a legacy. I want to make sure all women live up to their legacy. What we do every day creates the legacy we want to leave.