5 African American Women Who Ran Successful Businesses After 40

Success is most definitely in our DNA, but there is something else we should look at a bit more closely— age.

Written by Robin Caldwell

Throughout American history black women have been known to make a way out of no way when it comes to caring for our families and communities. Let’s take a stroll back through our historical timeline to meet 5 incredible women who either began their businesses or thrived in business after age 40.

Zelda Wynn Valdes was an American costumer and fashion designer who opened the first black-owned shop on Broadway in New York City. She was a stylist shaping images long before there was a name for it. Her famous clientele included Ella Fitzgerald, Ruby Dee, Joyce Bryant, Mae West, and Josephine Baker. In her fifties, Ms. Valdes was commissioned by Hugh Hefner to design the first Playboy bunny uniform worn in his clubs. At age 65, the great impresario Arthur Mitchell hired her to design costumes for the inaugural season of Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she remained as a costumer until her nineties.

At the ripe young age of 41, renowned fashion model and history maker, Naomi Sims launched her wig collection for African American women. Before Tyra Banks, it was Naomi Sims who wowed the fashion industry with her looks, her distinct runway walk, and cover opportunities on mainstream white publications such as Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal and Life. However, it was her business acumen in using Kanekalon synthetic hair that mimicked the diverse textures of black hair that made her an instant millionaire and trusted brand name with black women buyers. In 1986, when she was 51, Ms. Sims launched a cosmetics and skincare line.

Colorado Springs resident Fannie Mae Duncan was a successful nightclub and restaurant owner who used her business prowess as a community activist to fight discrimination and racism. The Cotton Club became a bridge for jazz lovers in Colorado Springs of all colors. Mrs. Duncan was a known problem-solver who developed businesses in the area based on need. One such business was the purchase of a 42-room mansion that she converted into lodging for blacks visiting the area who could not get hotel rooms because of their color.

Henrietta Smith Bowers Duterte was born free in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1817 and was the first female undertaker (mortician) in the United States. In her 40s and newly widowed, Henrietta took over the business she began with her husband. She was also a creative abolitionist who moved runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad by hiding them in coffins or disguising them as a part of funeral processions to transport them to safety and freedom.

Carrie Crawford Smith was 41 years old in 1918 when she opened her employment agency in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. Smith’s goal was to welcome new arrivals from the South during the Great Migration with job opportunities as domestics. The hallmarks of her service were the standards she set for white and black clientele hiring women from her agency. She demanded that they were treated well and she never wavered on those standards.

If you are one of those women thinking you are too old to begin a business, please consider that the women mentioned above did so after the age of 40. Consider they started their businesses during some extremely difficult times.

Robin Caldwell is a veteran public relations counselor, concierge and practitioner. She has been self-employed from side hustle to business since 1998. She is the owner of The J Standard Media Group, LLC, and the creator of the PR concierge services Your PR Assistant and She Boom! Project.