Remembering the first black man behind a billion-dollar business

theGRIO REPORT - Reginald L. Lewis died of brain cancer at age 50 in 1993. But his philosophy continues to be followed by entrepreneurs and black youth...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

BET founder Bob Johnson is credited with being the first black billionaire, but before him there was a legendary black businessman who was the first to build a billion-dollar company.

A deal Reginald F. Lewis made after he purchased international giant Beatrice Foods promoted his American company, TLC Group, L.P. to the biggest offshore leveraged buyout in history, making TLC Beatrice worth $1.5 billion and on to Fortune’s 500 list.

Kwame Jackson, one of the stars of Donald Trump’s first Apprentice, considers Lewis — his Harvard Kappa Alpha Psi brother — an inspiration, although he never met the man.

“He was the pacesetter, and I always looked up to him in that regard,” said Jackson, who hosted an award ceremony in honor of Lewis at the Harvard Club of New York.

Lewis died of brain cancer at age 50 in 1993. But his philosophy continues to be followed by entrepreneurs and black youth.

Well before “The Giving Pledge” campaign reaped 16 philanthropic tycoons, Reginald F. Lewis gave million-dollar donations to charity.

Lewis gave back to black youth and stressed the importance of entrepreneurship, said Malik Yoba, an actor on the Fox drama, New York Undercover.

Yoba, who also never met Lewis, said he read Lewis’ co-authored book, Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun? in his early 20s.

“You had a person of color play a game that had sort of been the domain of a specific group, and he figured out the thing,” said Yoba.

Lewis created the first African-American law firm on Wall Street in 1970, and went on to launch his own company in 1983, eventually selling it for $65 million after a multi-million dollar leveraged buyout. He earned a notable 90 to 1 return on his investment.

Christina Lewis learned the value of an investment at seven years old when her father asked her to earn 1 percent off of a few stocks he commissioned her to follow.

“He taught me how to be good at math and love business…always work hard and give back,” said Christina, who said her mother’s steady income from being a corporate lawyer sustained the family when her father’s initial profits as an entrepreneur couldn’t.

The award ceremony is part of a series of events raising money for Lewis’ museum in Baltimore, Maryland, and for Project Youth Exposure, a not-for-profit organization geared towards exposing disadvantaged black youth to the corporate world.

A notable Lewis saying, “Keep going, no matter what,” said Raven Lopez is what inspired her to stay alive and pursue her entrepreneurial aspirations.

Lewis reached out to 20-year old Lopez to join Project Youth Exposure after seeing her on Oprah talking about her difficult journey living with HIV since birth.

“I think it’s important to spread the message to all people, not just people of color, all people, that have aspirations to be entrepreneurs that here is an opportunity that is given to you and the road is not easy,” said Marilyn Crawford, a fellow Harvard alumna and CEO of marketing, ad and PR firm Windsor Primetime, who received the Reginald F. Lewis Torch Award for entrepreneurialism.

“You either win it all or you lose it all — but you have to be willing to do it, as ‘RFL’ says — keep on going no matter what,” said Crawford.

(photo courtesy of Matthew Mattafella)