Empowerment advice from the first black woman to start a billion-dollar company

One early experience moved Janice Bryant Howroyd from panic to power. Now as the founder of ActOne, she shares how she continues to pass that on to her employees.

Empowerment advice from the first black woman to start a billion-dollar company
Janice Bryant Howroyd [Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Women In Film]

I distinctly remember the first time I felt empowered. My mother gently prodded me to step to the front of the congregation and recite a very long speech during an Easter program at our little Southern Baptist Church. At home while rehearsing the speech, I had the love and encouragement of my parents, so I knew the speech intimately and had no concerns regarding memorization.


Stepping out to center stage on one of the most attended days of the year, my heart pounded, and my palms were slick with sweat. At that moment, I heard my Mom’s voice reminding me that in order to be outstanding, sometimes I’d have to stand out. That reminder was my last contact with a familiar reality as I stepped into a new one.

Between the time I walked toward the stage and the first words I uttered, my mother had miraculously moved from the backstage to take a center seat in the front row. As I paused a few words in, I looked into the audience and saw her with her powder blue hat and dress. She looked up at me she smiled, and I knew I had an anchor.

With her one smile, I moved from panic to power. I spoke to her, and she responded with smiles and nods. Midway through my speech, I noticed that the entire congregation was responding similarly. They weren’t just listening to what I was saying; they were feeling what I was saying. Their reactions empowered me further.

In business and in life, people who feel empowered will achieve better results and greater success. In their book The Progress Principle, authors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer conclude that people are happier and more successful when they feel empowered and are making progress toward important goals.

One of the definitions of empowerment is: “authority or power given to someone to do something.” It’s the second definition of empowerment—one that evolved in recent years—that most resonates with me, though: “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.”

The first time I felt empowered, it changed my life because I saw what was possible when people feel in control of their own lives. In the many years since that day, I have fought hard to achieve empowerment in my career, and I still have to fight for it. Now it’s something I encourage others to fight for, especially my fellow business owners. By looking at that story, we can see the four elements of empowerment that must be present for you to create feelings of authority, control, and confidence in those that you’re leading.


Have clearly defined goals

Employees need to know precisely what they’re expected to contribute. It’s not enough to ask a sales team to “increase sales”—that’s too vague. A clearly defined goal with a specific reward is required. As a child preparing for my speech, my goal and reward were simple: “If I deliver this speech well, my parents and the congregation will be proud of me.” An example of a goal and reward that we’ve used with managers is: “If your sales team reaches 150% of your budget this year, you will all be invited to an all-expenses-paid trip to Jamaica.”

When managers are empowered, their role becomes less about overseeing the troops and more about being accountable for specific results.

Provide meaning

If employees are tasked with goals they think are petty or meaningless, they may feel that their talents are being squandered on low-level tasks that aren’t important. In contrast, employees who feel their work contributes to the company’s bottom line and overall mission will feel empowered and want to contribute directly to the organization’s success. I knew my speech was a critical part of the Easter production, which motivated me to give my best effort. Employees operate with a similar mindset.

Offer support

When people feel they are part of a supportive team working toward the same goal, as opposed to working alone toward an individual goal, they are more successful. My parents supported me by listening and offering feedback as I prepared, then my mother supported me from the front row.

Now, as a business owner, I support employees by providing them with the resources needed to reach their goals, including sales training, product information, software, access to market data, industry intelligence, and more. In addition, I always work to remove barriers to their success. If a team is continually running into the same obstacle, it’s my job to figure out how to clear the way by removing that roadblock.

Enable independence

People operate best when they have a clearly defined and meaningful goal, a process, and support—and then the ability to work independently to reach that goal. My parents supported me in preparing for my speech, but at the end of the day, it was up to me to achieve my goal. Managers who trust their team members to accomplish their work and achieve their objectives however they choose is essential to empowerment.


Managers should never micromanage. They should help eliminate obstacles but then get out of the way and let employees do their thing. When employees succeed on their own in reaching their goals, it increases their sense of self-reliance, self-confidence, and autonomy. When that happens, they’ll be ready to take on even bigger goals.

When employees are empowered, everybody wins

When I’ve not felt empowered—which, interestingly, has occurred more in the latter parts of my career than the earlier days—I’ve strived to better educate myself, better engage others, and better plan.

Like so many women, I’ve tended to look inward to learn what’s wrong with me first versus examining the role of others or looking for systemic failures. Introspection and allowance for one’s own failures are important and good, but they have limitations.

Today, I don’t doubt myself so quickly. If I’m not feeling empowered, it might be because the system around me is lacking the essential elements of empowerment.

If my employees don’t feel empowered, it’s not necessarily their fault. It’s my job to examine our organization and ensure the foundation is in place for them to feel confident and in control. I know from experience that this effort is worthwhile.

As employees witness you making it your first priority to set clarity in place—clarity from which they can gain meaningful objectives and be supported by you—they will value the independence you offer and will reward you for it. With these four elements in place, your employees will be empowered and make progress. Everybody wins.


Janice Bryant Howroyd left her hometown in 1976 armed with $900. Two years later, she founded ActOne, which she grew into a multibillion-dollar global organization that now manages over 2,000 employees across more than 20 countries. She is also the bestselling author of Acting Up: Winning in Business and Life Using Down-Home Wisdom.