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How Janice Bryant Howroyd turned a $900 loan from her mom into a billion-dollar business

How Janice Bryant Howroyd turned a $900 loan from her mom into a billion-dollar business
How Janice Bryant Howroyd turned a $900 loan from her mom into a billion-dollar business

Janice Bryant Howroyd is a multimillionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist. As the CEO and founder of the largest woman-owned workforce management company, ACT-1 Group, and the first black woman to own a billion-dollar business, she's charted her own course through the business world.

Her company, which generates $1.1 billion in net sales, has made her one of the richest self-made women in America, with a net worth that Forbes puts at $420 million. Here's how she did it.

Photo courtesy of Janice Bryant Howroyd

"Making lots from nothing"

In 1978, Howroyd started ACT-1 Group at the front office of a rug shop in Beverly Hills, California with a $900 loan from her mother.

"I wanted a really classy address, but I didn't have really classy funds, so I borrowed $900 from my mom," she tells CNBC Make It. "That gave me about $1,500 to start my business."

She used the money to buy the necessary startup equipment she needed to get her company off the ground.

"I thought I was Judy Jetson when I got my fax machine," she says. "My business literally started with my fax machine, my phone and my contacts."

With very little entrepreneurial experience, Howroyd says she relied on early lessons from her parents to help her grow her company.

"So many of the business practices that I use still in my company today were practices that I learned from my mom," she says.

Growing up in Tarboro, North Carolina as one of 11 children, Howroyd says her parents taught her the benefits of being innovative with few resources. She attended segregated schools until the 11th grade and says she often learned from textbooks that were missing pages of information.

One time, as she complained about her lack of resources, she says her dad challenged her to continue to be better.

"He wouldn't accept it," she said. "He said, 'You're smart enough to figure out what's missing.'"

Her mom took matters a step further, and told Howroyd that once she figured out the missing information, she needed to write it down, tape it in the book and leave it for the next person behind her.

"She taught us many of the principles of making lots from nothing," she says. "And I think those things that she did and the way she worked with us really taught me so much about not only how to build my business, but how to sustain and innovate across the platforms that I work in today."

Photo courtesy of Janice Bryant Howroyd

Globalization vs. "glocalization"

In the beginning, ACT-1 Group was a full-time placement company based out of California. Now, 40 years later, the business has expanded to offer full-time and temporary job placement options to more than 17,000 clients in 19 countries, including the United States, Canada, Denmark, Brazil and the United Kingdom. The company has more than 2,800 employees.

According to Howroyd, ACT-1 Group provides services to its clients via a number of different platforms including its technology and management solutions company AgileOne, its staffing company AppleOne and its background checks and screening company A-Check.

"When you collect those organizations together, you've got the ACT-1 Group," she says.

While the company started with just a fax machine and phone, Howroyd knew that in order to succeed she had to keep up with technology. In 1995, her company became one of the first staffing agencies on the World Wide Web with the launch of During this time period, her company also continued to see yearly revenue growth, due to the increased demand for tech workers.

Today, the company is one of the largest staffing firms in the world. Howroyd credits much of her success to tapping into the $429 billion global staffing market. In 1989, she opened up her first office outside of the United States in Ontario, Canada. She says the key to making her company a success was understanding the difference between globalization and "glocalization."

"Globalization requires all of the regulatory, financial and infrastructure you need in order to expand the business across different geographies," she says. "Glocalization is what happens at the local point, like understanding the immediate cultural needs and how to fit that under a much larger business initiative that a company may have hired you to achieve for them."

Outside of expanding business operations beyond the U.S., Howroyd says that another key to her company's success is making the applicant the center of attention when servicing its clients.

"When we're working with companies to identify talent, that means that every person who's looking for a job is the focus of our attention," she says. "We're acting as agents for them, if you will. That's a bit different from what many companies in our industry have performed. It's certainly been a dynamic piece for how I think we have been able to grow."

As a mom of two, Howroyd says her family has also taken interest in making sure ACT-1 Group continues to be a success. Her son Brett is president of AppleOne, and her daughter Kay is in charge of the company's online branding.

Photo courtesy of Janice Bryant Howroyd

Keeping the millennial spirit alive

In addition to continuing to grow her staffing company, Howroyd also uses her entrepreneurial success to give back.

"There are wonderful side benefits to my gig, I'll tell you, and one of the best was when I was asked to join the board of trustees for North Carolina A&T State University," she says.

As an alumna of the school, Howroyd says it's a surreal feeling to walk onto campus as a board member.

"I'm in a position to be able to come back and not just support the school financially, but to be integral to how the school continues to meet its initiatives and to offer to those wonderful students opportunities and careers that the school offered me," she says.

Aside from giving back to her former college, Howroyd sits on Harvard's Women Leadership board and the board of USC's Marshall School of Business. In May 2016, she was appointed by then President Barack Obama to serve as a member of his board of advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

"Perhaps that's why I keep my millennial spirit alive," she explains. "It's the work I do on campuses that gives me such witness to the tremendous talent that we have in this world today and the desires of students who are working not just to get degrees and go out and earn money, [but who] are working to express themselves in ways that will allow them to fulfill things they care about."

Her mantra for success is something she says many young people can also live by as they grapple with making the right decisions in their career.

"I've had many opportunities over the growth of my business to make decisions, that while they would not have been illegal, they would not have been constant with who I am and how I like to practice business," she says. "And [those opportunities], candidly speaking, could have fueled the business a little faster financially. But, I always had to go back to how I opened my doors, and I opened my doors with a commitment to myself that I would never compromise my personal self for my professional self — so, that continues to be my mantra."

Video by Beatriz Bajuelos Castillo

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