By Stephanie Anderson Forest
Growing up in the segregated South in a family of 11 children and nurtured by loving parents, Janice Bryant Howroyd faced racism and sexism in addition to the challenges encountered by most new minority business owners, including access to capital and just getting her foot in the door. But those barriers were no match for a tenacious Bryant Howroyd, who went on to become the first Black woman to build and own a billion-dollar business – The ACT 1 Group Inc., or the ActOne Group.
Now with over $3 billion in annual revenues, the ActOne Group is the largest privately held, woman- and minority-owned workforce management company in the United States.
Founded in 1978, the Torrance, California-based company also has a global footprint, operating in 32 countries with 2,600 employees and 17,000 clients worldwide. The ActOne Group provides flexible, comprehensive solutions under three distinct business verticals: staffing, workforce solutions and business services.
Here, MBN USA talks with Bryant Howroyd — a North Carolina A&T alumni — about how her values growing up helped shape how she runs ActOne, challenges she faced on her journey to becoming one of the wealthiest self-made Black businesswomen in the country, opportunities for minority business enterprises in a global economy and more.
Q: Can you tell me a little about your background? Where did you grow up and how did the circumstances of your upbringing influence where you are now?
A: Growing up in the small, southern town of Tarboro, North Carolina, I was blessed to have benefited from a strong family and local role models. Most importantly, I credit my parents for ensuring that none of their children ever saw challenges as reasons to fail. Mommy and Daddy were believers in education and determined that each of their children would have every advantage to succeed. The values my parents instilled — coupled with my early experiences with social injustice — framed my resolve to create an intentional future for myself and others.
Today, the work we do through ActOne not only assures we connect great candidates with great companies that value diversity and inclusivity, but we also hold the chance to change lives one family at a time and provide opportunities that create positive impacts.
Q: When, why and how did you start your company?
A: During the 1970s, I arrived on vacation in Los Angeles to visit my sister Sandy and her husband Tommy. Fast forward, I’m still on that vacation. First, I temped for my brother-in-law at Billboard Publications Inc. He quickly realized I had a knack for organization and employee placement, convincing me to hang my own shingle. With a modest loan from my mom, I rented a small office with a single phone line in Beverly Hills, and ACT1 Personnel Services (now ActOne Group) was born.
Q: I understand there’s a story behind naming the company the ActOne Group. Can you share that rationale?
A: The Book of Acts in the Bible relates the founding of the Christian church, the spread of “Good News” before transitioning forward with the basic truths of the Old Testament. Naming the company was inspired with the hope that my work would be an example of my values by spreading opportunity in new ways.
Q: What challenges did you have starting your company, and how did you overcome them?
A: To get the business off the ground, I relied on two essential principles: the “WOMB” method — which stands for Word-of-Mouth, Baby! — and the notion of keeping the humanity in human resources.
This meant that I personally stood by the quality of each candidate I placed, and I gave my clients an amazing guarantee: I would find them qualified employees or return their payments. That guarantee meant I had a strong incentive to place candidates in roles where they could succeed and at companies that I believed in. If employees and temporary workers feel valued, if they know you have their best interest at heart, not only will they do their best to live up to your faith in them, but [also] they will tell others about you.
Q: To what do you attribute
A: Our core values sit directly at the center of our success as an organization. There is always pressure to cut corners in business, to shortcut what’s right for what’s most profitable. Having a strong set of core values gave us a touchstone that kept us on course. Everyone in the company is familiar with my saying, “Never compromise who you are personally to become who you wish to be professionally,” and I stand by it.
Q: Can you tell me a little about how you have expanded the company over the years to move beyond staffing?
A: Our background check company — A-Check America Inc. dba A-Check Global — was a logical addition, allowing clients to streamline larger portions of the hiring processes within ActOne. When it became clear that our larger clients needed a more consultative workforce management partner, we founded AgileOne to offer a suite of technologies and programs that solve their unique challenges. The launch of several business process outsourcing solutions allowed ActOne to meet the needs of our clients in innovative new ways. At ActOne, we continue to evolve and advance new technologies in rapidly changing, global marketplaces.
Q: How has recognition by most of corporate America that supply-chain diversity is an imperative impacted ActOne’s growth?
A: When companies think of their own [diversity, equity and inclusion] practices in terms of hiring alone, we are able to broaden their perspectives to include diverse suppliers and to support nonprofits that attract candidates from a wide range of backgrounds, ages and abilities.
Plus, we have the resources in place — well-established talent networks and expert sourcing experience — to help clients build workforces that represent wide cultural and experiential knowledge. Data supports that diverse businesses are more innovative and have better financial outcomes, so this [supplier diversity] really is a win-win for our clients and the communities we serve.
When we look at corporate America and ActOne’s ability to perform nimbly, globally and expertly, we see the benefit of growth not just in our volume and services, but also in our innovation and ability to pay growth forward.
Q: What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities for
minority business enterprises in this global economy?
A: STEM careers have the power to be great economic equalizers for the next decade and beyond. How we work is changing rapidly, and now is the time to ensure that EVERYONE has the chance to benefit from the new opportunities these changes will bring.
I have been fortunate to have a voice at the table on how these changes will happen through my work with the [U.S.] Department of Energy’s Minorities in Energy initiative,
U.S. Department of Commerce/Office of the U.S. Trade Representative Industry Trade Advisory Committee, President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment.
Of course, government is only one part of the solution. Grassroots community efforts and nonprofits like Girls in Tech will play a critical role in making sure STEM opportunities get into the hands of those who can most benefit from them. Sitting on the Girls in Tech board, for example, allows me to mentor the next generation of workers, groups that otherwise might not benefit from the seismic effects STEM will have on the economy for the foreseeable future.
Q: When and why did you decide to take ActOne global?
The move to global happened very organically. As our large AgileOne clients grew their operations around the globe, so did we. Operating in other countries inevitably adds layers of complexity to managing a workforce, and our clients relied on us to make sure they were able to seamlessly support their business goals. This [expansion] meant new staff, new technologies and whole new ways of doing business. Watching our clients thrive has been incredibly satisfying and, as a side benefit, expanding to meet their needs has allowed us to grow our own business in exciting and unexpected ways.
Q: What challenges did you encounter expanding globally and how did you overcome them?
A: Without a doubt, the regulatory complexities related to hiring were the most daunting and presented the most risk. We learned many lessons in those early days and relied heavily on our legal teams and nongovernmental organizations to show us the way. Hiring local leadership in each country proved to be crucial and gave us invaluable insights that allowed us to hit the ground running on Day One.
Q: What differentiates ActOne from its competitors?
A: Being an independently owned business has given us the freedom to quickly and efficiently adapt to our clients’ needs.
Resoundingly, it is our people who differentiate us. When our teams see problems on the front lines, they move rapidly through the organization in search of solutions — even if that means building something new. This willingness to create solutions for our clients has generated new technologies and programs that have helped our company stay ahead of rapid change.
Q: In the business arena, who have been some of your greatest influences and why?
A: [My parents] Elretha and John were thinkers, doers and supporters. They framed my sense of worth, ability and determination. Along the way, the list grows long of people who have influenced me and includes known names like Madame C.J. Walker, civil rights advocates and scientists, in addition to executives within my corporation and our client companies who seek to create great business outcomes via inclusive practices and protocols.
Q: What impact has COVID-19 had on ActOne, and how has the company been handling it?
A: The pandemic has shown us what we do really well — everything from advising clients on how to rapidly transition their teams to work remotely to providing contact tracers for government agencies.
Of course, we were doing all of this for our clients while making sure our own teams had the tools they needed to safely work from home. Through this season of multiple pandemics, we have innovated, continued to elevate our culture and addressed our [corporate social responsibility] commitments in an active manner. Together, we found a way not just to GO through this unprecedented global event, but to GROW through it as well.
Q: Looking out five years from now, what does success look like for ActOne?
A: History happens so much faster these days, and technologies fuel and support that [speed]. ActOne — five years from now — will look totally different in how we build and build from tech. What won’t change is the cultural foundation we have built.
Q: Please add any other comments about your business or personal life that you would like to share with our MBN USA audience.
A: As a faith-based person, my business journey has presented an opportunity to live evidentially. The gratitude I feel for so many who have done so much is immense. Pre-COVID, my flights to business destinations were always times for quick meditations on this [appreciation] between studying for meetings or connecting with business associates.
In this [work-from-home] environment, I’ve used walks through the trails of my community or talks with our two adult children — who have blessed me by quarantining together — to express thankfulness and to ask BIG questions. In summary, all of our lives will be equal parts of pleasure when we face the positives and negatives with equal fervor, stay the course and remember to let gratitude guide us in paying it forward.
To learn more about ActOne Group, visit actonegroup.com
About Janice Bryant Howroyd
Hometown: Tarboro, North Carolina
First job: Babysitting
Last business book read: “Acting Up: Winning in Business and Life Using Down-Home Wisdom” by Janice Bryant Howroyd
Best piece of business advice received (and from whom): “We get our results from where we place our attention.” — My mother
Favorite leadership quote (and from whom): “Lead people, manage processes.” — My own