By M.V. Greene


If you needed a partner to play word association with, Jim Lowry would be one to choose — especially for topics that involve minority business development, economic and community empowerment and even raw politics.


You certainly would want him and his institutional knowledge on your side.


For those who know him well, heard him speak, read his writings or collaborated with him over many years, of course, there is only one James H. “Jim” Lowry.


A native of Chicago, he has many monikers — supplier diversity pioneer, change agent, senior advisor, consultant, strategist, author, keynote speaker, etc.


Amazingly, at the venerable age of 84, Lowry is still “kicking it.”


And, oh, about the word association: 

• You say Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., and he says former U.S. Attorney General — and brother of President John F. Kennedy — Bobby Kennedy.

• You say U.S. Minority Business Development Agency, and he says President Jimmy Carter.

• You say “Chicago Works Together”: 1984 Chicago Development Program, and he says former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.

• You say Atlanta, Georgia, and the expansion of its Hartsfield Airport in1974, and he says former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.

• You say Baltimore, Maryland, and Public Law 95-507 to raise the status of the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization in federal agencies, and he says former U.S. Representative Parren J. Mitchell.

• You say National Minority Supplier Development Council Inc. (NMSDC) and the rise of corporate supplier diversity, and he says Harriet R. Michel, the organization’s president and CEO from 1988 to 2010.

With Lowry, name-dropping of renown personalities is hardly hyperbole. These are American leaders he has worked with directly, guided, advised or influenced over a 50-plus-year professional career of standing up for minority-owned businesses and the communities they serve. It is a legacy that is unmatched.


First major study on minority business

In 1978, his consulting firm, James H. Lowry & Associates Inc., prepared the first major study on minority business enterprise development for the U.S. Department of Commerce, titled “New Strategy for Minority Business.” He called it “pretty forward-thinking stuff” for the times — such as one recommendation to have minorities work with financial institutions to buy existing businesses that are not owned by minorities to achieve primary minority ownership.


The study focused on offering sensible yet groundbreaking solutions, he said.


“Problems outlined in any report should only be 20%, but recommendations should be 80%,” Lowry said of his approach.


Adding urgency during that period, “Jimmy Carter was looking for answers” to address minority business development, he said.


Elaborating on Carter, Lowry noted that the new president “brought to D.C. his experience of working with Atlanta’s leadership” on minority business issues, including then-Mayor Jackson. When elected as the city’s first Black mayor in 1974, Jackson stunned the entrenched Atlanta business community by insisting that 25% of all contracts for the $450 million generational expansion of Hartsfield Airport be allocated for minority firms.


According to Lowry, a Jackson devotee, the mayor’s boldness is the stuff of heroes — instituting local initiatives that support minority business enterprise and translating such thinking to the federal level.


“Maynard was tops. He really believed in minority business. Maynard was very, very important,” he said.


And of Carter?

“Jimmy Carter was probably the most influential president in the history of this country in terms of fostering minority business,” Lowry said unequivocally.


Indeed, those were golden days in the annals of minority business development in this country.


“We had more [Black] people going into business during this period than in the history of the United States. There was just this feeling [that] we were going to change the world,” Lowry recalled, pointing to the significance of legislation written by Mitchell — the late Baltimore congressman and founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus — which set percentage goals for minority participation in federal contracting.


In 2005, he followed up on his earlier work from 1978, co-writing — as a strategist with Boston Consulting Group Inc. — a new study, “The New Agenda for Minority Business Development.”


That paper — sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation in conjunction with the Billion Dollar Roundtable Inc. — argued that despite the progress of the 1970s and 1980s, minority-owned businesses were not keeping pace with the greater U.S. business community and that new thinking would be required to create sustained growth of these businesses.

There needed to be a reimagining of how best the country should support minority business enterprises, Lowry said, because after the burst of energy under Carter, things “limped along” under Presidents Ronald W. Reagan and Bill J. Clinton, including significantly fewer federal dollars being allocated to programs.


One of the recommendations of the 1978 report was the goal to achieve “parity” by the year 2000 — that would mirror the percentage of minority-owned business enterprises with the nation’s minority population — but that clearly did not happen, he said.


Particularly during the Clinton era “a lot of people didn’t want the programs to be in existence,” Lowry said of emerging national opposition to affirmative action initiatives and racial set-asides in contracting, recalling the “Mend it, but don’t end it” messaging campaign that urged fixing programs rather than shutting them down amid the criticism.


To this day, such criticism still galls him.


“It is about creating wealth in minority communities, which would then create jobs, revenue and taxpayer support of urban areas,” Lowry said. “For me, if you had a critical mass of all these people, you would have more people — brown and Black people, particularly — who could operate in the free enterprise system. So, it is in the best interest of all people to foster minority businesses.”


Legacy of firsts

In assessing his legacy, the two studies are just pushpins on a life map of firsts.


Lowry was the first African American consultant in 1968 for global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Inc., working in Chicago, London, New York and Washington, D.C. He followed that position with his association as the first African American senior partner at The Boston Consulting Group Inc., leading the firm’s workforce diversity, ethnic marketing and minority business development consulting practice. He continues to serve BCG as a senior advisor.


In 1996, Michel and Lowry co-founded the NMSDC Kellogg Advanced Management Executive Program (AMEP). Since then, he has co-managed AMEP and serves as an adjunct professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where 20 to 30 minority business entrepreneurs annually receive intensive academic training designed to give them the tools to grow their companies to billion-dollar status. (See related NMSDC Kellogg AMEP story on page 40).


To honor Lowry’s longstanding commitment to minority entrepreneurship, alumni of the Kellogg AMEP started a scholarship fund in his name to increase the number of program participants. (See the related NMSDC Kellogg Alumni Group story on page 42).


It is hardly surprising that Lowry would pursue a career to help others. Not long after earning his political science degree from Grinnell College, he did what many idealistic young Americans did in those days. He joined the Peace Corps, holding several positions, including as an associate director in Lima, Peru, and a training officer in Puerto Rico. He also spent time as a young man teaching in Tanzania.


As an author, he never seems to stop opining about minority business development and economic justice and empowerment in his writings. He co-wrote “Minority Business Success: Refocusing on the American Dream” published by Stanford Business Books in 2011, charting a path for the full participation of minority businesses in the U.S. economy. His most recent title was a memoir in 2020: “Change Agent: A Life Dedicated to Creating Wealth for Minorities.” According to him, it demonstrates the power of mentorship and opportunity — amid a widening wealth gap.

The June 2023 U.S. Supreme Court decision effectively ending affirmative action in college admissions drew Lowry’s ire in a post afterward on his LinkedIn page. He wrote: “I think that I speak for the majority of Americans in expressing my disappointment, anger and frustration in the latest Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action. As an individual who has devoted my life in promoting diversity and inclusion, I am truly dismayed by the Court’s ruling.”


What’s remarkable about him is that “Jim is still in the game,” said longtime contemporary Michel, who led NMSDC as president for 22 years before retiring in 2010. She first worked with him when she was an official in the U.S. Labor Department under Carter.



“Jim is a true legend who deserves every bit of recognition he receives. He has worked tirelessly for decades to advance the interests of Black people, especially in assisting minority businesses to grow and prosper,” Michel said. “Jim’s opinion, advice and counsel have been sought by the government, institutions and corporations on every significant minority business issue for over 30 years.”


Personally and professionally, she added, “Jim has been an invaluable friend who has helped shape my views and broaden my perspective. Jim is a force to be reckoned with.”


Bobby Kennedy’s inspirational influence

While Lowry has influenced countless generations in government, academia, supplier diversity, nongovernmental advocacy organizations and corporations, he is also appreciative of those who helped shape his thoughts during his formative years. There is Atlanta’s former Mayor Maynard Jackson, of course, but his plaudits also extend to an array of leaders from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Michel in civil rights and advocacy to corporate leaders like James O’Neal — the former Frito-Lay International/PepsiCo Inc. executive, a key early supporter of NMDSC — to government officials like Alexis Herman, the first African American to hold the position of Secretary of Labor. 


Yet, if there is one name that stands out for him, it is Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.


In 1964, as the junior senator from New York, he advanced what was termed a Special Impact Program as an amendment to the Economic Opportunity Act during Great Society legislation that would give rise to the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp. — the nation’s first community development corporation — to address issues affecting the largest enclave of minorities in New York City. Resources were poured into Bedford-Stuyvesant for housing, economic development, financial empowerment, youth services, health and fitness, environmental awareness, arts and culture and small business services.


Kennedy’s objective was that the corporation would attract the support of business leaders and serve as a national model. Lowry served as assistant to the president of the corporation from 1966 to 1968.


He chronicled meeting Kennedy during his stint with the Peace Corps, and he was drawn to Kennedy’s insistence on addressing systemic poverty — particularly in places like rural Mississippi.


“I followed him. I got inspiration from Bobby Kennedy,” Lowry said. “He was dedicated to trying to make a difference.”


On June 6, 1968 — the night of Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles — he was in Bedford-Stuyvesant hosting a television program about the corporation’s work, he said.


Minority business successes

Looking back, Lowry is happy to point to examples where minority business development has succeeded, though in his soul he still wishes for much more. Such an example was in the automotive industry in Detroit, with its large concentration of Black citizens who descended on the city for work during the Great Migration from the South.


At Ford Motor Co., for instance, he worked with its trailblazing director of minority supplier development, Renaldo “Ray” Jensen, who joined the automotive giant in 1987 following a distinguished military career.


Through Jensen’s leadership, Ford became a charter member of Billion Dollar Roundtable Inc. at the organization’s founding in 2001 and achieved documented spend in 2004 of $3.7 billion with 309 minority suppliers of the $90 billion in Ford supply contracts.


On first meeting the newly hired Jensen during a “heart-to-heart” at his office in Chicago, Lowry said he recalled telling him: “I don’t know a damn thing about the culture of Ford, but you don’t know a damn thing about minority business. So, let’s work together and make history.

“And that’s what we did,” he added.


Lowry said the success in developing minority-owned businesses in the Detroit automotive industry during those times achieved what supplier diversity is intended to do: provide economic benefit to communities where minority suppliers operate.


“It was a very inviting and positive environment in which to grow minority businesses,” he said of Detroit then. “Once we started seeing that minorities could grow companies from $30 million to $300 million or $600 million — working through this strategy of strategic partnerships with large majority firms — you had a lot of people who were working on Wall Street or working as consultants saying maybe I should be an entrepreneur.”


It can be difficult at times to comprehend the genius of someone in real time, but those who know Lowry understand his impact.


Another contemporary — Ralph G. Moore, president of Ralph G. Moore & Associates — called Lowry’s “ability to attract and collaborate with many of America’s most impactful Black business leaders” one of his key legacies.


Moore — whose Five Levels of Supplier Diversity Program Development is a model for outlining maturation levels of supplier diversity programs — said the Black business leaders below collaborated with Lowry at one time or another.

• Carlton Guthrie, co-chairman, Spectra LMP LLC, a Detroit-based holding company with several automotive assembly subsidiaries.

• Peter Bynoe, former co-owner of the Denver Nuggets professional basketball franchise and formerly the only African American equity partner in the Chicago office of the DLA Piper global law firm.

• Olivet Jones, an executive consultant to The Kaleidoscope Group, whose work helped define the practice of diversity, equity and inclusion consulting.


Adrienne C. Trimble, vice president and chief diversity & culture officer at Sysco Corp., noted that Lowry is known affectionately as “Uncle Jim” among many corporate supplier diversity professionals. A former NMSDC president and CEO from 2018 to 2021, she worked earlier in her career at Toyota Motor North America Inc., when he was a member of Toyota’s Diversity Advisory Board.


“Jim Lowry has been a trailblazer in minority business development, and I’ve been personally inspired by his unwavering commitment and visionary guidance that has empowered countless entrepreneurs,” Trimble said. “His dedication to creating opportunities and breaking down barriers for minority businesses has helped to create successful entrepreneurs globally. His legacy inspires us to continue the journey toward a more equitable business landscape.”


Not there yet

As for Lowry, he continues to inspire — though he still believes that more must be done to accelerate minority business development for the betterment of society.

He keeps spreading the gospel, such as in:

• A recent piece co-written in the Harvard Business Review on how a new-age company like Google is advancing supplier diversity.

• A Crain’s Chicago Business op-ed espousing that coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more essential for minority entrepreneurs to help close the wealth gap through the creation of large companies.

• A 2023 MBN USA column advising minority entrepreneurs to embrace artificial intelligence technologies as a strategy for business growth.


His LinkedIn posts.

Lowry said that despite progress, minority business development in the United States still has a long road ahead.


“I’ll be honest, I am not going to say we haven’t made progress, but I am not jumping up and down either saying we’ve been highly successful, considering where Parren Mitchell and others positioned us in the 1980,” he said. “We’re talking almost 45 years. Considering the growth of America and the growth of certain industries, we’re not even players in certain industries. We don’t have any major minority businesses in health. We don’t have any major minority businesses in pharma. We don’t have any billion-dollar construction companies.


“So, when I say we’ve made progress, I also say compared to what, and compared to where we could have been coming out of the 80s. We’re not there yet.” 

To view or download full article in 2024 MBN Texas volume 2, please click here.


James H. Lowry Jim Lowry U.S. Minority Business Development Agency President Jimmy Carter 1984 Chicago Development Program Chicago Mayor Harold Washington “New Strategy for Minority Business.” Bobby Kennedy James H. Lowry & Associates Inc. minority business development

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