Reginald Lewis – The First Black Billionaire Who Played By His Own Rules

Reginald F. Lewis

Reginald F. Lewis is known as America’s first black billionaire. This article explores his life and his incredible accomplishments.

Reginald Lewis was proof that the American dream was alive and well in the ’80. Lewis was a highly successful self-made Black man who fought against racial injustice. 

Reginald F. Lewis was born on December 7th, 1942. He grew up in a neighborhood in East Baltimore. 

Even from a young age, Reginald had a unique business mindset. This perhaps originated with his grandmother teaching him the importance of saving whenever possible. 

Reginald set up a delivery route to sell the Afro-American newspaper at just ten years old. His modest business venture was a tremendous success. 

He built up an audience ranging in the hundreds and sold the route for a substantial profit in just two years. 

Reginald soared in his school career. 

He was the football team’s quarterback, vice president of the student body, and eventually gained a football scholarship at Virginia State University. 

Due to an injury, his football career was cut short. So instead, he began to focus more on work and school. 

Reginald Lewis worked as a sales assistant to a photographer and was so successful that he was offered a partnership position. However, Reginald had his eye on other possibilities. 

Reginald applied for a Rockefeller Foundation program to introduce Black students to legal studies. He was invited to attend Harvard Law School and was the only person admitted into the school before applying.

Upon graduation, Reginald Lewis spent two years practicing corporate law at a prestigious New York law firm. He was also counsel for the Commission for Racial Justice and repped the Wilmington Ten. 

Lewis established his own equity company with a desire to complete deals, and he purchased his first business, The McCall Pattern Company, in 1983. Lewis sold the once failing company for $65 million before securing similar purchases of various companies, including Beatrice Foods. 

He purchased Beatrice Foods for $985 million. It was the largest leveraged buyout for an American company of overseas assets at the time. 

Reginald Lewis worked to increase the worth of the business, paying off the company’s debt. By 1992, the company was generating $1.8 billion in annual sales. 

It was the first black-owned business to hit the $1 billion annual revenue target. 

In 1993, Forbes listed Lewis as one of the 400 wealthiest Americans. His net worth was estimated at just over $1 billion. 

Lewis was a fiercely determined individual with a quick wit and profound intelligence, even from a young age. 

Lewis overheard his grandparents speaking about employment discrimination African-Americans faced when he was six years old. 

He famously asked:  “Why should white guys have all the fun?”

The quote also served as inspiration for a book he published with Blair S. Walker about his life. 

Lewis strived and succeeded in proving that things could be different during his life. He showed that a Black man could earn a fortune even as he supported those around him as a philanthropist. 

Lewis died at the age of 50 from brain cancer. 

His legacy continues to live on, and his wife, Loida Nicolas-Lewis, took over the company he built. His daughter, Christina, set up AllStarCode in honor of her father in 2013. 

The non-profit organization is focused on helping young men of color find success in the tech industry. The organization strives to provide training, mentorship as well as exposure.