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A Woman's Entrepreneurial Journey: The ActOne Group

How family, faith and focus fueled a $1 billion company

workforce around a conference table with global imagery as a backdrop

Janice Bryant Howroyd is a businesswoman, educator, author, mentor and presidential appointee. She is also the founder, chair and chief executive officer of The ActOne Group, an international talent and technology enterprise with multiple divisions that each service unique areas of employment, including management solutions and procurement solutions. The ActOne Group offers its services via AppleOne for staffing, A-Check Global for background checks and screening, ActOne Government Solutions for services provided to government entities, and AgileOne for workforce solutions delivered to midmarket and enterprise-sized companies. Today Janice is #39 on the 2017 Forbes list of America’s Richest Self- Made Women. In 2014, Black Enterprise recognized her as the first black woman to own and operate a billion-dollar company.

Early Years

Janice grew up fourth in a household of “six girls, five boys, one dad and one mom,” as she puts it, in a then-segregated town, Tarboro, NC, where Panola Street divided whites from blacks. It also was a very religious community, and Sundays confused Janice, who often wondered: “How could so many faith-based persons with shared principles find it difficult to worship together?” Her accomplishments, she says, flow from her roots of deep faith, strong principles instilled by her parents and love of family.

Janice highlights how important her mother and father were to her personal values. As she writes in the dedication in her book, The Art of Work: How to Make Work, Work for You! “They demonstrated how to live my personal and professional life and give service to the community.” Her father taught her discipline, “God, family, community” and focus. Her mother, she says, believed in “beauty and elegance but also toil, purpose and sustenance.” Their examples taught Janice that she should demand excellence in relationships and that men and women should treat each other, and family, well.

Born in 1952, Janice says she is, “the product of the energy” of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling outlawing segregation in schools. In her early days in a still-segregated school, Janice had teachers who encouraged her to succeed beyond what her immediate environment expected of her. They taught her that as “an African American woman, I would often be required to do twice as much to get half as far,” she says. “Those teachers were committed that we graduate from school with the highest levels of knowledge a 12-year system could offer. They wanted us to be ready for the coming new world of integration and to be prepared for universities, trade schools and opportunities that were coming in work. They succeeded in this with very little funded support.”

While a teen, Janice crossed Panola Street as one of the few black students to begin to desegregate the all-white school where, she says, blacks were not yet welcome. She felt tremendous pressure to prove that black people were smart and hardworking and disciplined. She says she often “feared using the restroom and routinely brought two copies of homework assignments as backups for when classmates snatched the first copy and tore it up, literally doing this all in longhand as personal computers did not exist.”

Through her participation in Project Upward Bound during high school, Janice had the opportunity to attend classes at an all-white local college. There, she recalls, the young white female students embraced her. She adds that, throughout her professional life, white women have befriended and supported her in stark contrast to what she experienced growing up. Janice also believes that her alma mater, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, played a strong role in shaping her adult culture, especially the school’s philosophy of “teaching students how to think, not what to think.”

Education has been a theme throughout Janice’s life, which took place both inside and outside the academic system. One of her family’s practices was that each child assumed certain responsibilities for a younger sibling. Accordingly, Janice’s older sister, Sandy, made sure she completed all her homework, understood her math tables, and learned to fold towels properly and clean not only the dishes, but everything else in the kitchen, as well. In 1976, after a gradual transition to a ‘new normal’ following the death of their father, Janice’s mother urged her to take her long-planned vacation to visit Sandy, who was by then living in Los Angeles.

"They demonstrated how to live my personal and professional life and give…"

Work and Business

To support extending her visit with Sandy in Los Angeles, Janice sought employment and eventually began working for Sandy’s husband, Tom Noonan, at Billboard magazine. In time, she says, she became skilled at running an office, including hiring and training personnel. With that in mind, her brother-in- law encouraged her to start her own business — and became her first client. As was the case when they were children, Sandy again mentored her, sharing her corporate experience and helping her set up the office of her new venture.

Over the past 40 years, eight of her siblings have worked with her, and she rarely takes a step without a sibling in tow. When asked about the difficulty of that, she stresses that they all grew up in a home where everyone practiced respect, order and responsibility. Working for a common goal came easily since they already had learned that from their parents, living with 13 people in one household.

After decades of navigating her large family and desegregated schools, it was inevitable that Janice would be successful in human relations. Her first agency focused on finding and placing people in permanent positions. The agency offered companies a guarantee that a hire would be a good fit or else be replaced free of charge, prompting a focus on satisfying the job applicant. This remains the core of ActOne Group’s culture, she says. “Two things matter much to us: the applicant is the center of our universe and we live and succeed by keeping the humanity in human resources.”

ActOne Group is now a multibillion-dollar corporation, with a worldwide presence and over 17,000 clients and 2,600 employees. It is a global leader in providing customized solutions in the human resources industry. ActOne Group, Janice says, has invested millions of dollars to create one of the industry’s most advanced technologies and talent platforms for the utilities, energy, health care and broadband industries. She says she is proud that “the process, culture and technology of ActOne Group better assures that both the hirer and the hired are aligned for growth.”

Challenges

Janice started her business with $900 of her own savings and a $600 loan from her mother. Indeed, her family provided the only money she has ever borrowed to build her firm. In her view, many financial institutions still have legacy lending practices “that have led to numerous communities being underserved,” she says. “The lack of equal access to capital has hurt our economy by limiting the growth of existing and new businesses and job creation.” At the same time, Janice notes that she and her family have been able to secure funding from institutions to develop a real estate portfolio that includes more than 30 commercial and several residential rental properties.

ActOne is a woman- and minority-owned certified business. In Janice’s opinion, the certification process to become a woman- or minority-owned business has both positives and negatives, depending on the industry and one’s stage of growth. “It is about who, what, when, where and why,” she says. “It most often is great for a newer, smaller company; but, more difficult to navigate as one grows. Labeling can sometimes pigeonhole you… or set you free. And sometimes the hand that feeds you, will bite you.” To her mind, particularly great benefits of being certified, especially as woman-owned, are the strong network that may be built and meeting other women business owners.

Passion and Commitment

Janice says that central to everything she does is working to ensure educational opportunities for all and supporting women in business. She says, “One cannot effectively lead without passionately serving.”

While talking to audiences around the world, Janice has learned that “women have similar issues and obstacles in every country and culture.” She often shares experiences from her younger years. As one of the first black girls to attend a newly integrated high school, she says she subconsciously came to associate her intelligence with the struggles she experienced there, which led to a sense of discomfort with being smart. Later, however, she overcame that feeling. “The moment I realized it did not have to hurt to be a minority, a woman and smart,” she says, was a personal growth moment. She encourages women and girls to similarly embrace their intellect.

She deeply enjoys connecting with women early in their careers, “whether talking about entrepreneurship or the challenges of work/life balance.” Her message is simple: “The way one lives is the way one expresses love.” If one wants children, at times the balance will shift between work and family, she says. “We can have it all, but not necessarily all at the same time.” She adds that “we all have the same amount of time. If anyone tells you they cannot do something because they do not have the time, it simply means they are a bad manager of time.”

"One cannot effectively lead without passionately serving."

Janice believes that women can and should collaborate more, crossing racial, national and other divides. “We must work harder to teach boys the value that women bring to our economy, not just that it is fairer to give us opportunities,” she says. She believes “it is very important to know the stories of remarkable women entrepreneurs who bring so much value to our economy and world.” Her personal life mantra is: “Never compromise who you are personally to become who you wish to be professionally.”

Howroyd Beyond ActOne

Janice Bryant Howroyd is a member of the boards of Women Business Enterprise National Council, Women Presidents Organization and WeConnect. She is on the Women’s Leadership Board of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. President Obama appointed her to serve on the board of advisors for his initiative on historically black colleges and universities. A regular speaker at colleges and universities, she says that business schools still fall short in teaching a black person how to create and sustain a venture.

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