Janice Bryant Howroyd / ActOne Group
n 1976, Janice Bryant Howroyd left her native North Carolina with $1,500 to start a full-time employment placement business in Los Angeles. Two years later, in September 1978, she purchased a phone and a fax machine and set up shop in a former Beverly Hills rug shop. Janice, inspired in part by her experiences growing up in a big family and attending segregated schools until late high school, built ActOne Group to instill HR and strategic procurement with humanity and inclusivity. As the founder and CEO of ActOne Group, Janice is the first African American woman to own and run a billion-dollar enterprise and was even selected by former president Barack Obama as an appointee at the White House. Janice continues to have a passion for self-empowerment, mentorship and excellence in education and is active as an educator, public speaker and philanthropist.
Tell me about your entrepreneurial path. What kind of early work experiences led you to the idea of founding a company focused on workplace solutions?
Growing up in North Carolina, pre-civil rights, I did not have any particular role models for what a founder of a workforce solutions organization would look like. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t even familiar with the staffing model at all. I grew up in a segregated community, and it was black and white and two Jewish families – that’s it. On my side of the community, most of the people I knew who would be considered professional were teachers and preachers. Then we had day laborers. So coming into a workforce solutions environment for me was pure innovation on my part to design an organization that offers the type of service I found lacking when I looked for work years earlier when I came to Los Angeles, California.
When you did come to Los Angeles, what was your first experience like in the workplace?
My first experience working in Los Angeles was absolutely phenomenal. I came on vacation to visit my sister Sandy. She and her husband, Tom Noonan, worked in the entertainment industry. By virtue of living with them on vacation, I determined that I would extend my stay after she asked me not to head back home. I looked for work. I worked with my brother Tommy at his offices in Billboard Magazine. That was a work environment that included not only every imaginable recording artist but also lots of other people who were associated with the entertainment industry. So it amazed me that what they were doing was called “work,” because I had left an East Coast that was a much more formal environment.
What work experiences led you to see the need for a workplace-solutions company?
The failure to find an agency open to supporting my own career-search when I arrived in Los Angeles more than forty years ago led me to identify how I would wish to be treated as a job candidate. The experience I self-nurtured while managing an office in need of rebuilding and staffing cemented for me that I had finally found my niche.
How did you transition from work in the entertainment industry to founding ActOne Group?
My work in the entertainment industry was not as an artist. When I was in entertainment, I was managing an office. This helped me gain excellent experiences, skills and the visibility to see what was missing in the support-staff arena.
Never compromise who you are personally to become who you wish to become professionally.
After coming up with the initial idea, what were some early steps you took to make the ActOne Group a reality?
The first thing I did was to ensure that I could operate from what I defined as a “good address.” Finding an area and neighborhoods ideally located for getting in contact with highly skilled candidates with a lot of potential was a must for me early on. Being in close proximity to highly skilled workers was not the only benefit, though. Another advantage of starting the business in a safe place was that I could work long hours on my own and feel secure, and give candidates a safe address to come to after-hours. This was necessary because, in those days, face-to-face meetings were often a big part of the placement process. Skype didn’t exist yet!
When you made the jump to start your own company, what were some early obstacles that you faced? How did you overcome them?
The obstacle I faced in starting my company was not believing in myself enough to understand that I actually could start a company. I didn’t start my company from any particular perspective of growing it into a multibillion-dollar organization, nor was I utilizing a lot of technology. For a long time, the only technology I had was my phone. However, that also enabled me to avoid a lot of obstacles as well because I truly was pioneering it.
Looking back, can you pinpoint one of your biggest mistakes as you built your company?
The biggest error of my career has been not forgiving myself for being smart, female, and African American at the same time. Lately, I’ve spoken a lot about this when mentoring because I find it is a common occurrence for women and minorities who are competing in a broad – and often global – marketplace.
And what were some of your best decisions you made during the early stages of starting up?
Understanding the importance of the candidate as the center of the universe and building all practices and protocols around this was then, as it is now, the single smartest decision I ever made.
If you were starting the founding process again today with all the wisdom you’ve accrued, is there anything you would do differently?
Because we are achieving phenomenal success as a privately owned company, I am pleased with our growth. Also, given that resources were limited in the founding years, organic growth versus VC or EP funding support would still be my first choice. The biggest “different” thing I’d possibly consider would be to invest in enterprise technology sooner. Today, off-the-shelf technologies solve many startup challenges; however, when I started my business, it was necessary to build our own technology in order to differentiate for competitiveness and efficiencies we sought.
What advice would you give to new founders starting out?
You should never compromise who you are personally to become who you wish to be professionally.
How has being based in Los Angeles influenced the mission statement and/or operations of the ActOne Group?
One of the ActOne Group’s guiding principles is, “The applicant is the center of our universe.” An educated, well-respected workforce is key to any business and critical to ours. The Greater Los Angeles area offers businesses some of the highest caliber employees anywhere in the USA and most of the world. The LA marketplace is as competitive as it is opportune.
A great business can do very well in Los Angeles. At the same time, to do well in Los Angeles, a business needs to be great in every way, and having the right talent is the first indicator of a company’s ability to be great! In our company, we say “Everything matters.” In Los Angeles, everything is available - everything that matters.
What do you envision for the future of ActOne Group and your own career?
ActOne Group will add European staffing offices over the next two years. We are currently in the process of upscaling the technology for many of our processes, which will disrupt how the job-placement process works, and just within the last two months, we’ve launched AllSTEM, a STEM placement firm dedicated to inclusion within the placement activities of companies who work with us. I’m also very excited about my newest book, Acting Up: Winning in Business and Life Using Down-Home Wisdom. It’s available now on Amazon and Walmart online.
What are your top work essentials?
iPad, iPhone, ideas!
At what age did you found your company?
What’s your most-used app?
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
The result is the truth.
What’s your greatest skill?