10 Famous Black Inventors and Investors That Are Innovating Their Industries

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When discussing famous Black inventors, it’s easy to look back at historical figures such as George Washington Carver and Madam C. J Walker. There’s a lot to respect about and learn from the notable peanut scientist and the first self-made millionaire in the U.S., and it’s equally important to celebrate Black inventors who continue to make leaps and strides today. 

Below are 10 different people who are icons in their fields — Black inventors, investors and innovators who are changing the world for the better. Let’s look at who they are, what they’re doing, and how their ideas are promoting progress across various industries. 

Janet Emerson Bashen Improved Workspaces Worldwide 

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Many of the famous Black inventors on this list became innovators to solve problems they didn’t see others working on. Janet E. Bashen invented equal employment opportunity software to help businesses combat workplace discrimination, which led her to become the first Black woman to receive a web-based software patent in the United States. A graduate of Alabama A & M (a historically Black college), Harvard and Tulane University Law School, she’s currently receiving her doctorate from the University of Southern California. The inventor is also the CEO of Bashen Corporation, an internationally recognized human resources consulting firm.

Original image by Highlighter11 via Wikimedia Commons published under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0. Image has been altered slightly from the original with cropping.

Dr. James E. West Has Invented for Decades

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It’s not too surprising that Dr. James West became a prolific scientist and inventor — he’s the son of one of the “Hidden Figures” mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. But instead of looking to the stars like his mother, West’s research and inventions focused on hearing and the human ear. With coinventor Gerhard Sessler, West created the electret microphone. Their product became a standard for audio devices and has been used to create billions of microphones worldwide. And West didn’t stop there—he holds more than 250 patents and is still inventing in his 90s. 

Original image by Sonavi Labs via Wikimedia Commons published under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 4.0.

Jerry Lawson Created the Video Game Cartridge 

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If you’ve ever played a video game, there’s a high chance that Jerry Lawson had something to do with it — or he at least inspired the technology that led to it. Lawson helped pioneer the invention of the video game cartridge and engineered the first gaming system that used cartridges as opposed to built-in games. The console, called the Fairchild Channel F,  was released in 1976 and featured early favorite games like checkers, blackjack and hockey. As the cartridge format began to catch on, Lawson left Fairchild and founded a video game development company that created software for Atari consoles.

Dr. Mark E. Dean Brought Computers to People’s Homes

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Dr. Mark Dean is a famous Black inventor who’s primarily worked for IBM. Dean learned he had a knack for technology at a young age when he built a tractor on his family’s farm, and this inspired him to keep building. He’s known best for co-inventing the IBM personal home computer, which was released in 1981. Having grown up in the South during segregation, Dean is a Black inventor who used his life experience as the basis for inspiring change in what office diversity looked like. 

Dr. Dean has stayed with IBM ever since creating his invention. He was the company’s first Black IBM Fellow, a technical distinction that’s awarded to workers who’ve made outstanding achievements. He holds over 20 patents and has supported computer science and AI initiatives like Watson, a computer that won Jeopardy! while playing against human contestants.

Arlan Hamilton Is Changing the Face of Investing

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Arlan Hamilton started her first venture capital fund while she was experiencing homelessness in 2015. Her company, Backstage Capital, invests in people who often don’t receive capital to create startups, including women, people of color and queer people. Now considered one of the most powerful LGBTQIA+ people in tech by Business Insider, Hamilton continues to pursue opportunities that make the business world more diverse. Her book, It’s About Damn Time, released in 2020, chronicles her journey into business and her decision to invest in traditionally underfunded groups. 

Kathryn Finney Speaks to Those Who Aren’t Spoken to Enough

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The term “#girlboss” might not be something we take too seriously in 2022, but Kathryn Finney is doing girlbossing the right way. Her books — How to Be a Budget Fashionista: The Ultimate Guide to Looking Fabulous for Less and Build the Damn Thing: How to Start a Successful Business If You’re Not a Rich White Guy — have empowered readers who don’t always have someone speaking directly to them. Finney has since founded Genius Guild, an investment firm that primarily supports Black founders and businesses. 

Robert F. Smith Leads the Way in Investing, Advising and Tech

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Hailing from a middle-class neighborhood in Denver, Colorado, Robert F. Smith is now a billionaire. The son of two teachers, Smith studied chemical engineering and business administration. Before starting Vista Equity Partners, Smith honed his expert financial-advising skills during a six-year role at Goldman Sachs. Thanks to Smith’s leadership at the software investment firm he founded, Vista Equity Partners is one of the largest and most successful software enterprise companies in the U.S. With Vista ranked among the likes of Microsoft and SAP, we can likely expect big things from Smith in the future. 

Mary W. Jackson Mathematically Defied Gravity 

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Depicted in the film Hidden Figures, Mary W. Jackson was a mathematician who changed the world’s relationship with space travel. Best known for her work on Project Mercury, NASA’s first human spaceflight program, Jackson’s work helped the U.S. orbit a human around the earth — a victory in the then-ongoing Space Race with Russia. What’s less well known about her, though, is that she authored and co-authored 12 papers for NASA. She also spent much of her career helping women advance their careers by advocating for affirmative action and equal opportunity employment programs at NASA.   

Errol Anderson Pioneered a Pandemic-Friendly Pastime  

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Not all innovations have to involve business ventures or medical advancements. Sometimes, the best inventions bring people together and encourage fun. Normally working in the music industry, Errol Anderson created a game he couldn’t play during the pandemic — it didn’t exist yet. “I woke up the next day and decided I am going to make myself a game,” Anderson told The Denver Post. Popongo, which is sort of a combination of skeeball and cornhole, is now a successful game that’s social distancing-friendly. We can’t wait to see what Anderson does next, but in the meantime, the innovator is giving back by sponsoring the Jamaican bobsled team in the Beijing 2022 Olympics.  

Strive Masiyiwa Gives Back and Connects the World

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When it comes to philanthropy and business excellence, look no further than Strive Masiyiwa. The founder of Econet Global, an international telecommunications group, has supported thousands of students and orphans with scholarships and sponsorship opportunities. His company helps keep people connected through phones and internet service across several countries, so honors from places like Forbes and Fortune make sense. Having donated hundreds of millions of dollars across multiple causes, his giving spirit has done a lot for education, healthcare, food security and entrepreneurship in Zimbabwe and beyond.