When it comes to Black-owned media, Cathy Hughes is both a veteran and an inspiration in a business sector that is notoriously and exclusively white in positions of leadership.
But beyond the racial implications in media leadership, those mostly white folks who have dominated the game are more times than not male, facts that compound the systemic barriers that prevent the likelihood of a Black woman from not only working in the business but also ascending to its highest heights.
As Hughes marks her 75th birthday on Friday, it’s impossible not to marvel over the formidable empire she’s built from Radio One’s humble beginnings in 1979 to Urban One’s current media dominance that reaches more than 80% of Black audiences in the U.S. When you take into account that she was able to achieve all of that with sustained longevity after being a teenage mother back in her native Nebraska, Hughes’ accomplishments are all the more remarkable and underscore the importance of Black mothers in positions of leadership.
It’s no wonder that Hughes, the first African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation, was born during what would ultimately become Black Women’s History Month.
Considering the obstacles she faced in the media business as a Black person and a woman, in particular, Hughes has long said that she never let racism or sexism affect her drive for greatness.
Recounting the time when she was just starting Radio One, Hughes told ESSENCE that she refused to allow gender and race to affect her resolve.
“When I got my first million-dollar loan, the bank bills would come addressed to ‘Mr. Catherine Hughes,'” she said. “I say this all the time: Get past the slights. You’re an African-American female — deal with it. Don’t view it as, ‘Woe is me — they stopped me because I’m a woman.’ That may be true, but that’s their problem.”
Embellishing on that sentiment, Hughes later told the Baltimore Sun that she viewed such occurrences through a filtered lens that allowed her to see business matters as being anything but personal.
“It’s the law of averages,” Hughes reasoned. “For every 99 people who tell you ‘no,’ the chances are that the 100th will say ‘yes.’ My daddy was an accountant and he used to always talk about the law of averages.”
It’s that type of logical approach that has helped Hughes amass ownership of dozens and dozens of radio stations in a broadcasting business model that flourished digitally to include an impressive suite of websites, including NewsOne, and expanded with a popular television network in TV One – all under the still-growing Urban One umbrella.
And while some might view being a single mother as a hindrance to success – especially back in the ‘70s – Hughes used it as an inspiration and motivation following adversity stemming from giving birth at the age of 16.
Nowadays, there is no shortage of news stories about single mothers experiencing success in the workplace. And data shows that the employment of single mothers has steadily increased over the past 20+ years, even for those without college educations.
That is a stark contrast to 1965 when Hughes gave birth to her son, Alfred E. Liggins III, which resulted in her being kicked out of her mother’s home. But Hughes also has credited that moment with being among the most significant turning points in her life; one that set her on the path to greatness.
“It was the reason I took my life seriously for the first time as a teenager and made a promise to myself, my son and God that he would not become a Black statistic,” Hughes told HuffPost in 2012.
To say Hughes was right is an understatement, as Liggins is now the successful CEO of Urban One, a company he’s steered to become the largest Black-owned media conglomerate and one of the top Black-owned businesses in the U.S., which are no small feats.
“Having that baby forced me to put someone else ahead of my own selfish desires,” Hughes continued. “I became an entrepreneur because of him.”
Recalling how Liggins once fell ill when he was young, Hughes said her then-employer threatened to fire her if she left work to attend to her son. It’s a scenario that millions of single working mothers have likely experienced in one way or another; and one that Hughes used to her advantage.
“That’s when I decided I needed to be in control of my professional environment so I could be there for my child,” Hughes said.
The rest, as they say, is history.
From her time at Howard University — where she pioneered the popular “Quiet Storm” format at the HBCU’s radio station — to becoming the general manager of a D.C.-based radio station to starting Radio One to hosting her own eponymous morning radio show to buying her first radio station to naming Liggins the president and CEO of her company to starting her own TV network, history has shown that the sky remains the limit for Hughes and the glass ceilings she continues to smash.
Accolades notwithstanding, including a series of Congressional commendations and media hall of fame inductions, Hughes has remained the same bold leader that she resigned herself to becoming as a teen mom.
“One of the key characteristics of an effective manager is to not have your attention distracted from your employees, goals and objectives,” Hughes said to the HuffPost. “You have to keep your eye on the prize, whether that’s running a business or rearing a child.”