Story at a glance

  • Biographical research institution Marquis Who’s Who released their first African American Catalysts for Change list during Black History Month.
  • The list of 50 honorees was chosen by a selection committee that included CEO Erica Lee and Executive Editor Star Jones.
  • A wide-ranging list of inspiring individuals made the list including Amanda Gorman, George Floyd, Shonda Rhimes and more.

Black History Month has presented a specific opportunity to honor the heritage of Black Americans ever since it was first celebrated in 1926, and later when it became an officially recognized monthlong celebration in 1976 thanks to President Ford.

The monthlong celebration has come a long way since, being celebrated by more people across the country as Americans continue to learn more about the history and struggle of Black Americans. Progress is being made by individuals and companies to recognize other important milestones in the Black experience as well, from the celebration of Juneteenth to the atrocity of the Tulsa Race Massacre. 

Catalysts for Change

Marquis Who’s Who (MWW), the world’s leading biographical publisher since its inception in 1898, kicked off Black History Month by presenting an inaugural African American Catalysts for Change list. The idea for the list was conceived by CEO Erica Lee, the first female, first Black American and first Asian American to lead the institutional company.

“Marquis Who's Who has been around for over 120 years, and it is really the oldest biographer and company to document the biographical profiles of the top 5 percent in the world in their respective career fields,” says Lee. “Everyone from heads of state, to Nobel laureates and C-level executives — anyone who's really made an impact in their careers as well as in society as a whole.”

The list, Lee tells Changing America, while conceived by her, was curated by a diverse panel that included American lawyer, media personality, and women's and diversity advocate Star Jones. The panel put their heads together to whittle a large pool of inspiring individuals down to a list of 50 honorees, highlighting a broad spectrum of activists, entertainers, politicians, government officials, sports stars and more. 

“I am the first female CEO in the 120 years’ history [of the company] and my mother is Jamaican while my father is Chinese. I'm coming in sort of checking off all of those different boxes, but it's about more than checking off boxes,” says Lee. “It's also being able to ensure that we are keeping our finger on the pulse, bringing in diversity and inclusion into our corporate culture, and that also happens with things like the African American Catalysts for Change list that we're doing. We're also about to launch a Women's Luminary List.”

The selection process

The process by which these “top” lists are created can seem like a mystery to those who are merely witnessing the final product, but Lee explains how it’s done at MMW. “First, we have the best of the best researchers in the country working at our company. They have their finger on the pulse, they are doing the writing of the narrative. Our researchers pull together their own individualized lists. There's an anonymous ballot, then we come to the table.”

The selection committee brings each of their top candidates to the discussion table, and the process seemingly plays out like that of an Ivy League College beyond that point. Each committee member goes through the candidates they really want to advocate for and why. 

“I see this list as phenomenal examples of the village of excellence African American leaders across all industries bring to the table of influence through their passion, vision, drive, determination and action,” says Executive Editor Star Jones. “These leaders not only ‘talk the talk,’ they ‘walk the walk’ in leading the way for the change that is sorely needed.”

"We wanted to create a list that showcased the true Black thought leaders that have become those that will affect change as we move into an uneasy yet hopeful new year,” adds Lee. “This compilation is Who’s Who’s way of paying homage to the most influential figures over the last few years that have gone above and beyond the call of duty.”

The honorees

Lee says that the selection committee really drilled down to pick those who “did something that really captivated us,” such as Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman who performed at the presidential inauguration and nurse Dawn Wooten, the whistleblower who became famous after exposing about the shady business of hysterectomies being performed in immigration detention centers in Georgia.

African American business leaders were recognized as well, such as Angel Onuoha, the co-founder and CEO of BLK Capital Management, a 100 percent Black-owned and 100 percent student-run hedge fund. Onuoha’s goal was to launch a hedge fund that exposed young African American adults to the field of active investment management, giving them a real-time education while they dive headfirst into managing an invested pool of money.

Television producer, screenwriter, and author Shonda Rhimes is another business leader included on the list. Best known as the showrunner, creator, head writer, and executive producer of "Grey’s Anatomy," Rhimes is now worth $140 million, which accounts for her nine-figure Netflix deal when she moved from ABC. Her most recent show "Bridgerton" has made Netflix history with 82 million viewers.

The list is certainly not one-size-fits-all, with honorees from the founder of the #MeToo movement Tarana Burke to professional stock race car driver Bubba Wallace, who advocated for the removal of the Confederate flag from NASCAR. 

“When reading through the names I really want people to want to delve further into each honoree. I want people not just to read the names, but also to go a little bit deeper — take a look at who they are, why they're important, and really understand that there's a vision that each of these individuals had. It's because they had a vision, and they had passion, and they had drive that they are on the list,” says Lee.

“To anybody reading the list, I would hope that they find their own passion, and they continue to keep driving, and they continue to keep working at whatever they're doing. One day maybe you'll make that list because you’re already on your own list. And so, you know, hopefully when they're reading that list that they're looking at themselves and making sure that they're continuing on their own path."

Published on Feb 11, 2021