Greatest Media Entrepreneurs of All Time

UPDATED: May 6, 2008
PUBLISHED: May 6, 2008

Martha Stewart b. 1941 Author, one-time caterer, publisher and TV personality Martha Stewart did one thing better than anything else; the lifestyle maven understood the power of her brand and consolidated it in 1997 as Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Oh, and she staged a pretty good comeback in 2005 after serving five months in jail. Stewart's ability to embrace her obstacles and build a great administrative team ensured the company's stability in her absence.

Quote: "If you do something simple very well, work hard at it and stick to it."

David Sarnoff 1891-1971 Thank David Sarnoff for “Must See TV.” An early innovator and investor in commercial radio and television, Sarnoff knew that to sell radios, you need programming. He arranged the first-of-its-kind broadcast of the Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier prizefight in 1921, and soon radio took off as the newest form of entertainment. Like any ambitious entrepreneur, Sarnoff was not satisfied with his one feat and applied the same programming principle to television. As general manager of Radio Corporation of America (RCA), he created national broadcasts by stringing together hundreds of individual stations, and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was born. Sarnoff is an important historical figure in the 20th century not for an invention, but an innovation that made possible communication and entertainment as we know them today.

Quote: "The will to persevere is often the difference between failure and success."

Robert Johnson b. 1946 As the founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), Robert Johnson’s candor about his entrepreneurial success is surprising. As America’s first black billionaire in 2000, he doesn't shy away from sharing the reason he created BET—to make profit in an untapped market. He capitalized on an underserved market by using black executives, producers and on-air talent to produce content for black audiences. The cable television channel began airing black-oriented music videos, movies and gospel programming, and has since expanded into original programming such as sitcoms, concerts and talk shows. A division of Viacom, BET reaches 87 million households.

Quote: "It's all about hard work and earning what is given, giving back to the community that helped you succeed in life."

Oprah Winfrey b. 1954 There are a few ways you could describe Oprah Winfrey; it all depends on your noun choice. CNN has called her one of the world’s most powerful women and Time magazine tagged her one of the most influential persons of the 20th century—impressive superlatives for a woman who came from nothing and became one of two black billionaires in America (the first was Robert Johnson).

If Winfrey wears many hats, her primary one is host of the critically acclaimed The Oprah Winfrey Show, which has run in continuous national syndication since 1986. From on-air book clubs to Oprah's 'favorite things', whatever she features on the show has almost instantaneous acceptance, trust and desirability in society. Case in point: When Winfrey included self-help book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle in her book club, nearly half a million people logged on for a live Web cast. It would be recorded as one of the most watched events on the Web had the site not crashed from the overwhelming traffic.

She's ventured into film as an actress and producer, made her mark as a publisher and, in creating her production company, Harpo Productions, became only the third woman in the American entertainment industry to own her own studio (after Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball). Winfrey has added humanitarian to her résumé with three principal philanthropic endeavors—the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, which opened in 2007; Oprah’s Angel Network; and the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. Most recently, Winfrey helped make philanthropy into reality TV with her show, Oprah’s Big Give.

What makes Winfrey a great entrepreneur is her ability to capitalize on her best asset—the trust she's garnered from the American public. She knows that any book she recommends will become an instant best-seller and any topical expert on health, fitness, relationships or even interior design will become a household name. As far as the public eye can see, she's used her influence for good and kept that covenant well.

Quote: "Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough."

PREVIOUS (Finance)

NEXT (Technology)