1981 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"I am most proud of the impact that my success has had upon the black youth in our community."
George Johnson was born in Richton, Mississippi, in 1927, in a three-room sharecropper's shack. His parents separated when Johnson was two, and he moved to Chicago with his mother. Her job in a city hospital cafeteria paid only $16 a week. As a boy, Johnson shined shoes and collected bottles to sell for small change to help his mother put food on the table. He quit school in the tenth grade to work full time as a busboy. When he was a little older, he worked as a waiter during the day and set pins in a bowling alley at night.
The turning point in Johnson's life came when he went to work for the black-owned cosmetics firm, Fuller Products Company. S. B. Fuller, who started his company with $25 during the Depression, served as a role model for Johnson. "I give him credit wholeheartedly for my having had the nerve to take $250 and try to build a business." In 1954, Johnson began manufacturing his first hair care product, selling it from the back of his station wagon. Today, Johnson Products is recognized as an innovator in the beauty care industry and in 1971 became the first minority-run business to be listed on the American Stock Exchange.
Like S. B. Fuller before him, Johnson feels he has been a role model for black youth. He counsels young people to be creative in seizing the opportunities. "You have to believe in yourself," he says. "It's also important to treat others the way you would like to be treated. The Golden Rule gives you a foundation for success in anything, whether it's your personal life or your business life."
Johnson is now a principal shareholder of Indecorp, the country's largest black-owned financial institution, which owns Chicago's Independence Bank and Drexel National Bank. He's also involved with Junior Achievement, is on the board of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and is a trustee of Northwestern University.