Most students of American history — even the casual ones — are very well aware of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Those same students have learned that two of the leaders that emerged during that movement were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X and that those gentlemen sort of represented the two poles of the movement. Dr. King’s multiracial and nonviolent approach was criticized by Malcolm X, who was the nation’s most visible advocate for Black Nationalism.
What few of those same students remember is that the same dualism existed in the push for civil rights in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Two of the most visible leaders of that era — Booker T. Washington & W.E.B. Du Bois — like their counterparts in the mid 20th century, both advocated for equality of the races but disagreed on the method. Specifically, they disagreed about the length of time it should take.
Booker T. Washington, the hands-down political leader of the African American community at the time, called for blacks to pursue education and entrepreneurship as their means to political progress. In an 1895 speech, he called for the black community to “cast down their bucket where they are,” meaning that rather than jumping too quickly into the political sphere to work for political and social change, they should pursue entrepreneurship as a means to gain influence. While this method was a slower method to ensuring black equality, the “Atlanta Compromise” saw to it that the black community would temporarily submit to white rule, and in return, the white community promised basic educational equality and due process to their African American neighbors.
W.E.B. Du Bois and other northern black leaders opposed this program, especially the idea that blacks should submit to whites. He felt that African Americans should fight for equality actively, and disengage from what he perceived as submissiveness on behalf of Washington and his supporters. If black people gave up political power, insistence on civil rights, and higher education, Du Bois argued, this would lead to “the disenfranchisement of the Negro; the legal creation of a distinct status of inferiority for the Negro; and the steady withdrawal of aid from institutions of higher training of the Negro.”
There is no need to figure out whether Washington or Du Bois was correct in his approach; if that’s something you’re looking for, there are many historians who have written about it. The strategies those two men advocated for, though, correlates with the way companies and individuals advocate for themselves.
The Washington approach
Think the tortoise approach in the famous “The Tortoise and the Hare” story — is one in which a company or individual earns buy-in into his/her story as a means to gradual advancement. This approach certainly has had its successes. Spanx, Sarah Blakely’s undergarment company, was founded in 2000. Blakely was often approached by investors who wanted to have a piece of the now-$400 billion pie and grow the company more exponentially. Others approached with ideas to take the company public. Instead, Blakely relied on word-of-mouth endorsements from her customers, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Oprah Winfrey, and Michelle Obama. The Spanx website provides a timeline of Spanx’s growth and milestones. Today, the youngest self-made female billionaire still owns 100% of her company.
The Du Bois approach
Think constant, exponential growth — can best be served with these examples provided by Business Insider. One of those companies, Alibaba, “couldn’t afford to hire recent graduates so, instead, hired young people from farming backgrounds” at the onset. Twenty years later, the company boasts a 92% growth rate. The company has attracted many investors, including Goldman Sachs and Yahoo! As it pursues this high growth strategy, it has ousted eBay from China and bested Amazon in the Asia Pacific market.
Much like Washington & Du Bois had their supporters and detractors, advocates for slow and high growth have them too. The right answer? Well, it depends… the best thing one can do is to study companies that have preceded them and take the appropriate actions that make sense. Will you “cast your bucket down where you are,” as Washington once advocated his African American peers? Or will you “unceasingly and firmly oppose” that approach and strive, as Du Bois argued? Though not as serious as the fight for civil rights, it’s crucial for your company to know whose advice to tether your company too.