More than 40 years ago, Babson launched the world’s first entrepreneurship hall of fame: the Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs® (ADE).
Since its inception in 1978, the ADE has inducted more than 100 internationally renowned entrepreneurial leaders who have contributed significantly to the development of free enterprise throughout the world.
This month, three more esteemed entrepreneurs joined the Academy: Eric G. Johnson ’72, P’08, Baldwin Richardson Foods president and CEO, and Steve Conine and Niraj Shah, co-founders of Wayfair.
The ADE ceremony took place in Boston on September 19, 2019, as part of the College’s global entrepreneurship summit, Babson Connect: Worldwide.
“The qualities and skills that entrepreneurial leaders possess – opportunity-obsessed, growth-oriented, nimble – are the qualities and skills that the evolving nature of work, and the hyper-networked global economy, require,” Stephen Spinelli Jr. MBA’92, PhD said at the ceremony. “Members of the Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs, through your expertise and impact, are leading change.”
Now in its fifth year, the summit provides a one-of-a-kind opportunity to hear from global business leaders and exchange ideas with Babson community members from around the world. Twenty members of the academy returned to campus to welcome the newest inductees and connect with the Babson community.
Eric Johnson ’72, P’08
As a child growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the late 1950s, Eric Johnson ’72, P’08, watched his father successfully build Johnson Products, a manufacturer of ethnic hair-care products. Seeing how a business could strengthen a community, as Johnson Products did by creating jobs and paying good wages, made an impact on the young Johnson.
Following in his father’s footsteps, in 1989, Johnson became the chief executive officer of Johnson Products Company, the nation’s first African American-owned publicly traded company. Today, Johnson is the president and chief executive officer of Baldwin Richardson Foods, one of the largest African American-owned businesses in the food industry. With more than 323 employees and $274 million in sales, Baldwin Richardson Foods is a leading manufacturer of custom food and beverage ingredients for global brands including McDonald’s Corporation, Kellogg, General Mills, Dunkin Brands, Starbucks, and Frito-Lay Quaker Oats.
A common thread throughout Johnson’s storied career: giving back, especially to organizations that educate and expand opportunities for urban minority communities facing economic and educational disadvantages.
“In our business, we believe that diversity leads to the quality of our decision making,” said Johnson. “As entrepreneurs, we are accountable for ourselves and if successful, for others. This is a belief that I fully embrace.”
In 2016, Johnson was inducted into Babson’s Alumni Entrepreneur Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Ronald McDonald House Charities’ Crystal Heart Award in 2011, the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association (NBMOA) Lee Dunham Visionary Award in 2012 and McDonald’s System First Award in 2014.
Niraj Shah and Steve Conine
Armed with only a shoestring budget and a big idea, Niraj Shah and Steve Conine co-founded Wayfair, now one of the world’s largest online destinations for home, in 2002. What started as a single website soon grew into more than 250 standalone sites selling everything from barstools to birdhouses. In 2011, they took a giant leap and moved all of their e-commerce sites into a single online destination for everything home – and the Wayfair brand was born.
Shah and Conine rapidly grew the business from a two-person team in Boston to what is now a Fortune 500 company with more than 14,500 employees globally. Wayfair and its family of brands – Joss & Main, Birch Lane, AllModern and Perigold – generated $8 billion in net revenue for the 12 months ended June 30, 2019. Today, Shah serves as CEO, co-chairman, and co-founder while Conine serves as the company’s co-chairman and co-founder.
“I’m very proud of the team we’ve built and seeing our employees succeed,” said Shah.
When asked what he loves about being an entrepreneur, Conine shared: “A large portion of the waking hours of your life you spend with the people you work with. As an entrepreneur, I love having a very direct influence on the culture and team that I work with every day. I also love the constant change. I love the high degree of personal responsibility and personal initiative it requires.”
Shah and Conine have been lifelong entrepreneurs. After graduating from Cornell University with engineering degrees, the pair co-founded Spinners Incorporated, an IT services firm, which was sold to iXL in 1998. Shah and Conine then created Simplify Mobile, an enterprise software company that was sold in 2001.
Shah has been included in Fortune Magazine’s 40 under 40, and has won the Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award. He also serves on the board of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and the Federal Research Bank of Boston.
Conine is a member of the Board of Directors of CarGurus, a leading global online automotive marketplace.
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