Starting a business wasn’t something Janice Bryant Howroyd set out to do when she moved to Los Angeles more than 40 years ago.

Her company, Torrance-based Act 1 Group Inc., came into being because she couldn’t find the types of jobs she wanted.

It ultimately turned out well for the African-American entrepreneur’s privately-held Act 1 Group, a global staffing agency that has grown into the third-largest minority-owned business in Los Angeles County, according to this week’s Business Journal list, with $2.4 billion in 2017 revenue and 2,600 employees.

Los Angeles County these days is home to the largest cohort of minority-owned businesses in the United States, according to a 2015 Census Bureau report, the latest data analyzing national business demographics.

The top 100 minority-owned businesses on the Business Journal’s list, which is ranked by revenue, combined for a 6.4 percent increase to $18.7 billion last year compared to 2016.

The Business Journal’s most recent list of the largest privately held companies in the county showed a 4 percent increase in revenue to an estimated $131 billion for 2016, the most recent data available. The vast majority of the minority-owned companies on this week’s list are privately held.

Diverse demographics

The largest minority group represented on the list are Chinese-Americans, making up almost a quarter of the list, with 24 entries. Companies owned by members of the ethnic community include No.2 restaurant chain Panda Restaurant Group, based in Rosemead, which reported a 3 percent increase in revenue to $3 billion last year. Other leading companies owned by Chinese-Americans include No. 4 Red Chamber Group, a seafood suppler based in Vernon, and No. 26 Spokeo Inc. in Pasadena, which specializes in people-search technology.

The next largest cohort appears to be Mexican-American entrepreneurs, who account for 21 businesses on the list, including No. 14 South Gate-based Jules and Associates Inc., an equipment leasing company; No. 20 Traffic Management Inc. in Signal Hill; and No. 32 PromoShop Inc., a creative branding and marketing company in Playa Vista.

There are eight businesses on the list that separately self-classify as Hispanic or Hispanic-American, a category that could include Mexican-Americans as well as others who track their heritage to Spanish-speaking nations.

African-Americans come in third with 10 businesses on the list, starting with Act 1 and including No. 12 G&C Equipment Corp., a construction equipment and materials supplier based in Gardena; and No. 23 Beauchamp Distributing Co., a beverage wholesaler in Compton.

No.1 on the list is Lincoln Heights-based apparel retailer Forever 21 Inc., which saw an 18 percent increase in revenue to an estimated $4 billion in 2017 revenue. The fast-fashion chain was founded in 1984 by Korean-American husband and wife Do Won “Don” and Jin Sook Chang, who together own 100 percent of the company. The company closed brick-and-mortar stores across North America and Europe in the last few years but still has more than 800 stores under the Forever 21, XXI Forever and F21 brands.

Unique challenges

Cleveland Brown, founder and chief executive of Sherman Oaks-based payment processing firm Payscout, considers himself a serial entrepreneur having started a nonprofit while at UCLA more than a decade ago. He started Payscout in 2011 and the company’s estimated 2017 revenue reached $24.2 million.

Brown comes from a multicultural background ‒ he identifies as African-American and Indian-American – and says he has faced his share of unique challenges running a minority-owned business.

“One thing I would tell my younger self is to ignore the racial undertones – and there are more undertones than overtones,” he said. “If you’re in a situation where logic is not prevailing for some reason and the discussion becomes irrational, I would move on.”

Act 1’s Howroyd said she also faced her share of obstacles along the way.

“When I started Act 1, no commercial lender was interested in assisting me and I did not want to borrow under a co-signature,” Howroyd said. “So I set up shop in front of a rug shop using the $900 I had saved, coupled with the $600 loan from my mother.”

Some of the challenges, she said, were based on her gender.

“Along this journey, I’ve experienced slights in invitations to meetings or delayed notifications about changes or opportunities that I’ve noticed men share amongst themselves. The old boys network has ill served me during my business journey.” Howroyd said she overcame the hurdles with organic growth backed up by continuous learning and innovation.

Los Angeles has resources to help minority-business owners, including a private-public partnership between the city and USC called the Minority Business Development Agency Business Center. The center helps businesses pursue contracts and apply for loans, and offers information on navigating legal and regulatory issues. The center did not return calls requesting comments.

Some other minority-based business organizations in L.A. include the Latin Business Association, the Black Business Association of Los Angeles and the Asian Business League of Southern California.

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