In the 1870s, the United States was largely untapped and full of opportunity. John Pierpoint Morgan, one of the earliest bankers who built JP Morgan Bank (Morgan Chase Bank today) was one of the earlier visionaries that could see what the United States could become.
JP Morgan financed many of the railroads that connected the US which got him on the board of directors of many of the major corporations which allowed him to use his power to shift the corporate landscape.
In England and Europe, the industrial revolution had come and gone but North America still had much growth opportunity. And one of the biggest opportunities that JP Morgan saw was in steel.
He wanted to do for the steel what he did for the railroads. So in 1901 he joined forces with Charles Schwab who was CEO of the Carnegie Steel Company to buy Andrew Carnegie’s share, and finance the merger of Andrew Carnegie’s Carnegie Steel Company with Elbert H. Gary’s Federal Steel Company and William Henry “Judge” Moore’s National Steel Company to form United States Steel Corporation.
The deal was worth $492 million valuing the company at $1.4 billion ($40 billion in today’s money) and giving birth to the first unicorn in history.
Unicorns are legendary creatures that have been described since antiquity as beasts with a single large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from their forehead.
But in business a unicorn is a term coined in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee to describe the statistically rare success of a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion.
Unicorns are seen as these mythical animals that have magical powers to render poisoned water potable and heal sickness, but there was nothing magical about US Steel.
By 1902, US Steel made an astounding 70 % of all steel used in the United States. In 1907 it bought the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, its largest competitor and in 1911, US Steel became so powerful, the federal government tried to break it up but it was ultimately unsuccessful.
While US Steel continued to grow, making both JP Morgan and Charles Schwab incredibly rich, it was accused of profiting off the terrible suffering and oppression of poorly paid black workers in addition to exploiting prisoners and not paying them, according to author Douglas Blackmon in his book Slavery by Another Name.
While the antitrust case ultimately failed, the company was doomed by its own ineptitude, inefficiencies, and lack of ability to innovate.
Schwab clashed with Morgan and left US Steel to form the Bethlehem Shipbuilding and Steel Company which would become the second largest Steel company in the world.
US Steel faced heavy public pressure to abandon the exploitative labor policies of Andrew Carnegie, which called for low wages and opposition to unionization.
The antagonistic relationship with workers and unions persisted while US Steel slowly fell into decline as it became increasingly unacceptable to exploit workers, especially black workers.
These were far from the only issues US Steel faced, now a shadow of the massive corporation it was at the turn of the 20th century accounting for only 8% of all steel used in the United States.
US Steel was implicated in generating water pollution and toxic waste in 1993 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which ordered US Steel to clean up a site on the Delaware River in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, where the soil had been contaminated with arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals, as well as naphthalene.
By 2008 US Steel became the eighth-greatest corporate producer of air pollution in the United States (down the second-greatest in 2000) releasing more than 2.2 million pounds of toxins.
Around the same time JP Morgan was trying to dominate the steel industry, in 1904, Sarah Breedlove began working as a sales agent at Malone’s hair care company.
In 1906, she renamed herself Madam C.J. Walker after her late husband Charles Joseph Walker.
She soon capitalized on an idea to create a line of hair care for black women and launched Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.
Walker suffered the same challenges common among black women of her era including severe dandruff and other scalp ailments, partly due to the application of harsh products to cleanse hair and wash clothes.
Sarah was born on a Louisiana plantation on December 23, 1867, Sarah was the daughter of freed slaves who died by the time she was 7. She was married at the age of 14, had her daughter Lelia shortly after, and became a widow after her husband died six years into their marriage.
At the time of her passing on May 25, 1919, the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company was earning $500,000 a year, and she was worth $1 million (over $15 million in today’s numbers) making her the wealthiest black women in history at the time.
Beyond the individual wealth Walker trained over 40,000 black women and men, supported black students, and advocated for the economic independence of black people, particularly black women, and contributed the largest recorded single donation, of $5000, to the NAACP, to support anti-lynching initiatives.
In hindsight things look different, we tell tales of titans, of visionaries, of extraordinary accomplishments of massive proportions. We try to extract lessons, to make sense of the why, how, and what.
We look for patterns and clues in everything, always piecing together some sort of roadmap we can follow.
We try to find different answers to how can anyone amass so much power and wealth?!
In doing so we may forget that JP Morgan, was a sheltered sickly child from Hartford, Connecticut, who suffered seizures and other mysterious ailments.
Andrew Carnegie grew up with little formal education in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and went to work in a factory, earning $1.20 a week.
Looking back, as we search for some sort of secret path to success, it’s easy to connect the dots, to make sense of the chaos and impossibility of how things unfold.
While for some all they want is to be a card carrying member of the very exclusive unicorn club, currently at a membership of 513 unicorns with a cumulative valuation of ~$1,590B, I would argue that most would want to be known for something truly magical, something great, not just big.
What kind of magic do you want to create in the world?