How My Grandmother Inspired Black Girl Magic: A Story of Overcoming Adversity to Ultimately Lead a Magic Johnson Enterprise
Success is nothing without someone paving the way. At least that’s how I see it. I grew up watching my grandmother Sadie Gauthier—a Creole woman who migrated from the South to the West in the early 1940s—thrive, and it’s because of a community of people like her that I am where I am today.
Today, I’m the president of SodexoMAGIC, a 5,000-person organization owned by Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and cofounder of Heritage Link Brands, the largest North American importer of indigenous wine from Africa. While I worked hard to get to where I am, I don’t think I would be here without the example set by my grandmother.
My grandmother is a marvel. At 95, she is celebrated not only as our family matriarch, but also as a visionary creative, an entrepreneur, a vibrant, glamorous and inspiring woman and, most of all, my hero.
Since she was young, her life was filled with challenges. Sadie left the South amidst the Jim Crow era at just 17 years old with only 11 cents in her pocket. At the time, she was married to my grandfather, who was working on the Alaska pipeline and railroad. She had one child, (my mom), one on the way (my uncle) and five more to follow. She traveled from New Roads, La. to Los Angeles, which is where she worked multiple odd jobs, one of them being a seamstress at an apparel shop. That’s where her life changed forever.
Her designs captivated many, including Bob Mackie, who was an up-and-coming designer then. He was so impressed by her work ethic that he encouraged her to pursue a path of entrepreneurship, and that ultimately led to a three-decade career of designing clothes for Hollywood stars. As founder of one of the first Black-owned fashion houses in the United States, she designed clothes for Ike and Tina Turner, Janice Joplin, The Jackson 5, The Supremes and others. While tending to her four-person shop, which was supplemented by my mother’s and aunts’ contributions, Sonny and Cher, who were in the early stages of their career, walked in and personally asked her to design their wardrobe for them. Granny’s business subsequently expanded and gained global notoriety. Experiencing the results of her hard work, her grace, poise and interaction with those the world fawned upon when I was a little girl taught me that anything is possible.
Neither my grandmother nor my mother achieved a high school diploma or college degree, nor did they educate me on a trade they knew so well—sewing —in hopes that I would pursue higher education. As a result, I went on to obtain my bachelor’s in international relations from Stanford University, followed by a master’s in business administration with honors from Harvard Business School, which gave me the confidence to become an established corporate executive and eventually, an entrepreneur.
Resilient women have always been one of the inspirations behind my business’ success. When I first created Heritage Link Brands with my husband, I had my grandmother in mind. She’s always refused to be confined to one particular box, cleverly diverted boundaries, boldly pursued the best in life and established the foundation for a long-lasting legacy. I wanted to encapsulate that and help pave the way for others. I look at my business pursuits as a catalyst for advancing growth and wealth across the African Diaspora for South Africans—Black South Africans in particular—through the medium of wine, for African Americans, who make up a significant number of SodexoMAGIC’s 5,000-person employee base and as an advisor and champion for change to global mindsets about the continent of Africa and its market potential.
For anyone wanting to dip their toes into the business world, here are a few tips I’ve lived by: 1) It’s important to recognize your worth by commanding deals that reflect your value and greatness; 2) be brave—fortitude is half the battle; 3) know when to pivot; 4) while innovation is the key, knowing the fundamentals of your business is the door to sustainability, success and growth of your business or family empire; 5) find your passion and never give up; 6) and lastly, inspire to empower, just like my grandmother Sadie did for me.
Selena Cuffe is founder of vintner, Heritage Link Brands and president of SodexoMAGIC, a joint venture between U.S.-based Magic Johnson Enterprises and Sodexo, Inc. She empowers critical, strategic initiatives that accelerate business outcomes and empower diversity and equity within the global wine industry and the American Food and Facilities Management industries. Her authority includes business transformation, digitization (AI & IoT), strategy, agile operations, change management, marketing and corporate social responsibility.