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The Self-Made Man: Joe Dudley

I’m going to go ahead and guess that most people reading this have never heard the name Joe Dudley. Those of you who have probably remember him as the guy who made the uncomfortable nudist colony joke in Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary Good Hair. But Joe Dudley is an entrepreneur cut from the classic mold of a guy who took a natural flair for salesmanship and a strong work ethic and built a professional empire for himself. True, African-American hair care products might not be as media-friendly as, say, the tech industry, but it’s been just as lucrative for him, and without that weird start-a-company-then-immediately-sell-it shell game that dot-commers play as a matter of course.

The great Joe Dudley

Dudley also had to overcome more challenges than the Zuckerbergs and Sean Parkers of the world. He was born in Aurora, NC, and had a speech impediment so pronounced that he was labeled a special needs child (which is a gentler version of the term they had back then) and held back twice. Still, he persevered, and kept his father’s advice about never depending on anyone else for his living in mind. Since his dad was a farmer, Dudley went to A&T State University as a poultry science major, and did agricultural work for the college to keep his bills paid.

Fate had other plans for Dudley, though. He learned about Fuller Products and went to New York to learn at the feet of one of the richest African-Americans in the country at the time, S.B. Fuller. $10 later, Dudley had a Fuller sales kit and started working as a door-to-door sales person. He was a natural, as it turned out, and was soon earning $100 a week, which paid his tuition and prompted him to switch majors from poultry science to business administration. I very rarely get to type sentences like that.

Dudley worked full-time for Fuller Products as a troubleshooter who improved sales in slumping territories, and eventually became an independent distributor in North Carolina. This gave Dudley the financial capital to buy a small beauty products company and open a storefront and salon, which did so well that he turned the business into a regional chain across the Southeast. That company is Dudley Products, and it’s now a huge operation centered in the otherwise unremarkable city of Greensboro, NC.

Dudley’s company is unique in that it’s one of the few black-owned manufacturers of African-American hair care products, and because of Dudley’s practice of selling directly to salons instead of going through retailers. Not surprisingly, his company was highly rated in Black Enterprise Magazine’s Top 100 Black Owned Businesses, and Dudley products are available in Canada, Brazil, Zimbabwe, South Africa, the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Budding beauticians can also take classes at Dudley Cosmetology University (DCU), which offers advanced programs in cosmetology, manicuring, esthetics, and management training. The school has campuses in Chicago, Washington D.C., Charlotte, Durham, and Kernersville, NC. Pretty good for a guy who was treated like Forrest Gump throughout elementary, middle, and high school.

I guess what we can all take from Dudley’s story, aside from the obvious lessons about a strong work ethic and an indomitable spirit, is that leaders in any industry can make an impact on their communities and become successful. Pursue what you’re good at with everything you’ve got, and chances are you’ll make something of yourself. Just think, in 20 years it might be you sharing your gravely-voiced holiday greetings on YouTube.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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