Join us for a Fireside Chat with Tyler Perry and Soledad O’Brien in honor of Black History Month
Running a business

Tyler Perry to Black community: We own the power to create change

Seeing members of the Black community create jobs and financially support one another is actor, director, and playwright Tyler Perry's biggest hope for entrepreneurs during Black History Month.

"As we are moving into how we bridge that [diversity] gap, it's got to be through us," Perry said. "We have the power to do it for ourselves. Every business you start. Every job you create. You are helping us to build that, in Hollywood and anywhere else."

Perry spoke directly to Black business owners gathered in Atlanta as well as thousands more watching the Intuit QuickBooks + Mailchimp Fireside Chat broadcast live online on Tuesday, February 13.

"What do I hope for young artists and entrepreneurs and people who are trying to be in business? It's this: ownership. We have the power to change within ourselves," Perry said. "My whole point is: Lean into what we have. Own what we have."

Best known for creating and performing the silver screen role of Madea, Perry’s talent has yielded a rare and lucrative deal in Hollywood: full ownership of his films, copyright and all. Those movies have grossed over a billion dollars worldwide throughout this career. In 2006, he founded Tyler Perry Studios, becoming the first Black person to solely own a major film production studio. Perry has grown it to be one of the largest film production studios in the U.S. — and he's still going. His unprecedented success has challenged the film industry’s assumptions about Black audiences and what the public wants to see on screen.

Journalist and entrepreneur Soledad O’Brien moderated the fireside chat, where Perry's perseverance, faith, and determination shone through.

Never despise small beginnings

Perry started his creative journey in the 1990s by boldly investing his life savings into his work. It's a common trend even today. In the past year, nearly all (95%) of Canadian Black small business owners have used personal funds to cover business expenses, according to a new poll that QuickBooks commissioned.* 

"For me, I didn't know another way [to get funded]," Perry said. "I didn't come from the moment of 'Oh, I'm gonna go to the bank and get a loan.' They were like, 'Really, you want a loan? Yeah, right. I wouldn't even loan you this piece of paper I'm writing on.'"

Once his creative work started to make money, Perry decided to reinvest most of the profit back into his own business. It allowed him to use business capital, instead of personal funds, when unexpected expenses arose. But it was psychologically and emotionally important to Perry to reinvest those funds in his business and dreams.

"I didn't look like anybody in Hollywood. My goals were very, very different. So, I had to do it my own way. Reinvesting in myself was the way to do it," he said. "I remember shows not making any money. … I said, 'Make sure the cast is paid. Keep the money, let's invest the next time.' You know, as long as I can pay the rent and have a little something to eat, I'll be alright."

It's an uplifting message for entrepreneurs currently struggling with cash flow, obstacles or failures, and meager pay for the long hours they're investing in their businesses.

"I would tell anybody: Never despise small beginnings. That's a little Biblical scripture that I remembered just when I was struggling, trying to get things going. I had been homeless. I had been out on the street trying to get things going," Perry recalled.

Today's scrappy business owners are increasingly turning to credit cards to tide them over in emergencies or help with growth — but more than two-thirds of Black business owners surveyed said it'll take them months to pay off those charges. That means the credit card debt will continue to grow at APY rates significantly higher than traditional loans.

Perry laughed at the assumption that he might have advice for startup business owners who are considering using a credit card. When he was starting out, Perry said he didn't qualify for credit cards or loans.

"I didn't have any credit. I couldn't go to a bank. I couldn't get a loan. My family didn't have money. I was hungry here in Atlanta, and I was living in a pay-by-the-week hotel off Buford Highway," he said. "All I had was this hope and this dream and a way to make it. And I went to work."

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All I had was this hope and this dream and a way to make it. And I went to work.

Chase the dream

Starting from a hope, a dream, and a prayer, Perry has grown his creative career into the industry-changing success it is today. Harkening to his humble beginnings, the motto of Tyler Perry Studios is "A place where even dreams believe."

It "represents a time where you have this dream, and everything starts to fall apart. Nothing seems to be working. But God will give you dreams in your mind, in your head, to remind you to keep going," Perry said.

The dream for business owners, Perry said, is bigger than something you simply want or that you think about sometimes. Instead, it's an insistent beckoning that scares. A dream won't leave you alone; it calls to you.

"If it is your dream, and that thing wakes you up and keeps reminding you, do not stop. Don't stop," Perry said. "I'm sitting here as a living witness that if I had stopped, there are so many people's lives who would have been affected because I gave up."

Perry's dream — to represent America's Black community in a way that hadn't been seen before — is one that he's both achieved and continues to fulfill through his film studio. His wish for every entrepreneur, he said, is for them to see "how sweet it is" to fulfill their dreams.

Make the best business decisions for you

Every business is the product of the unique decisions that its owner or owners have made. Arguably one of the best business decisions that Perry has made is to protect his copyright and own his creative works.

"I made sure that I owned everything with my name on it," Perry told Black entrepreneurs watching the fireside chat. "Every image, every copyright, every photo shoot, everything I do, I make sure that I own it so that if something shows up, and somebody's trying to take credit for what belongs to me, I have recourse."

Helping him along his entrepreneurial journey has been a team of staff whom Perry selects not necessarily based on who's most qualified on paper, but because of their spirit and adaptability.

"The team is not always the best qualified — it's the ones who have the right spirit, the right heart, the right mind, and can learn it even if they don't know it," Perry said.

The best team also includes qualified and dedicated accountants, which Perry learned the hard way. When he was audited during a time of rapid growth for his studio, Perry said, the IRS found that the government owed him $9 million.

"All of my accountants were like, 'Oh this is so crazy, they owe you $9 million!' And I was like, 'You're all fired. How did you let me overpay this amount of money?'" Perry said, "That's when I realized the importance of [a good accountant]."

As he was growing his business, Perry also made an intentional business choice about his filming budgets, which correlates to a trend among Black entrepreneurs in 2024. Perry would undercharge for his services, and so do more than half of Black-owned small businesses, the recent QuickBooks poll found.

"What I realized that I had to do is give a discount so that I could grow the business, so that I could make people know what it is. So that every deal, [the pay] will get better and better and better," Perry said.

His advice to other Black business owners who are undercharging is to think about how they can use that pricing to grow awareness, so they can be more successful in the long run.

"Start with 'OK, I've got to grow it. This is the hand I'm dealt, and I'm gonna play it the best I can,'" Perry said. "And I promise you, I'm a living witness that you can play it so well, that it will rival and equal everything that anybody else has done in the business."

Give back

For Perry, giving back is part of his creative work as well as his business philosophy.

When it comes to his audience, he's writing and portraying roles the way that he and other members of the Black community experience them. Representation is a way he gives back through his work.

"When I'm writing a story about a woman or Black woman, I can easily tap into things my mother and my sisters went through. Their struggles, their pain. So, I'm able to really lean in toward some of my experiences at my mother's apron," Perry explained.

Building a loyal customer or fan base begins with just one person having a phenomenal experience with your business, he noted. You can encourage that positive experience with the way you show up for and treat them.

"As people are coming into your doors as customers or our employees, they're coming in with a need," Perry said. "And if you can meet that need and see them — people just want to be seen. If you can see them, you will build a customer base that will be with you forever."

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People just want to be seen. If you can see them, you will build a customer base that will be with you forever.

Perry lives by a reap-what-you-sow philosophy, and his mission is to sow goodness by helping others. Now that his business has grown, Perry has been able to give back to others financially, helping people who might be in situations that remind him of his early entrepreneurial years. 

"If you have 10 cents to help somebody — even though you only have the 10 — if you can give them five, do it," Perry advised. "Those are the things that I did, and I saw that keep coming in my life over and over and over again until I was able to get to a place where I didn't need credit. I became the lender."

If you missed the live fireside chat with Perry, you can watch the replay of Intuit QuickBooks + Mailchimp Black History Month event on YouTube.

*Poll methodology: Intuit QuickBooks commissioned an online survey completed in January 2024 of 1,500 Black small business owners and 1,500 non-Black small business owners (adults aged 18+) throughout Canada. Nine in 10 (91%) Black business owners surveyed had 1-100 employees and 9% had no employees. Overall, 47% of Black respondents were male while 53% were female. One in 10 (10%) Black respondents were Gen Z, 75% were Millennial, 9% were Gen X, and 5% were Baby Boomers. Percentages have been rounded to the nearest decimal place so values shown in data report charts and graphics may not add up to 100%. Responses were collected using Pollfish audience pools and partner networks with double opt-ins, random device engagement sampling, and post-stratification based on census data to ensure accurate targeting and results. Respondents received remuneration.

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