Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey

As humans evolved from apes, brain size nearly tripled in just the last 4 million years, from 500 cm3 in Australopithecenes to 800 cm3 in Homo habilis to 1000 cm3 in Homo erectus to about 1350 cm3 in modern Homo sapiens (higher in the developed world where nutrition is good), as evolution selected for intelligence…the cognitive ability to adapt: to take whatever situation you’re in, and turn it around to your advantage. Since humans lacked the adaptive strength, speed, claws, and fur of other animals, we needed large brains to use behavior in an adaptive advantageous way.

With a cranial capacity of perhaps 2,029 cm3, Oprah has just adapted her situation to her advantage, by buying a 10% share in Weight Watchers, and watching the stock roughly triple in a few days, making her potentially $100 million richer in only 36 hours.

This type of power been dubbed the Oprah effect, and was part of the reason Time magazine crowned Oprah the most influential woman on the planet. When she famously vowed to never eat another burger, beef prices plummeted, when she endorsed a work of literature, it zoomed up the best seller list, when she plucked Dr. Phil out of obscurity, he became America’s top psychologist, and when she endorsed Barack Obama, he became the first black president of the United States.

It’s one thing for Oprah to have influence over the overweight soccer moms that watched her hugely successful daytime talk show that ran from 1986-2011, but now she seems to have parlayed her influence into even Wall-street clout, even though Oprah’s touchy-feely new age spirituality is the last thing cynical young white male Wall-street traders would be swayed by.

But they respect her money and power. People respect success, even when it comes in a form they don’t respect.

Meanwhile authoritative Forbes magazine just released their 2015 list of the 400 richest Americans, and you now need an astonishing $1.7 billion just to make last place. It used to be that the billionaire club was much more exclusive than the Forbes 400, but these days, being a billionaire is no longer rich enough for the Forbes 400.

With a net-worth of $3 billion (before the Weight Watchers investment), Oprah is still the only multi-billionaire black in North American history, but she’s no longer the only black on the Forbes 400. She’s been joined by private equity titan Robert Smith who has $2.5 billion.


Smith appears to come from a far higher socio-economic background than Oprah (his father was a PhD, Oprah’s father was a barber and her mother a maid on and off welfare) and unlike Oprah who used to be a bit of a technophobe, Smith was a high tech geek. Forbes writes:

As a junior at Denver’s East High School in the 1970s, Robert F. Smith showed a fascination for the geekiest subject there: Computer science. The transistor held particular wonder for him. This small device, a crucial valve controlling the flow of electrons within a computer, had been invented at Bell Labs. Bell had a nearby office. Maybe he should work at Bell, too.

After securing the number, Smith phoned and inquired about a summer internship. Yes, Bell did have one, he learned, but only college upperclassmen could apply. Smith had straight A’s in math and computer science. Would that count? No, Bell said, it would not. Undaunted by this initial rejection, Smith called back every day for two weeks—HR stopped answering after Day 2—and then cut back on how often he called …to every Monday for five months. Eventually, he was rewarded for his doggedness. After an MIT student didn’t show up in June, Bell called Smith. Could he come in for an interview?

The above anecdote shows that in addition to high IQ, persistence is a hugely important factor in becoming rich. It’s not just about dumb luck, as many people will have us believe. Those who become rich tend to create their own opportunities and then very skillfully exploit them.

I don’t think there’s ever been more than two blacks on the Forbes 400 at any given year, and often there’s only one. Despite being 13.6% of America, blacks are always 0.25% to 0.5% of the Forbes 400, though this may change in the next generation as some of these black billionaires pass on their fortune to children.

Interestingly, America now even has a third black billionaire. Basketball star Michael Jordan is now the third richest African American and recently became the first billionaire athlete in history, but he was not quite rich enough to make the Forbes 400. It is interesting that he recently lashed out at President Obama:

I suspect Jordan, who was at one time perhaps the most worshiped black man in America, resents seeing another black man (Obama), also from Chicago, dethrone him in status by becoming the first black president. Jordan probably subconsciously thinks that as a man of extreme height and athletic talent, he is the one who everyone should worship, and not someone like Obama who Jordan seems to view as an unworthy successor.

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