Some pioneers are well-known.
Everyone in the extended UCLA family should be familiar with the saga of one of the school's most prominent alumni: Jackie Robinson. It was Robinson who broke major league baseball's "color-barrier" when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Today, the school's baseball stadium bears his name.
The name Henry 'Hank' Wilfong ('60) may not be as familiar as Robinson's. But Wilfong fought similar battles and in his own field, broke similar ground. This May, Wilfong was honored for his accomplishments in business and for his leadership in the civil rights movement when he was inducted into the Minority Business Hall of Fame at a ceremony on May 8 at the J.D. Morgan Center at UCLA. Specifically, the honor recognizes his efforts to support minority-owned businesses and increase supplier diversity for nearly fifty years.
Wilfong graduated in the top twenty percent of his class at UCLA in 1958. He was a Korean War veteran and a star athlete. Aiming to become a CPA, he interviewed with the "Big Eight" accounting firms, but each firm refused to hire him since he was African-American.
Ultimately, Wilfong received an offer from a partner at one of these firms who told him it was time they ended their ban on black employees. He was elated since the job would help him meet the requirements for becoming a certified public accountant (CPA). Within a week, though, the firm's national office forced the Los Angeles branch to rescind its offer. They told him the firm did not want to be the first in the Big Eight to hire a black professional.
Bitterly disappointed, Wilfong opted to use the G.I. Bill to earn his MBA at UCLA. Soon after graduation, he received an offer to join Kenneth Leventhal and Company, an accounting firm involved in the real estate industry. Around the same time, Wilfong joined a number of civil rights organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
While Wilfong was still earning his CPA, the NAACP planned a demonstration against a whites-only housing development in the Los Angeles area owned by one of Leventhal's largest clients. "I went to Mr. Leventhal and told him I had to participate even if I had to find a new job," he says. His employer backed him and even convinced the client to respect that Wilfong was standing up for his beliefs.
In 1965, Wilfong and a partner started their own firm, Wilfong and Gerstenfeld. But the Watts Riots that same year transformed Wilfong into a community leader. Eventually, he told his partners he was leaving to start a CPA firm to serve the black community. "I wanted to provide opportunities for people who looked like me," he says.
In the wake of the Watts Riots, members of the black community in urban areas around the country rose up to demand economic and educational opportunities. The Black Panther Party formed in Oakland in 1966 and used the threat of violence to advance a broad agenda including food, job, education and business development programs. Wilfong joined the Panthers and used his professional skills to support these programs in Los Angeles.
In the early seventies, the Panthers invited Wilfong to Oakland. "With my background and the support of the Panthers, we began bringing financial stability to the black community," he says. "We audited the 25 largest Community Action Projects (CAP) in the country. We also won the contract to audit the Oakland School District. My firm was able to compete with the Big Eight CPA firms."
Wilfong faced rough urban challenges other firms would not touch. "For much of my professional life," he says, "I had a .357 Magnum hanging under my arm and a .25 Automatic with hollow-point shells in my boot. Because of where we went and what we did, you better be prepared in case something happened."
In the early '70s, Wilfong's firm audited a community agency in Oakland accused of embezzling funds. After five of his auditors were run off at gunpoint, Wilfong visited the organization with some fellow Panthers. One of the agency leaders displayed a hand gun, but Wilfong opened his leather jacket to reveal his weapon. The agency backed down and caused no further trouble.
Wilfong's firm, Wilfong, Morris, Rusk and Company, continued to grow and he saw a transition coming for the black community. "I was able to convince people they didn't have to rely on guns to cause things to happen. I told them that you could, in spite of your blackness, be accepted into society by standing on your merits and they started seeing things that way."
Wilfong realized that the Republican Party wanted to work with the black community so, prior to the 1972 Presidential Election, he opened a field office for the Richard Nixon Campaign in his hometown of Pasadena, CA. "Pasadena would not have supported a black CPA firm economically at the time," he says. "People warned us to move the office to Los Angeles, and our front window got blown out by a shotgun the first night, but we opened the office back up and nobody bothered us."
Through his support for the party, Wilfong was invited to Washington D.C. where he met with Nixon advisors on new programs to assist minority entrepreneurs. In 1973, the Republican Party supported Wilfong's election to the Pasadena City Council. During this time, he received a federal grant of $12,000 to start the National Association of Minority CPA Firms. "I was able to pull a lot of minority firms together," he recalls.
When Ronald Reagan became President, his advisor Lyn Nofziger recruited Wilfong to run the Minority Small Business Program. He also served on The Presidential Task Force on International Private Enterprise. "Republicans understand business better than Democrats," he says.
After leaving the Reagan Administration in 1985, Wilfong returned to California and became a consultant. The aerospace firm TRW asked him to help develop a small business program in the private sector, so Wilfong spent two years working with TRW vice president Dan Goldin to do this. When Goldin was appointed Administrator of NASA, he called on Wilfong who created what President Clinton later called the "epitome of government small business programs."
After serving on the Bush/Cheney transition team and advising the George W. Bush Administration on small business programs, Wilfong and his wife Wyllene retired to Savannah, GA. But he quickly came out of retirement to start a telephone show called the Wilfong Hour on which he encourages entrepreneurs all over the country.
In addition, Wilfong and his wife wanted to do something special for the community he now calls home. "Savannah is sixty percent black," he says, "but they control far less of the local economy. So we started something we call the Center of Excellence. It's about educating people who grow up in Savannah but don't see any opportunity here. We bring best practices in workforce development here to Savannah." The center holds seminars in which local residents network and hear the success stories of minority business leaders from across the country.
Wilfong is pleased to have helped many small businesses over the years, but he continues to focus on the future where he thinks talented minority entrepreneurs will continue to level the playing field and seize opportunities. "There are some awesome people coming up and they are doing things I'm going to be proud of," he says.