The Wall Street Journal published a beautifully memorable eulogy of Jolyn Robichaux this week. At the age of 88, she died a month ago of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in Lewisville, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. (Link is unavailable.)
Robichaux grew up in the Depression, took over her family’s ice cream business upon the death of her husband in 1971, and then – upon selling the successful enterprise in 1992 – finally realized her dream by living in Paris and managing gospel concerts.
She grew up in Cairo, Illinois, as the daughter of a dentist. Her father’s customers, “both black and white, often paid him with hams, other food or homemade root beer rather than cash. He also owned a hamburger stand and a movie theater,” writes James Hagerty. “Her mother, the former Margaret Love, ran a beauty shop called the Vanity Box.”
“She attended a Roman Catholic grade school and the town’s only high school for blacks, where she graduated at age 16 as the valedictorian,” reports Hagerty. Her father died prior to her attending Fisk University in Nashville. She finished her education at Chicago State University.
As a golfer, she played in U.S. tournaments, as well as in Europe and Africa. Her husband Joseph Robichaux coached track and basketball and was active in Chicago’s Democratic Party. He purchased the Baldwin Ice Cream Company in 1967.
It was never Robichaux’s plan to lead Baldwin. But upon her husband’s death, the responsibility fell upon her shoulders. “At that time, the company sold ice cream at its own parlors and at independent grocers in African-American neighborhoods,” reports Hagerty.
“Ms. Robichaux improved efficiency at the company and gradually won sales to large grocery chains, expanding distribution from the Chicago area to several surrounding states,” writes Hagerty. “In 1985, the Reagan administration honored her as National Minority Entrepreneur of the Year. She traveled to Washington to receive the award from Vice President George H.W. Bush.”
Baldwin was “founded in the early 1920s as Seven Links Ice Cream Co. by seven African-American postal workers,” reports Hagerty. “It had a South Side ice-cream parlor where customers could watch ice cream being made.”
After the death of her husband, Ms. Robichaux scrambled to learn the business, set goals for all the employees, and establish her leadership. “Wholesale sales grew as she persuaded more supermarket chains to carry her ice cream, and not just in African-American neighborhoods,” wrote Hagerty.
During a trip to Paris with a group of female entrepreneurs in 1985, Robichaux was convinced she needed to live in the City of Lights. Upon the sale of her company in 1992, she sold her car, house, and jewelry in order to move to France.
“She spent two months at a French-language school near Nice, then moved into a furnished apartment on the Rue du Chemin Vert in Paris,” reported the Journal. She spent her days visiting art museums and meeting new friends. “A staff member at the American Cathedral in Paris asked her to promote a gospel concert there,” Hagerty reports. “The success of that project spurred her to set up a business organizing concerts by American gospel singers.”
“I was destined to live in Paris,” she wrote in her unpublished autobiography, “and it was in Paris that I finally experienced peace.”
She eventually moved to the Dallas area to live near her children and granddaughter. RIP Jolyn Robichaux.