Speaker: Financial Literacy is the ‘Civil Rights Issue of This Generation’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – John Hope Bryant says the Mahoning Valley has all the ingredients and grit to rebuild itself, just as he did.

One achieves this through financial literacy, inclusion and diversity — tools that can empower individuals and entire communities to realize their greatest potential, he said.

“This area can be re-imagined,” the entrepreneur told The Business Journal shortly after speaking to students at Youngstown State University Thursday as part of the Thomas Colloquium on Free Enterprise. “Let’s look at everything as a possibility, not a problem.”

Bryant should know. As a Black youth who grew up mostly in Compton in Los Angeles County during the 1970s, he often encountered drug dealers who ruled the streets.

By the age of nine, he had already survived a troubled home life, watched his family’s possessions dwindle to nothing because of his father’s poor financial decisions, witnessed one murder, and mourned one of his best friends who was killed by a drug dealer.

“Prison, probation, parole, death,” he told a crowded auditorium at YSU’s Williamson College of Business Administration. “That just cannot be the business plan for my neighborhood. There’s got to be a better way.”

That same year, a Bank of America representative stopped into his classroom to talk about financial literacy.

Bryant recalls being impressed with his white shirt, his smart dark suit, and that his office was on the 16th floor. For a nine-year old African- American kid from a tough neighborhood, the only other adult Bryant knew that wore a suit was a detective “and it was a really bad suit,” he said.

“I said to him, ‘Sir, excuse me. What do you do for a living and how’d you get rich legally?’” The man replied he was a banker and he financed entrepreneurs.

Bryant had never heard the word “entrepreneur” before, but the conversation changed his whole life. “I wanted to be one.”

He then opened his eyes to the small businesses in his neighborhood – a muffler shop, a shoe store, and a liquor store that also sold candy. When Bryant walked into the liquor store with suggestions about its candy selection, the owner hired him to sell sweets over the counter.

Bryant declined, noting he would instead prefer the more difficult job as a box boy. That way, he could inspect the inventory list, track the businesses’ wholesale suppliers and prices, and compute its markup for retail.

“I worked there three weeks and quit,” Bryant said. His mother lent him $40, Bryant purchased some inventory, and he began to sell candy on his way to school. Soon, the liquor store stopped selling confections altogether.

The following decade saw successes and failures, “mostly failures,” Bryant said. For six months at age 18, for example, he was homeless, living out of a Jeep.

“Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” he said.

It’s this sense of optimism and resiliency that has since propelled Bryant to great success. Over more than 30 years, he’s built 50 companies and organizations that range from digital marketing to real estate.

Most recently he was named one of Atlanta Business Chronicle’s “Most Influential Atlantans,” one of Georgia Trend Magazine’s “Notable Georgians” and one of LinkedIn’s “Top Voices.” Bryant was also recognized as one of the “Most Admired CEOs” in 2018, American Banker magazine 2016 “Innovator of the Year”, honorable mention for INC.’s “The World’s 10 Top CEOs,” and one of Time magazine’s “50 Leaders for the Future” in 1994.

Bryant is also an author, has worked with U.S. presidents from both political parties, and is an international sought-after public speaker.

He told students to strive for their own identity, and to “stop stressing yourself out trying to impress people who are not impressive.”

In 1992 at age 26, Bryant founded the nonprofit Operation Hope in the wake of the Los Angeles riots. Today, the organization is the largest non-profit, best-in-class provider of financial literacy and economic empowerment services in the United States.

“Financial literacy in my opinion is the Civil Rights issue of this generation,” he says. “I think if Dr. [Martin Luther] King were alive today, and he came to Youngstown, this is what he’d be talking about.”

Bryant says the frustration that splits the country today is largely born out of the lack of financial literacy. “When you look at almost any problem, underneath it is economic,” he said.

Low-income areas of the country share similar frustrations, whether they are Black inner city neighborhoods or poor rural communities with a mostly white population, Bryant said.

“The color we should really be talking about is green, not Black or white,” he said. “How do we create more pie for everybody?”

Inclusion and diversity is also critical to building wealth in neighborhoods, communities and the country, Bryant said. “All people prosper when GDP is expanded,” he said.

The wealthiest states in the country – California and New York – are also the country’s most ethnically diverse. “The best credit score and most diverse place in the American South is in Atlanta, the biggest economy in the American South is Atlanta,” he added. “That’s the power of economics.”

He said that 70% of Americans today live paycheck-to-paycheck, while 64% have less than $400 in their account to cover an unforeseen household event. This eventually leads to fear, stress, suspicion, and resentment.

Bryant says his efforts to boost financial literacy shouldn’t be relegated to lofty idealism, but rather seen as a practical way to address income inequality through the “magic of markets.”

In 2017, for example, Bryant combined his philosophy with business practices when he founded The Promise Homes Co. The idea is to provide affordable housing to residents – Bryant does not use the term renters – along with financial literacy services, rewards for on-time payments, and free financial coaching.

“If you improve your credit score to 700, I’d reduce your rent by 10%,” he said. More than half of the company’s contracting companies that provide maintenance and construction services are owned by women or minorities.

To date, the venture owns and rents 700 homes. “There is about $170 million in assets that didn’t exist in 2017.”

The results have been enormously positive, and Bryant plans to take the company national.

“If everybody has a shot at opportunity, if everybody can become an entrepreneur, if everybody has the rules of the game available to them, then there’s no need for resentment,” Bryant said.

“Literally, we’re better together.”

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.