Updated: Oct 5
An entrepreneur is trying to narrow the racial wealth gap through a nonprofit that teaches financial literacy, improves credit scores and facilitates loans.
By the time John Hope Bryant was 9, he knew he needed to get out of Compton. He had already lost a friend to murder and watched drug dealers kill his uncle. The only multistory office building in his Los Angeles neighborhood was a courthouse, he recalls, and the only white people were aggressive cops and a few teachers. Everywhere he looked, he saw dead ends.
Then something happened that changed his life. Every week for a month, a white banker in a natty suit and red tie came to Mr. Bryant’s fourth-grade class to lecture about credit, debt, interest and savings. “It was like this guy came from Mars,” he recalls over the phone from his home in Atlanta. When he mustered the courage to ask the lecturer how he got rich legally, the man explained that he was a banker who financed entrepreneurs. “I never heard that word before, but I decided that’s what I would become—an entrepreneur,” Mr. Bryant says. “That’s my way out.”
Mr. Bryant, 54, now works to offer a similar way out to others. His nonprofit organization, Operation Hope, teaches financial literacy, improves credit scores and facilitates loans for people who, in his words, “have got too much month for their money.” He notes that more than 70% of American workers lived paycheck to paycheck even before the pandemic, and only around six in 10 could afford a surprise $400 expense. “These problems are real,” he says. “We can do something about it.”
Mr. Bryant is particularly concerned that, according to the Urban Institute, around four in five Black households, and half of all white ones, have a FICO credit score below 700. “With that score, you can’t get a small-business loan or buy a car or get a decent mortgage,” he says.
People who can’t affordably save or invest have a hard time translating income into wealth, which is partly why the racial wealth gap is not just wide but yawning: A median white family had more than 10 times the wealth of the median Black family in 2016, according to the Federal Reserve. It is no coincidence, Mr. Bryant says, that states with large populations of low-income people of color, such as Alabama and Mississippi, are particularly awash in check cashers and payday lenders. “Financial creditors are preying on these people,” he says. “Basically, those who have access to capital, education, financial literacy and good role models are going to win. Those who don’t stay poor.”
Over its nearly 30 years, Operation Hope estimates that it has helped clients start more than 2,000 small businesses and get more than $1.95 billion in mortgage loans. The organization has delivered financial coaching and education courses to 1.8 million adults and has joined with more than 2,000 schools and community groups to teach banking and entrepreneurship to over a million young people. In 2017, Mr. Bryant also launched the Promise Homes Company, which offers residents free financial counseling as well as discounts and gift cards when they raise their credit scores or pay rent on time.
“They do a fantastic job of helping everybody in the community get out of cycles of debt and move their lives forward,” says Bryan Jordan, CEO of First Horizon National Corporation, a financial services company based in Memphis, Tenn., and one of Operation Hope’s many partners. Operation Hope staffers now work inside 30 First Horizon facilities, and Mr. Jordan says that there are plans to introduce more.
For much of his young life, Mr. Bryant’s own success in getting ahead made him dismissive of complaints of racism in business and finance. By the age of 10, he had his own candy business. As a teenager, he sought a job as a busboy at Geoffrey’s, an upscale Malibu restaurant, just so he could learn tricks of the trade from Harvey Baskin, the owner. Mr. Bryant’s eagerness to get out into the world made him impatient with school; he earned a C in math and ended up with a GED. But he knew how to work hard, and he had a knack for charming moguls into becoming his mentors.
After trying his hand at selling clothes and promoting concerts, Mr. Bryant spent six months living in his jeep, writing business plans by flashlight. Success came when he was in his early 20s. Mr. Bryant acquired a mortgage-lending company he had been brokering deals for (“They owed me a bunch of money”) and turned it into Bryant Group Ventures, a real estate finance business.
“I was well on my way to becoming an arrogant prick, blaming poverty on the poor,” Mr. Bryant recalls. Then in 1992, a largely white jury acquitted the white Los Angeles police officers who had viciously beaten Rodney King. As Mr. Bryant watched his city burn, he felt moved to acknowledge the role that racism still played in holding people back. “The Rodney King riots was my baptism,” he says. “These were problems no one was trying to solve because they involved Black people in South Central L.A.”
While the city was still smoldering, Mr. Bryant asked some bankers he had worked with to join him on a bus tour of South Central. “These were rich, white people who realized they’d driven by this neighborhood every day and never went in,” he says. The bankers talked to residents and sketched a plan on a paper bag to rebuild a pharmacy that had been destroyed. “That was the founding of Operation Hope,” Mr. Bryant says. “While everyone was talking about what to do, I went and brokered the first rebuilding commitment that actually changed someone’s life.”
Early critics claimed Operation Hope allowed bankers to swan through an annual bus tour of blighted neighborhoods without offering explicit commitments. The organization, which gets its funding from banks, corporations, financial-service companies and foundations, now boasts stronger ties with banks and has more staff coaches inside churches, community centers and financial institutions. “My operational philosophy is that it is better to do something now and upgrade the software as you go,” Mr. Bryant says. His approach was persuasive enough to convince both George W. Bush and Barack Obama to appoint him to federal boards engaged in spreading financial literacy. In 2009, he moved his operations to Atlanta, where Andrew Young, the civil-rights leader and former mayor, argued he would have more impact.
In this grim time, when both Covid-19 and a spate of killings of Black Americans have forced a reckoning over structural racism in American life, Mr. Bryant sees reason for hope. “This is a real moment of change,” he says. “Folks I’ve been trying to get on the phone for 28 years are now calling me.”
Mr. Bryant notes that many of the federal programs designed to help small businesses during the pandemic, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, failed to reach most Black-owned businesses because fewer than 5% have paid employees. “In many ways, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer,” he says. The U.S., he argues, needs ensured access to financial literacy, a college education and a living wage—a recovery blueprint he calls a New Marshall Plan.
“This time is different,” Mr. Bryant says. “People are realizing societies don’t crater from the top down but from the bottom in, and this country can’t afford to let so many Americans fail.” Real change, he adds, often comes from bleak times. “Rainbows follow storms.”