Operation Hope Celebrates 30 Years of Advancing Financial Empowerment As it Sets New Black Wealth Agenda

Operation Hope Celebrates 30 Years of Advancing Financial Empowerment As it Sets New Black Wealth Agenda

Roughly 30 years ago, South Central Los Angeles went up in flames.

Several days of rioting sparked on April 29, 1992, in response to the acquittal of four white policemen tied to the brutal beating of Rodney King, an unarmed Black motorist, a year earlier. The vicious beating was caught on film and eventually aired on networks for the entire nation to witness. Within hours of the announcement of the acquittal from the jury—which did not have a single Black juror—Los Angeles was engulfed in one of the worst civil disruptions in American history: with 50 people killed, more than 2,300 injured and about 1,100 damaged buildings at the cost of about $1 billion. Among its most devastated communities: South Central L.A.

From those ashes rose an organization committed to economic empowerment and social justice. That thrust was voiced by enterprising John Hope Bryant when he founded Operation HOPE Inc. on May 5 of that year to change the status of legions locked in poverty. He began his campaign to move “from civil rights in the streets to silver rights in the suites” with a Bankers Bus tour to encourage investment within low-income communities by taking a small group of financial executives throughout distressed areas of L.A, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, among other urban hubs.

Over the past three decades, Bryant has built the largest nonprofit dedicated to financial education and building partnerships with some of the nation’s financial services leviathans to meet its mission: Helping the poor and disenfranchised gain pathways to opportunity and wealth.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Annual Hope Global Forums held at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta in the ballroom where Martin Luther King, Jr. launched the final campaign of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, months before an assassin’s bullet slew the civil rights leader. It was the first in-person gathering since the pandemic and two years after the slaying of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers—this time, the act of police misconduct was captured on video via cell phone, viewed throughout the globe in real-time, and initiated a renewed call for an end to systemic discrimination and a series of corporate equity pledges.

Operation HOPE
(Image: Courtesy of Operation HOPE)

This year’s event not only celebrated Operation HOPE’s three decades of achievements of serving more than 4 million individuals and directing more than $3.2 billion in economic activity into underserved communities nationwide, but it also sought to set the wealth agenda for Black Americans for 2023—and beyond. The Forum boasted roughly 5,000 delegates from 40 countries and included more than 1 million online viewers. Bryant asserts that the largest event of its kind has been designed “to reimagine the global economy, so the benefits and opportunities of free enterprise are extended to everyone.”

As with previous forums, it presented an eclectic group of powerhouse speakers such as civil rights legend Ambassador Andrew Young, Bishop T.D. Jakes, rapper-entrepreneur Killer Mike, SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman, MSNBC President Rashida Jones, Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastien, former Chief of Staff for Donald Trump, Mick Mulvaney, NASCAR President Steve Phelps, NBA Hall of Famer and entrepreneur Grant Hill, and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), who had recently won a full term after defeating Republican and former Dallas Cowboys running back Herschel Walker in a contentious run-off election.

Under the theme, “Bridging The Divide, “this year’s forum focused on finding solutions through wealth-building strategies, inclusive economics, and across-the-board equitable access. “The next move is about opportunity. The first Reconstruction in the 1800s focused on freedom. The second Reconstruction in the 1960s was about access. The third Reconstruction—2020 to 2030—will be about opportunity,” Bryant told the audience in the jam-packed ballroom. “You’re living in a moment of history.”

“Homeownership is the No. 1 way to build wealth”

That quote from Bryant summed up the wealth-building discussion—and for good reason. The yawning homeownership divide between Black and white families is now wider than it was more than 60 years ago, according to US Census Data. In 2022, 74.6% of white households owned homes versus 45.3% of Black households, a gap of more than 29 points. In 1960, the white homeownership rate was 65%, compared to the Black rate at 38%, a 27-point gap—before the 1968 Fair Housing Act and other civil rights legislation were enacted to remedy housing discrimination and create equitable opportunities.

During the opening plenary, Bryant interviewed Kristy Fercho, Wells Fargo’s Head of Diverse Segments, Representation and Inclusion, about the expansion of Black homeownership. Without further elaboration, Bryant mentioned that Wells Fargo, a long-time sponsor, “has a complicated history” and that he has held conversations with its CEO Charles W. Scharf about the bank’s corrective action in recent years.

Fercho maintains the main reasons she agreed to join the bank in 2021, a year after the George Floyd tragedy: “I want to put more Blacks in homes. Homeownership is still the single largest purchase we will make [and] still the best pathway we have to generational wealth.” Fercho says she has taken the lead in the development and execution of the bank’s $150 million program to help roughly 60,000 Black customers refinance their homes and reduce their mortgage rates.

Among the commitments Fercho announced was the creation of 120 new HOPE Inside locations to offer financial education services to enable community members to boost savings, improve credit scores, and shrink debt to convert more renters into homeowners.

Operation HOPE currently has 200 such locations that provide financial counseling at various branches and workplaces of banking and corporate partners, including Bank of America, Truist, Synchrony, Delta, and UPS, among scores of others.

To meet the homeownership mandate, Bank of America has also pledged Operation Hope to provide free financial counseling in 180 financial centers across 17 U.S. markets.

Bryant also brought together business leaders to discuss financial education’s value and ensure that youth—from K-college—can learn about money matters as an academic requirement. Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon serves as Financial Literacy For All co-chair, which Bryant launched as a joint initiative with the big box retailer, Bank of America, Disney, and other corporations.

Strengthening Black businesses

Operation HOPE announced the continued expansion of its 1 Million Black Business (1MBB) initiative and has supported more than 155,000 unique businesses through its HOPE Inside network and 1MBB partners. According to the soon-to-be-released 1MBB 2022 Impact Report, the program has helped about 5% of all Black-owned businesses in the U.S. thus far.

Through its alliance with Shopify, Operation Hope launched the initiative in October 2020 to help create and support up to 1 million new Black-owned businesses by 2030. Shopify committed resources valued at approximately $130 million. In addition, Operation HOPE has built a coalition of more than 60 other corporate, government, and private partners, including SBA, the NFL, MasterCard, Comcast, and Clark Atlanta University.

The Forum also featured the second annual 1MBB Pitch Competition, featuring four innovative Black entrepreneurs who shared their personal and business journeys for the opportunity to win a total of $50,000. Operation Hope and Shopify developed the competition, with PayPal as its title sponsor.

Following a nationwide competition, the 2nd annual 1MBB pitch finalists were Kalene McElveen, owner of Tastefull Vegan Frozen Desserts, which took first-place honors with a $2,500 grant from Shopify and $15,000 from PayPal; Jazmin Richards, founder and CEO of BLK Sunflowers. A candle manufacturer,  which gained second place and a $2,500 grant from Shopify and $10,000 from PayPal; Joshua Dixon, founder and designer of apparel maker Admire Wear, who won a $2,500 grant from Shopify and $8,000 from PayPal; and Stacy Howell, owner of Woodhouse Spa, who took home a $2,500 grant from Shopify and $7,000 from PayPal.

In Bryant’s conversation with Jakes, the senior pastor of the Dallas-based megachurch Potters House applauded the need to launch and support Black entrepreneurial endeavors. Still, he asserted the need for Black firms to scale up for greater impact as viable employment and investment sources.

“One of the problems with our businesses is that they have two to three employees at most. They’re so busy doing the work, they’re not thinking about the business,” says Jakes. “I have to strategize the business. I have to integrate the business. They don’t understand the difference between busyness and business.”

Bryant and Operation HOPE will continue emphasizing the most vital plank for the next wealth agenda: Opportunity.