If Bill Gates were black, it would be less important that President Barack Obama is black. This is no slight to President Obama. It is an acknowledgment that while the route to success has changed, for too many in the black and minority community, their game plan has not.
For much of the past century, African Americans pursued social justice through government intervention, the ballot box, and ultimately elective office. While the number of black mayors and elected officials in this country is impressive, the number of black entrepreneurs is not. As a result, job creation in underserved communities, and among the black middle class, is stagnant.
The main driver of freedom in the world today is not the vote but access to capital. When I speak of capital, I obviously mean financial capital, but I also mean the Latin root word capitas, or “knowledge in the head.” That means financial literacy education, financial capability, and financial and economic empowerment.
Financial literacy is the new civil rights issue. Or, put another way: If you don’t understand the global language of money, and if you don’t have a bank or credit union account, you are simply an economic slave.
What Black America needs is a business image of itself that matches its political image. It needs images of black prosperity that have been attained through hard work, a level playing field, and inspired innovation, leading to products people want to buy. Sure we need jobs, but what we really need are more people like Steve Jobs—or Bill Gates.
Doing this would enable black communities to enjoy the ripple effects we see in Silicon Valley, Cambridge, Mass. (around MIT), Salt Lake City, and other hubs of mainstream entrepreneurship. We might then build a culture of philanthropy that extends beyond the church and embraces the idea that our goal is to give back and foster excellence among the next generation.
What about Oprah Winfrey as that role model? She is a billionaire who has changed the game in her industry and has done more than her part to make this planet a better place. But what I’m dreaming about is a young entrepreneur who creates tens of thousands of jobs, whose products become integral to the fabric of business, whose success makes young men and women appreciate the merits of school. When kids see these entrepreneurs, they think “being smart is cool; maybe I need to stay in school.” We need to reconnect our American education with America’s aspiration.
At Operation HOPE, we are launching a 700 Credit Score initiative for communities where average credit scores of 500 to 550 doom them to the indignity of predatory subprime lenders, check cashers, title lenders, payday loans, and rent-to-own-stores. We’re also teaching underserved youth financial literacy, along with a primer in entrepreneurship, seeding hope with 25 businesses that any youth can start with $500 or less. We call this HOPE Business-In-A-Box. This is what we need more of—now.
As we move deeper into the election season, let’s not focus on the fact that President Obama is black. Let’s shift the conversation to what would happen if Bill Gates were black? That’s hope you can bank on.