6 Money Lessons From African-American Leaders

Before the early 20th century, black history was largely ignored by both historians and the general public. As a result, many great lessons imparted by African-American leaders were also ignored and overlooked.

In particular, African-American leaders of the past and present offer a great deal of insight on money and finance that can inspire and enlighten all Americans. Read on to learn the financial lessons these great Americans can teach you.

Oprah Winfrey

"Everyone wants to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down."

The Lesson

Oprah Winfrey is one of the richest people in America, which means she is well aware of how money, fame, and success can draw people to you. But the trappings of success, like a limousine, are just that — trappings. There is no guarantee that the success, money, and acclaim you have now will last, which means you can't trust the people who are only there because of the appearance of your success.

Just as Oprah has her Gayle, who will always happily hop on a bus with her when things go wrong, you should seek people who love and respect you for who you are, and not what you have.

Mellody Hobson

"If you understand how money can work for and against you, you can make better decisions. Financial literacy is not about wealth but about understanding money regardless of the amount. It's about how you treat it and how you maximize opportunities."

The Lesson

Mellody Hobson, the president of Ariel Investments, may be best known by lay audiences for the two TED talks she gave in 2014 and 2015. She is an advocate for both greater diversity in corporate culture and for increased financial literacy. And she truly believes that we can all learn to handle our money better, no matter how much or how little we have. It's a lesson all Americans need to absorb if we want to improve our financial lives.

According to Jackie Cummings Koski, financial educator and author of the book Money Letters 2 My Daughter, Hobson's words and example have made a major difference in her life: "Learning about how Mellody Hobson rose to tremendous success in the business and financial world helped to change my mindset about money and overcoming the odds."

That mindset change is exactly what Hobson wants for all Americans, so that we can all maximize the opportunities in our lives.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which makes philanthropy necessary."

The Lesson

This quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can sound somewhat radical to modern ears, since we are not used to thinking beyond the importance of giving back to those in need. But as Dr. King points out, if economic injustice were eradicated, then charity and philanthropy would not be so necessary. It's easy for philanthropists to simply pat themselves on the back for their philanthropy, rather than wrestle with the systemic reasons why their generosity is necessary.

To take Dr. King's message to heart, we should all remember that the problem of poverty is not over after we write a check to help those who are less fortunate. We need to also question our assumptions and challenge ourselves to make economic choices that align with our values.

Madam C.J. Walker

"I had little or no opportunity when I started out in life. I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! ... Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them!"

The Lesson

Sarah Breedlove, who marketed herself and her hair products under the name Madam C.J. Walker, was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. Walker's hair care empire all started when she created home remedies to deal with a scalp disorder that caused her to lose much of her hair. She began selling her remedy, which eventually grew into a national business that included factories, beauty schools, and trained sales beauticians who sold door-to-door.

Walker was a single mother when she started her business, and she had little education and no experience as an entrepreneur. Yet, she recognized that she could build something great from what she knew — how to help herself and other women with hair care. She did not wait for someone else to help her or offer her a job, but instead decided to become an innovative businesswoman on her own.

We should all learn to create our own opportunities using our strengths like Madam C.J. Walker did, rather than wait for opportunities to find us.

W.C. Handy

"Then I saw the beauty of primitive music. They had the stuff the people wanted … my idea of what constitutes music was changed by the sight of that silver money cascading around the splay feet of a Mississippi string band." - Father of the Blues, An Autobiography

The Lesson

Composer and musician W.C. Handy is known as the "Father of the Blues," but he did not start writing and playing blues music until well after he had established himself as a composer. In fact, he did not think of the blues as legitimate music, because it was "just" the songs that poor black folks would play for themselves. Then at a performance for a rich, white audience in Mississippi, a string blues band was brought in off the street to play, and the audience showered the black performers with money.

Handy realized in that moment that he had been overlooking an important musical style because of snobbery, and that he was the right person to bring this musical style to the world. Handy was wise enough to recognize that he could give the people what they wanted — blues music — and make a profit from his own considerable talent.

His example reminds us that capitalism can influence art in a wonderful way, rather than being an enemy of creativity. Had Handy not had his realization upon seeing the audience reaction to the string blues band, an entire genre of music would potentially be lost to history.

Lynette Khalfani-Cox

"So, getting your money right matters well beyond saying, 'Oh, I had [so much money] in the bank.' It's about financial freedom to make the choices you want. It's about having a more stress-free life in what is an increasingly stressful world. And it's ultimately about feeling like you're in control of things as well, so that things don't feel so...out of whack." - So Money podcast with Farnoosh Torabi

The Lesson

We have a tendency to think that paying attention to our money is a stressful drag, but financial expert Lynette Khalfani-Cox, "The Money Coach," understands that letting your money fall into chaos is much more stressful. She knows whereof she speaks: Khalfani-Cox once had $100,000 in credit card debt, before paying it all off in three years and turning her financial life around.

Seeing how a self-described former shopaholic like Khalfani-Cox could quickly learn to be more mindful of her money and succeed in a career in finance is incredibly inspirational, particularly for other women of color. Real estate investor Lisa Phillips says of Khalfani-Cox, "Until you really see someone of your same color and culture succeeding, that's when hope becomes conviction that you can do something."

Khalfani-Cox works to make sure we all feel more in control of our lives, so that we can all feel the conviction that we can achieve our goals.

Honoring the Lessons of African-American Leaders

The lessons from African-American leaders throughout our history can inspire anyone to work toward their goals, recognize their values, and know their worth. Their words can help you change your money mindset, turn hope into conviction, and recognize that opportunities come to those who seek them.

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6 Money Lessons From African-American Leaders

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