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What America Needs Now: Financial Literacy, Entrepreneurship and a New Era of Jobs

Operation HOPE was one of many amazing partners in the 2011 White House Urban Entrepreneurship Summit. John Hope Bryant, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, addresses the next generation of urban entrepreneurs.

Today, what America needs now is the nurturing of a new generation of urban entrepreneurs who understand "the language of money," and particularly young urban entrepreneurs, small business owners and self-employment projects.  A young, empowered generation of silver rights leaders, on fire with hope, esteem and opportunity in their own lives.

The successful White House Urban Entrepreneurship Summit held on Monday, June 6th, 2011, in Newark, New Jersey, was a powerful start in the right direction, and I want to thank the Obama Administration, the Rutgers University Business School, Rutgers Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, Russell Simmons, Startup America, NYC Public Advocate, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and of course President Barack Obama, for making this summit vision real for people.  Operation HOPE, which serves under-served, urban and inner-city communities, was honored to be one of the co-host organizations for the summit.

America always finds her hidden strength in times like these.  The Great Depression was not only a period of unprecedented challenge and change it was also a period of incredible growth and innovation for a nation. Faced with the pain brought on by economic crisis, America responded by leaning forward, into the winds of change. And then we adapted, innovated, maneuvered around, over and through our problems and challenges.

We figured out what were for instead of what we were against, and then, for a time, we decided as a nation, that we could ill afford the words "can't" nor "impossible" in our aspirational dictionary. 

We found our second wind, and everyone decided to become contributors again. Everyone.  Frankly, there was little room for anything else.

This period ultimately ushered in what we know today as the modern Federal Reserve System, the creation of the FDIC, the very concept of retirement, which helped to ease the jobs crisis of the day, and what we commonly refer to today as the modern social safety net.  

All of this change, things that made America better, were born out of tough and difficult times.  Rainbows, after storms.  You cannot have a rainbow, without a storm first.

We are at this same crossroads, again.

It is said that leaders emerge in response to crisis. Well, this is our time.

Faced with an unprecedented financial and economic crisis, and in the world's first modern global economic crisis, President Barack Obama provided leadership, crafting and creating the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, led by Professor Elizabeth Warren. To address urban policy issues, he also created via an Executive Order the White House Office of Urban Affairs, led by Special Assistant to the President Derek Douglas.  Around small business policy initiatives two key Administration officials include SBA Deputy Administrator Marie Johns and the Executive Director of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness Don Graves.

This said, what Americans need now is not only financial protection, but financial and economic empowerment too. 

What inner-city America needs now, is a generation of urban entrepreneurs focused on creating local jobs.

Enter -- the President and the nation's new secret weapon. You and me.

It's Time for a New Movement

During the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his strategist Andrew Young and Dr. King's team, fought for and secured the needed support of and from the federal government; to enforce the law, and to protect the civil liberties of America's most vulnerable citizens. But the ultimate success of the movement relied on the power of the people themselves.  It relied on the power of everyday people, to take up their own right to vote, and to use it as a means of empowerment. 

Today, the challenge and the opportunity is no different, except today financial literacy is the new civil rights issue, for every American, urban entrepreneurship is the new silver rights empowerment tool, and today the issue is more about class than race. 

The Role of Government

The federal government can and should put adequate consumer protections in place but at the end of the day it is up to you and me to protect our family, and adopting financial literacy for all, and teaching our children "the language of money," at an early age, is a powerful partnership for change.

With fair and balanced financial protection, combined with passionate, practical and focused financial literacy empowerment, everyone wins, and further, we can make sure this crisis never happens again.

But we must move beyond just preventing bad things from happening, and move progressively towards an environment where creating new good things in their place is possible.  This is the enabling power that maybe, only the federal government has for a nation.  Creating, the right environment for growth.  Nurturing generation entrepreneurship.

The Role of You and Me

What America needs now are jobs, and financial literacy empowerment is the key to and through that door as well.  But financial literacy must be practical too. Jobs are about as practical as it gets. 

If we are going to see prosperity and jobs return again, it will not be because the government "did it."  The government can help, but we (you and me) must move the ball, remembering that every big business (employing thousands of people) was once a small business (employing only a few).  And before that, it was someone's idea.  America, is an idea too.

Financial literacy is the new civil rights issue, for every American, and financial literacy empowerment leading to urban entrepreneurship is the silver rights vision for future generations.  With silver rights empowerment we can indeed "make free enterprise and capitalism work for   the poor, the under-served, and the middle class too.”

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis in April 1968, he and my mentor, now HOPE Global Spokesman Ambassador Andrew Young, were focused on the Poor People's Campaign, or what they viewed as the third and final chapter of the civil rights movement: ending poverty in America. 

Dr. King understood that poverty was more about class than race, and that there were more poor whites in America than poor anyone else, and so this new phase of the civil rights movement was focused on lifting all boats, and not just black ones. 

He also understood something particular about capitalism. Dr. King said in 1968, "You cannot legislate goodness, nor pass a law to force someone to like or respect you... (that) the only way to social justice in a capitalist country is economic parity."

Oddly enough, Dr. King's own father understood both civil rights and silver rights too, as he helped to found Citizen's Trust Bank in Atlanta, Georgia, and served on its board of directors for 40 years. When members came to church, he encouraged them to get an education, of course to vote, but also, to become homeowners and stakeholders in their community too.

Today, Operation HOPE is trying to grow a silver rights movement from civil rights soil, for a new generation of young people who may not know the pains of racial segregation, but know all too well the economic depravity that comes from not understanding the language of money, not having a good education, not attending the so-called "right schools," or belonging to the so-called "right" social or business clubs, not knowing what to do when the social network of high level business relationships, access and opportunity, somehow doesn't include you.  

That is why we are now building a HOPE Financial Literacy Empowerment Center at Ebenezer Church, located within the King Center complex in Atlanta, Georgia, and in partnership with the Financial Services Roundtable and key agencies within the Obama Administration, in honor of Daddy King. And that is why we stand shoulder to shoulder with President Barack Obama and his administration, as he strives to inspire Generation Entrepreneurship in urban America today.

Finally, we have to reach down, in order to build up here in America.  That means our children, and this is precisely why we have partnered with the Gallup Organization to introduce the Gallup-HOPE Index, measuring the economic energy of our young people, for the first time.  Gallup and HOPE have discovered how to measure the economic energy and financial literacy of America’s youth, which we believe is the greatest opportunity for future GDP and job growth.

Where Do We Go From Here

What we need now are more role practical models for success and prosperity in 21st century America. From mainstream entrepreneurship success stories such as Steve Jobs, fired from his own company (Apple, Inc.), locked out for 12 years, only to return to lead both a resurgent Apple and Pixar Corporation, creating jobs for tens of thousands. 

Or an urban entrepreneurship success story such as Jamail Larkins, founder and CEO of $12 million revenue Ascension Aviation of Atlanta, Georgia, a young African-American male who learned how to fly his first plane at 12-years of age, started his business at 16-years of age, and at 27 years old is not only running a leading aerospace company and creating tens of local jobs, but is a new era role model for a new generation, and has a spirit of philanthropy too. 

Every year, young Jamail Larkins donates used planes to local inner-city schools across this country, getting kids endorphins firing off in their brains with new hope, giving urban youth an opportunity to dream again, and belief that they can do something in this world.  If 5% role models can stabilize any community in America (Tipping Point), then just imagine what an urban dreamer who cares and a donated plane can do.   

But everyone doesn’t have to donate a plane to make a difference in their community. They can start with simply donating their most prize asset; their time, their experiences, and their expertise.  People tend to do better, when they know better.

Rainbows, After Storms

We are at a critical inflection point for our nation, and we should not let this crisis go to waste. 

We should do something powerful and good with it, and President Obama’s call for a generation of urban entrepreneurship is the best solution I have heard to both attack urban joblessness, in a practical, empowering and sustainable way, and to give real hope to community in the same breath.  And financial literacy, or what we at Operation HOPE call “the language of money,” is the new DNA of America’s future competitiveness.  When you know better, you tend to do better.

What America needs now is a nationwide and serious call for Generation Entrepreneurship, and of course a President with the vision to move the needle, and the agenda. 

We are proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with President Barack Obama and his Administration, as he makes this call for Generation Entrepreneurship in America.  This, we can do.

Let’s go.