Named by the Atlanta Business Chronicle as one of the Atlanta’s Most Admired CEOs for 2018, John Hope Bryant, founder and CEO of Operation HOPE, could also be considered one of the most passionate and committed executives in the state.
Bryant founded Operation HOPE in 1992, following the Rodney King verdict and resulting riots in Los Angeles.
Bryant later moved the organization from his hometown to Atlanta, based on advice he received from his mentor, former Atlanta Mayor and U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young.
Through Operation HOPE, Bryant has been able to express his passion for the community as well as execute against his commitment to giving black, brown and poor people the financial tools that can not only change their lives, their family lives and also make improvements to the impoverished communities where they live.
Bryant views his life work as continuing the unfinished work started by Abraham Lincoln who set up the Freeman’s Bank for freed slaves, and the financial work or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Young and others.
“We know about civil rights but too many of us don’t know about silver rights,” he said.
Bryant subscribes to the Biblical philosophy of “teaching’ a person how to fish instead of just handing out fish dinners.
“If I gave a man a fish he would eat for a day, but if I teach him to fish than he not only eats, but his family eats and soon he is teaching others how to fish. It’s the ripple effect,” he said.
An entrepreneur and author of four books on personal finance — the most recent book is titled “The Memo” — Bryant sat down for an exclusive interview to discuss some of Operation HOPE’s most profound programming available as well as his vision for the organization’s future.
Vignettes from Bryant’s interview, which was recorded, can be seen online at theatlantavoice.com. Highlights from the interview are shared below.
When did the seeds for Operation Hope sprout?
Bryant: The guilt happened when the Rodney King Riots happened. I was an entrepreneur running businesses making money.
I had been blaming poverty on the poor. I was saying, “stop making excuses” and “go get a job,” “stop complaining.” I was sounding like my Republican friends.
After watching the videotape of those cops beating Rodney King, I thought – this is America and they are all going to jail. But they all got off.
I started to think that we had to fight it a different way. We couldn’t just protest. We couldn’t just complain. We couldn’t just be angry.
Instead, someone had to flip the script, so we could gain more power and more credibility, so we could not just fight, but also negotiate.
Operation HOPE has been like your Apple computer — a series of software upgrades.
For a long time, I was experimenting and trying things and some of them didn’t work. I wouldn’t accept any money. Some of it was too restrictive or immoral. If you were a check casher or a mortgage company, I wouldn’t take your money.
I wouldn’t put my arms around anyone who didn’t have as much to lose as I did – the Oprah rule.
I’ve learned so many lessons from people like Oprah Winfrey, bankers, business people, Andrew Young, Quincy Jones just by shutting my mouth, watching and listening.
What kinds of programs and services does Operation HOPE offer?
Bryant: Operation HOPE is 26 years old now, but we really didn’t come into our own until four years ago. In 2013, I wanted to fire myself.
We were doing great things, but the problems had outgrown my ability to solve it. We didn’t have a sustainable solution (to poverty).
At the end of 2013, I threatened to change everything we were doing. We reimagined everything. And luckily, we came up with a new solution called Hope Inside.
We are in 4000 schools teaching financial literacy. Our adult program wasn’t as aggressive. We had 11 offices over 22 years and those offices weren’t sustainable. So, I shut down 10 offices and kept one.
We rebuilt; in fact, we just opened our 130 location in three years. We have orders to open 300 more locations and plans to open 1000 locations by 2020.
I want to be the Starbucks of financial inclusion. I want to raise credit scores by 124 points in 24 months because nothing changes your life more than God and love than moving your credit score up by 120 points.
I think the new color is green. It’s not about white, black, as in race. No police officer has come into my neighborhood and threw me on the ground and jack me or my neighbors up because they know they will get fired.
But they go in these poor neighborhoods whether its white or black and jack people up because there are no consequences. The new game is about money. We needed to update our (mental) software.
We understand that you can look at a map of a city and based on its crime statistics can basically tell what the average credit scores are in those communities.
Bryant: I’m creating an app this year where you can predict where crime, homicides, drop-out rates, high levels of drug usage, high levels of incarcerations because the credit scores are sub-500.
Conversely, you can decide where you want your family to live. Any neighborhood with a credit score above 680 is where you want to be. It’s stability.
A neighborhood with a 700 credit score or higher has never rioted of any race in all of America’s history. A man with a 700 plus credit score just wants to go shopping.
It’s really simple. It’s not about the credit score; it’s about the energy. A community with a 700 credit score has a different kind of energy — a different mindset.
It’s two-parent households, it’s Starbucks. It’s Whole Foods, it’s theatre, it’s open spaces with parks, it’s families who sit down with their kids and go over homework. It’s families who go out to eat at least once a month, go on vacation twice a year, go to museums. It’s feeding the brain in a different way.
But if you grew up in the ’hood with a 300 to 500 credit score you are in combat every day. It’s single-parent households. You don’t have a thriving mentality; by necessity, you adopt a survival mentality.
So how do our people succeed if the majority of our people are dealing with surviving instead of thriving? And, if all our institutions are survival focus than that’s what we have to do.
People say, “We have gentrification in our neighborhood.” No, you have capitalism in your neighborhood. People are tired of driving two hours to get home. They are tired of the freeway.
After a while, white folks think black folks aren’t so bad and they move right in your neighborhood into the same house that has been sitting next to you for 20 years with a tree in the roof.
Let’s talk about homeownership. Some people buy a house and own it. Others buy a house and it owns them.
Bryant: The underlying theme in this whole conversation is real poverty which has nothing to do with money.
But the reason you buy too much house and have too much month at the end of your money and the house owns you is because of ego, which is really low self-esteem.
There is no one who should come to Atlanta and who makes at least $35,000 a year should rent. Everyone should own. They aren’t making any new land. All of this real estate is going to be retaken. All of it.
A home is like a poor person’s hedge fund against poverty. The government has set it up for people who own homes to prosper.
If you make $40,000 a year and you are paying $2000 a month. You are opening a window and tossing out $25K. You are helping me – the investor – pay my mortgage. You aren’t getting any benefits.
But if you own that same house and pay that same amount a month in mortgage payments, a certain percentage of that is interest, which means you write it off of your taxes. You get it back in a refund.
The way you need to build wealth is to build it in your sleep. That means stocks, bonds, homeownership, entrepreneurship.
You need some mechanism where you are just not working an hour and getting an hour’s pay. Your money has to be working when you are sleeping.
Homeownership is one of those magic bullets. If you buy three crappy properties in your neighborhood — at reasonable amounts, rehab them and rent them out to working class people, you are helping with affordable housing.
You do that three times you actually won’t be poor another day in your life. Three times and you’ve got your retirement plan.
If we can just get your readers to do three things: Go to Hope Inside which is free and pull your credit, you will find an error on your credit report, I guarantee you.
If there is an error, we will help you get it off and it will pop your credit score by 40 points.
If we can get you from 580 to 620 in 30 days what happens to your self-esteem? It goes up. Your confidence goes up.
Second thing: Buy a home, buy a rehab affordable home. You are helping the neighborhood, you are helping the community, and you are helping yourself.
Real wealth is spiritual wealth. It’s inside of you. If I have inner wealth, I will never be poor. I may be broke, but I will never be poor.
If I don’t like me I’m not going to like you and that brings up a whole another issue of trust. If we can just do those three things we can literally transform our communities.
If we had 700-plus credit score communities, 80 percent of our problems would go away.