Civil Rights leader John Lewis is quoted to have said “freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.” Freedom was a concept that the forefathers of the United States advocated for. Freedom can mean different things to different people. For Black Americans who have spent centuries feeling unfree, the concept of freedom may seem ever elusive. What does freedom and liberation truly mean to Black people? What does it look like? Johnny Bailey is a Grow with Google DC Digital Coach and the founder of ShineHard Family, who has a passion for economic empowerment. Johnny sat down with Forbes to discuss his platform ShineHard Family, which was designed to close the racial wealth gap. Johnny also discusses his idea of freedom and why economic power is the key to Black liberation.
Janice Gassam Asare: Could you just share a little bit about yourself for the readers who may not be familiar with you? Who is Johnny Bailey?
Johnny Bailey: Sure. I am a social entrepreneur and marketing strategist. I grew up in Petersburg, Virginia, which is a lower socioeconomic environment. I was lucky enough to earn a scholarship to Hampton University for track and field. Studied sports management, came out during the Great Recession in 2008, subprime mortgage loan crisis, and really struggled to find a job for a couple of years. I was looking for a job in the sports industry and it’s already a competitive landscape, but I landed a job at a sports agency, kind of as an intern, really just volunteering my time to get experience. Did that for a couple years [and] had some really great opportunities there with NFL players. Then realized that the agent business didn’t really align with my moral compass, so I transitioned and was able to get a job at Nike as a brand manager, which was an incredible experience where I got to work on global sport moments like [the] Superbowl, All-Star Weekend…and [learned] a lot about storytelling, consumer marketing, event management, and really just culture building within communities.
Had a ton of great relationships there, but I started to feel a bit stifled creatively, where I had an itch to build something of my own, and be who I needed when I was younger and do work that I felt like was more immediately impacting my community. I wasn’t able to get those roles within Nike due to whatever types of systems or favoritism that were in place. I started to build my own thing on the side, which was just a website at the time, and it snowballed into…storytelling, telling the stories of Black millennials to connect, educate, inspire the next generation. That platform was called Shine Hard. Did that for a year, it picked up traction, people started to celebrate it, it was valuable to the community. I continued on. Fast forward…we are now a nonprofit organization based in [Washington] DC with a mission to close the racial wealth gap…I should add, in the community in DC, I was able to accept [a] job with Google as DC’s digital coach, where our mission is to level the playing field for diverse, small business owners. Away from my work at Shine Hard closing the wealth gap, I’m also a digital coach at Google working with small business owners, helping them grow their businesses online.
Asare: That’s a great explanation of your background. So, could you speak a little bit more about the organization, which as you mentioned, is now a nonprofit that you started called ShineHard Family, and how you are working to close the racial wealth gap?
Bailey: Sure. ShineHard Fam is…our [Instagram] handle…but like I said, our mission is to close the racial wealth gap and we have a 7-step methodology that we believe can empower Black millennials [and] Black professionals to increase their net worth, acquire assets and align themselves with generational wealth, because what we find is that individualism is a major problem in the Black community in terms of creating wealth. We’re trying to take a step back and take our communities through seven steps.
It’s learning Black history one, so that we can develop a sense of identity. We can share scripts that can help us feel more empowered when we’re faced with disarming conversations or racist systems that we don’t know how to address. Then the next step is going into personal development where we’re developing a wealth mindset and overcoming imposter syndrome because being a minority in this society, it’s easy to feel as if we are inferior or subordinated and not able to be our best selves. Next, we talk about financial literacy, which is really…shaping the paradigm for Black millennials, because I think what plagues the Black community as a whole is how we define success. We look at celebrities and fame or materialism, and we think income is success. Or we think the perception of success, wealth, fame or income and fame is success. Understanding that the real success needs to be assets, net worth ownership…are you estate planning to extend that wealth to the next generations and the next generation? Then we talk about economics, which is really breaking down societal dynamics around politics, economics, and sociology, and understanding…how the dollar is an economic vote…reprogramming the economic lens. We talk about community building, which is extremely important and developing a framework of functional communities and how we can add value to each other and create win-win scenarios for the Black community…we hope that we can raise the net worth of 500 Black millennials by 25% by the year 2025, and ultimately assume a more self-sufficient and competitive posture politically and economically in this country
Asare: There’s so many layers to what you were sharing. I wanted to ask, from your perspective, what do you think is the first step toward building generational wealth? Especially for people who may come from backgrounds, where they…did not come from a high socioeconomic status.
Bailey: Well, the first step is understanding Black history, understanding how we got to where we are. We have to know that the wealth gap exists, and we have to understand the barriers that have been put in place to limit and stifle us from creating wealth, and we also have to understand the leaders and the pioneers that have fought and worked towards progress in this wealth gap because if we’re not…aware of the problem and…not fired up and pissed off about the problem, there’s going to be a lot of complacency and comfortability. I call it a deep slumber that many of us are in because we’re not aware of how deep of a hole that we’re actually in. Step number one is understanding the history.
Step number two is reshaping the paradigm of what success looks like…generational wealth is what success looks like in this country. In a capitalistic society, you have to know ownership and wealth is the measurement of success, and we teach people how…when we did a survey and we asked…about 300 Black millennials, ‘What’s one thing you wish your schools would have taught you that they didn’t? What’s one thing that your parents didn’t teach you, that you wish they did?’ Overwhelmingly, it was financial literacy…all those types of conversations around finances, personal finance are things that Black people just don’t have. I think sometimes it’s taboo in Black families to talk about money because maybe we’re insecure about our income, and we don’t want our kids to know that we’re not doing well. We don’t talk about it, and that becomes the curse in itself because it was never talked about and it perpetuates from generation to generation. I think those two things are probably the first steps of really closing the gap and waking people up.
Asare: Looking at your bio, you’ve accomplished a lot of things in your life, and I’m sure you’re going to be accomplishing many more things. Just looking at the trajectory that you’ve taken, what or who has really been an inspiration to you, and what really motivates you to do the work that it is that you do?
Bailey: Well, that’s a really good question. I’ve experienced a lot of trauma in my life. I lost my mom to suicide when I was 14. I’m the only child. My parents got married really young and kind of did their own thing. I was living with my grandmother and my aunts, and I’ve bounced around, I traveled a lot as a kid, but one thing that was always consistent within me is that I always had a desire to do something great. I always felt like God had a plan for me to do something very impactful with my life, and everything else that was happening to me or around me felt secondary to that mission of doing something great, living a life that had mattered, right? They say your life is just a dash between two dates. I wanted my dash to be meaningful from as long as I can remember.
I navigated all these, all these places from college, being an athlete and being a student athlete, and working in the sports industry, and learning how to network, and learning how to tell stories and how to navigate a corporate structure too, because there’s a lot that can be learned in that society when you’re a minority in the workplace and having to deal with all of these dynamics and diversity issues that we all face as Black people, and then taking the leap of faith to become entrepreneur, I had to learn another set of skills that just challenged me and inspired me to continue to do the work. Once I saw that I could impact people’s lives and the work that I was doing was inspiring people, it was educating people, it was mobilizing people, then I started to feel very aligned and very fulfilled with what I was doing with my time. It almost was no question that I was doing the right thing because of how I felt and the reception that I was getting from the people that mattered to me. I’m not sure if that directly answers your question, but it was more of just like a journey to find my purpose, and once I hit that spot, I just went deep as I possibly could, and it’s been working out for me ever since.
Asare: We know just based on the stats that there are a lot of millennials, but particularly Black millennials, that are saddled with student loan debt. They might say, ‘Well, Johnny, I can’t invest money because I have six figure student loan debt, or I’m barely making ends meet. Maybe I didn’t earn a degree, but I’m just in a job where I’m living paycheck to paycheck and I can’t seem to save up any money or multiply my money. What can I do to build wealth for me and my family when I can’t seem to make ends meet?’
Bailey: Yeah, that’s really good question, and a popular question as well. We know that millennials came of age during the Great Recession, which created a domino effect of financial woes for our generation and has caused us to delay some of our life milestones…we’re on a slower path to accumulate wealth, and that’s just a fact. I would say one, we have to understand our interest rates on our student loan debt. Now, if you come from a lower socioeconomic status, you might’ve had a federal loan and in a time like this, where there’s Covid-19, you probably have 0% interest on those loans. If you have income, you might still continue to pay. If you do not have income, you now can allocate your focus or your unemployment check or your energies towards generating income elsewhere and not have to worry about your student loans in this particular time. If you have high interest student loans, small private institution, then you probably don’t have the luxury of 0% interest, and you have to pay that. Right? I think in terms of strategy, when it comes to debt payoff versus investing, you have to look at the interest rates because we know that the market, the stock market, is going to return to average of eight to 12% annually. If your interest rate on your student loans is less than that, then it might be a good solution or a strategy to invest simultaneously, while you’re paying down your student loan debt, but you have to decide what strategy…because some people…and a lot of millennials are risk averse because we’ve had so much uncertainty with the economy in our adult lives.
We came out in 2008, most of us, and now here we are 12 years later, finally getting some footing and we’re back in another recession. Many of us unemployed, not able to pay our bills and our student debt. You have to just really understand your own financial situation. I think having a spreadsheet that lets you know how much you’re bringing in, income wise, and what your bills look like. For me, I have a spreadsheet that tells me my debts, my savings and investing and my income. I practice the zero-sum approach to finances where I give all of my money and assignment before I even get it. I know exactly how much I’m going to pay myself every month, and every account that I have, I know how much my bills are, and my debt is, and I’m going to pay that off every month. That way I’m able to track and understand how much I have; how much I need and that works for me. But everybody has to know their own financial identity but understanding your interest rates and the amount that you have is first steps. Log into your account weekly, check your account status and know your financial identity.
Asare: That’s a really good point. A lot of us, I feel, don’t know our interest rates that we’re paying on things, and that can have a huge effect. If you have different interest rates on your loans, there are different options that are available.
The very last question that I wanted to ask you, and I know this is a heavy question, so answer in as little information or as much information as you’d like, but what does Black liberation look like to you?
Bailey: Well…that’s a heavy question. I’m thinking that it’s two things. It’s one, understanding the systematic issues that Black people are facing, making ourselves well aware of the history and the current issues that we’re facing. Thinking about like miseducation, gentrification, mass incarceration, police genocide, diversity and inclusion, wealth distribution…understanding that all of these things are existing simultaneously is giving us a macro look at our status in this society. Once you understand that, you feel maybe a bit overwhelmed, but also empowered to now understand how you can make a difference and almost have a responsibility, a social responsibility, to your community to make a difference and to be a part of the solution…it’s really about building an independent economy for the Black community…I feel what we need to do is aggregation, where we pool our collective resources of talent, of finance and wealth, of just pure population and come together in taking our neighborhoods from a neighborhood where we just eat and sleep and go into communities where we have great businesses. We store our wealth, we store our history and our culture, and we start bouncing our money around, within our community nine to 10 times, like other minority groups in society.
Step number two is we start to find out the majority population and certain cities or communities and we elect officials, politicians that have platforms that support our independent economy and our agendas. Our rights…in that they are going to work with the justice system and the police departments…maybe there needs to be policy reform, but our politicians can help ensure that we’re not being brutalized in the street, that our businesses are not being exploited, that our people are not being exploited and…they’re being fairly treated in the court rooms, things of that nature.
The next step is to use our economic resources that we created in our independent economy and to buy media. We want to get television stations, we want to get radio networks, we want to get cable networks, we want to have a daily newspaper, we want to have publications online where we can tell our stories. We can disseminate information and organize our people and control the narratives that are told about Black people by Black people. Then lastly investing in our education and that’s having group economics, group politics that can help create a plan for our education system…the responsibility of educating our children is on us…but I think it all starts with an independent economy…supporting Black businesses and investing with Black banks and having Black support and Black neighborhoods that are thriving, that are safe and that are supporting that overall plan and vision for our community.
Click here to learn more about Johnny Bailey and the ShineHard Family platform.
This interview has been lighted edited for clarity and brevity.