Interview with Financial Literacy Expert, Portfolio Manager and Author, Bill Thomason, by Tolu Olorunda.
William Thomason is a finance expert with nearly 20 years worth of experience. In his tenure as a financial-analyst, he has been quoted by well-known publications, such as, the Wall Street Journal, Barrons, Smart Money, CNBC, and other financial press. He was once named by Ebony Magazine, as "One of the Nation's 50 Leaders of the Future." His 2006 book entitled, "Make Money Work for You – Money Lessons from a Portfolio Manager," lays out patterns and examples worth following, in favor of accomplishing financial-liberation. Of all his acquisitions and feats, Thomason favors his dedication to the education of Black and Brown kids as most essential. He founded a program called, "Wall Street Wizards." Wall Street Wizards was primarily founded to be "a non-profit organization established to bring career opportunities and financial literacy to urban youth." I had the pleasure of speaking with Bill Thomason on his background, the concept and impact of financial illiteracy, the lessons of the recent Subprime mortgage crisis, financial-empowerment, and much more:
Thanks for joining us, Bill Thomason. Can you describe your path toward becoming a Financial Literacy Expert, and why you decided to pursue a career in finance?
Well, I’ve been in the investment business for close to 20 years. Within those years, I’ve been an investment manager, a portfolio manager, author of a book, and I also worked in private equity. It came down to me realizing that I am a Black man in an environment where there aren’t many people of color. I’m from an environment where people struggle financially every day. I was talking to a guy today, and he told me of how he went to a car dealership to buy a car, and he asked the salesman why he was advertising on a Black radio show. The salesman replied saying, “Those are the people who are dumb enough to come in and I can sell them whatever I want.” When you look at the Subprime mortgage crisis, that’s a result of people signing their name on something they had no idea about. That is financial illiteracy. They paid for houses they knew they couldn’t afford. So why am I doing this? That’s why. The Black and Brown people are the ones who get taken advantage of. I am about trying to create and teach Black and Brown people the ethics of money, investing and finance, so they can better take care of themselves.
As a result of that, do you think most African-Americans are financially illiterate?
Yep; and I say that because the statistics bear it out. We have high bankruptcy, 'jacked-up' credits, and all other symptoms that classify financial illiteracy. The symptoms of financial illiteracy are bad credit, stress, untimely deaths etc – and we have them. A lot of times, you can’t get a job if you have poor credit, and that breeds the stress which leads to the untimely deaths.
Can you explain the value of investing, and how one can begin investing, even at the lowest increment of income?
Well, I think we need to start putting money into investment vehicles; and there are plenty of them, such as stocks, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds and real estate. Historically, stock markets have done well; so history is on the side of the investor.
At what age can one realistically begin the investing procedure?
The truth is that the parent should start before the children are even before. But realistically, as soon as a child is old enough to ask for gifts, the child is equally old enough to learn about financial-literacy. We already have a lot of challenges in front of us as Black and Brown people; so we have to learn how to invest and put money aside -- just to survive.
You founded the program "Wall Street Wizards." What is its objective?
Well, it’s to teach inner-city kids about mathematics, finance, economics, investing and money-management; and to bring financial literacy to our community, so our kids can learn how to be financial stewards. We’re also giving them a lot of other skills in this program; I like to say it’s ‘a life-skill program disguised as a financial literacy program.’ We‘ve got about 60 kids total, in San Francisco and New York. We have two programs operating in both San Francisco and New York. We try to expose them to career opportunities such as, investment bankers, portfolio managers, venture capitalists and private equity.
Your 2006 book was “Make Money Work for You – Money Lessons from a Portfolio Manager." How can the meager wage earned by the majority of our people work for them?
Well, that’s why I wrote that book. In the very last chapter, I tell the story of a woman who started when she was 40 yrs old, and put away portions of her income till she was 80 yrs old. At 80 yrs old, she had amassed $23 million buying stocks. She bought stocks that she knew, and invested in them on a regular basis. There is something called dividend-reinvestment, that shows you can buy stocks without ever paying a commission, and then, the dividends become reinvested to buy the investor more stocks. The woman in particular had a 1-bedroom apartment in New York. She was making a decent living, but wasn’t rich. So putting away $10, $15, $50 or $100 a month would go a long way.
Do you profoundly believe that if Black people took the route you delineate, they can actually liberate themselves from financial-disempowerment?
Yes. The front page of my website says “creating financially empowered individuals and communities." When you’re financially empowered, you can help uplift your community. The statistics, according to 21cf, prove that the Black Community - on an individual basis - is more philanthropic than any other ethnic group. We are philanthropic by nature, but we don’t invest wisely.
Was this financial illiteracy you speak of, revealed in the calamity of Hurricane Katrina and the inability of Black people to rescue their own kinfolk?
That’s such a deep question, and just like in the tragedy of 911, there wasn’t much financial-stewardship and accountability to ensure the donations reached the victims. A lot of people received the funds allocated to them, but a lot of people also didn’t get nothing. My family is from New Orleans, and so, I’m well aware of this reality. When you watch some of the documentaries that were filmed after the flood, and the gross-mistreatment of the New Orleans residents, you’re startled. Financial literacy is an all encompassing value that must be taught to those who intend to manage their financial lives, and put their financial life together. Our community predominantly goes to check-cashing venues to cash their checks, but those places take out a percentage of their earnings.
You spoke earlier about the shortage of Black and Brown financial experts. Can that be looked upon as indicative in the recent financial mortgage meltdown?
Well, I think there is a shortage. I say, go to Wall Street and find out how many Black people are walking up and down the aisle; and that’s just an example. So yes, I think it played a part.
How can the recent mortgage meltdown be avoided next time?
Read. Unfortunately, the old saying goes, “If you want to hide something from a Black person, put it in a book.” We need to read; study and educate ourselves. If you’re well educated, you don’t listen to someone who tells you to put your name on a document you know you can’t afford. We also need to pay our bills on time, and live within our means.
Lastly, what is the most important advice that you hope to extend to the Black Community at-large?
In the 1960s, we realized it was about our Civil Rights – we needed to be able to vote, live where we wanted, and receive equitable wage vis-à-vis our white counterparts – and now we have to fight for our Economic Rights. With Economic Rights, we would become confident enough to own companies. Every kid in my program – Wall Street Wizards – owns stock in Coca Cola. They also go to Shareholder meetings. We now have the right to invest, own stocks and build businesses, and we have to claim that Right.
To donate to the righteous cause of Wall Street Wizards, pls. visit: http://wallstreetwizards.org/