What is striking about Bryant is the degree to which he has been able to transcend, both in his own life story and in his work, what he characterizes as a modern form of slavery. "To not understand the language of money today is to be an economic slave," he says, and the path out of that slavery is knowledge about finance and business. He is a successful, self-made businessman and CEO of Operation HOPE, a nonprofit that he founded in 1992 in the aftermath of the riots following the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles. Since then, Operation HOPE has directed more than US$1.5 billion in capital to low-wealth communities in the United States. (See Jeremy Rifkin's The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism [Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014], another top contender this year, for more on the growing role of organizations such as Operation HOPE in the new paradigm.)
Bryant is confident–perhaps overly confident–in his solution to poverty: "People seem genuinely confused about how the poor get out of this mess. I am not." But his argument is compelling: If poor people are provided with the right tools, policies, and inspiration, they will lift themselves up–becoming tomorrow's middle class and "a new generation of customers and entrepreneurs" who will boost the entire economy.
Toward this end, Operation HOPE is undertaking Project 5117, a program that underscores the importance of ambition and of stretch goals when leaders decide to play into the new paradigm. The project's goals are fourfold.
First, by 2020, it aims to raise the financial literacy of 5 million young people across the U.S. using "financial dignity" education programs that have already been taught successfully in 3,500 schools across the country. These are classes that teach basic consumer financial literacy–such as "what's an interest rate?"–content that Bryant notes is woefully lacking in schools in poor communities.
Second, it intends to help 1 million of these students become future entrepreneurs and local job creators through "HOPE Business in a Box Academies"–a program sponsored by Gallup that first challenges students to plan a business startup costing under $500 and then finances the best plans.
Third, it aims to provide financially underserved families with access to banking: HOPE Inside will establish 1,000 "bottom-up" branch banks across the country and certify 5,000 additional banking locations.
Fourth, it intends to increase the credit scores of people in communities with average scores between 500 and 550 to a bankable level of 700, largely through credit counseling.
Although Bryant's focus is change through financial bootstrapping of the poor, the working class, and the "teetering middle class," he insists that this is "not just about money and not having enough of it. In the United States, issues of money and good decision making are often wrapped up and mixed up with issues of individual self-esteem and confidence, community culture and belief systems, values, and, quite frankly, emotional and psychological depression."
Bryant stresses that he is building on the work of C.K. Prahalad and Muhammad Yunus, and that even though his focus is on U.S. poverty, his approach is applicable in other nations. Indeed, Operation HOPE already has begun to expand its purview internationally–in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates.
How the Poor Can Save Capitalism is not the kind of deep inquiry into the dynamics of capitalism that Thomas Piketty gave us this year (see "Economics: All Things Being Unequal," by Daniel Gross, page 91), but it is an inspirational and invigorating book about achieving paradigm change by "reimagining the poor," understanding the critical difference between good and bad selfishness, and embracing the power of bottom-up solutions. The key to driving change, says Bryant, is to give people a more tangible sense of opportunity.