Story Highlights

• Bryant opened Operation Hope after the chaos of the 1992 Los Angeles riots
• Bryant: "It was my responsibility … to make a difference" in my community
• Operation Hope teaches financial literacy and advocates on behalf of poor
• Operation Hope now exists in more than 20 U.S. cities

(CNN) — While others saw lawlessness and despair in the looting, violence and chaos of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, businessman John Hope Bryant saw a cry for help.

"The people really needed a hand up, not just a handout. And they needed compassion, maybe not sympathy, but … empathy," Bryant, who is from Los Angeles, told CNN recently.

At the time of the riots, he was a self-described "hard-core capitalist," who ran a financial services firm. But on the day after the chaos ended — May 5, 1992 — Bryant founded Operation Hope, a non-profit organization that aims to eliminate poverty. (Listen to Bryant discuss poverty Video)

The city was struggling to recover from nearly a week of rioting spawned by the acquittal of four white police officers accused of beating a black motorist named Rodney King after a high-speed chase. In the violence that followed the verdicts, 55 people were killed, 2,000 were injured and about $1 billion worth of property was damaged.

"The creation of Operation of Hope was natural," Bryant said. "Most times, you cannot have a rainbow without a storm first."

He added, "It was my responsibility to return to my community and to make a difference."

Fifteen years later, Bryant’s desire to "make a difference" has extended far beyond the Compton and South Central neighborhoods he set out to help. Today, Operation Hope programs exist in more than 20 U.S. cities and will soon operate in South Africa, according to the organization’s Web site.

The organization is a network comprised of financial literacy programs, partnerships with private companies, non-profits and government agencies, as well as advocacy campaigns to highlight the plight of the poor.

In addition, Bryant, 41, has established nine inner-city banking centers in California and in Washington, D.C., in attempt to provide sound financial backing for low-income people who are looking to improve their lives. The banking centers are called Hope Centers.

Through the sum of the organization’s efforts, Bryant said, "We’ve created a thousand inner-city home owners — people that look like me, black and brown, and even poor whites who live in rural areas," he said. "Not one home loan has gone bad in 15 years.

"We teach people checking, savings, credit, investment, the history of banking."

But more importantly, he said, the organization teaches people to "take care of their family, to move them up and out of poverty by their own esteem."

"What we’re really teaching is dignity."

But for Bryant, investing in low-income neighborhoods is not just a task rooted in humanitarianism, it also makes good economic sense.

"The inner cities of this country might actually save this economy in the 21st century," he said. "Latinos and blacks alone represent $1.2 trillion in combined consumer spending power. That’s a huge consumer spending force waiting to be leveraged."

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