The following is amended text from a letter I recently sent to a pre-imminent leader on the global stage, about “what I believe comes next.” It is now an open letter to you, the pre-imminent leader in your own life.
By John Hope Bryant
These days people feel, rightly so, increasingly burned by what we know to be free enterprise and capitalism. But a few robber barons, and a few more merchants of greed, do not actually represent the system of free enterprise, no more than my relatives decisions and values represent my own. Nor do respectfully, some of the CEOs of some of the world’s leading companies. In other words, your title can say CEO, but that does not necessarily mean you are a leader, nor one truly creating unique and empowering “value” within an institution or organization. Certainly, if your focus was money and short term profitability above all other considerations, you were lost from the very start. Most of the greatest and most sustainable fortunes were actually made on the back of an incredible idea, a lot of hard work, over a sustained period of time, and rooted in empowering and serving others.
You see, my guess is that Bill Gates, Ted Turner, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, and my friend Quincy Jones, did not awake one morning with a focus on “getting rich.” For them, and for me too, the focus was, remains and always will be “the power of the idea.” The power of the idea, is also what made America great, and every other great nation the world over. It is also what has been behind every great social movement, from Ghandi, to Dr. King, to Mother Theresa, to Nelson Mandela, and even, what was behind the historic campaign for US president, by one Barack Obama. It was and remains, the power of the idea.
In the midst of this global economic crisis, which is increasing delivering unbelievable levels of personal pain on the average family today, I am concerned about a possible challenge, or worse, a populist push back of and against the modern model of capitalism and free enterprise itself, in the short years ahead. Frankly, on many levels I believe that there “needs” to be a challenge to the current system, as it is clearly not working well, and certainly not for everyone. But I also believe the solution is not focusing on what we are against, but figuring out what we are for. As my personal mentor and hero Andrew Young once told me, “be skeptical, don’t be cynical, because to be cynical is to loose hope.” Or put another way, in an often repeated quote, “democracy is a horrible system, except for every other system.” The same thought process probably applies to the global discussion around free enterprise. No other system has liften hundreds of millions of the poor out of poverty from India to China, to Africa. It is not perfect, but it is not problem (itself) either.
Again, the real solution to our long-term problem, is the power of the idea.
I remember receiving an important telephone call, while sitting in a three year-olds (child) chair, at an inner-city school in Detroit (you never know when a great idea, or opportunity will come your way, so always be both open and ready). I had just completed a teaching session on how money and free enterprise works, and how each of these young people could gain a measure of dignity and self-reliance for themselves, and their families too, by making it work for them. I was trying to educate these young people on what I believed would be the most important tool, or “idea,” in and for their future lives; the basics of how the (global financial) system worked, and how theycould be empowered to work within it, and to their benefit. If they were educated, empowered, given the dignity of inclusion, I presumed, they would feel no need to feel threatened by the (global financial) system, nor those having, for the moment, more wealth than them. Their real wealth was internal, not external. There was “enough opportunity to go around” I told them, and the tools we taught those 30-some-odd low-wealth, inner city youth, would or could, set them free. More than one million individuals (served by Operation HOPE) later, from children of 8 years old to adults of 80 years of age, I now call this the 21st century silver rights movement.
Civil rights was about race and the color line, all over the world, but global silver rights will be about bridging issues of class and poverty, all over the world, by removing the unnatural barriers to individual prosperity, for all. To quote, once again, my friend and mentor, and HOPE global spokesman Ambassador Andrew Young, “Communism failed because it could not create a middle class. Capitalism succeeded initially because it did create a middle class, all over the world. But now, capitalism and free enterprise must prove itself relevant to the poor and the under-served.” Note: It probably needs to re-prove itself as relevant to the world’s middle class too.
The challenge before public policymakers both here in the US and the world over, over the next 3-5 years, will be convincing the majorities of the world that capitalism and free enterprise is not evil, is not their enemy, and more so, that it can be made to work for them too. That the new world we choose does not have to have a new global ghetto, marked along economic and class lines, with some almost pre-destined as winners, and others seemingly pre-destined as losers, in the global game of prosperity and opportunity. The free enterprise system that I believe in, could best be described as “fair-enterprise,” and has enough room for win/win, and not merely win/lose. A place where all boats rise, and not just yachts.
Yes, some individuals have badly abused and even harmed the system of capitalism and free enterprise for sure, and they need to pay a significant price to society, no different than the price paid by the seller of drugs on an urban street corner, when he does wrong. Justice must not become, just-us. This said, the worlds masses do not need to reject capitalism and free enterprise itself, as a response to the sins of the few, even as Christians have not rejected Christianity, nor Muslims and Islam, because some have abused even these great religions. Even the Bible suggests, money is not bad, just the love (and I would say, greed) of it is…
What if the new idea, included a vision of making capitalism and free enterprise finally relevant to, and work for, all people? Now, with this approach, everyone is a global stakeholder in the dream, and no one sets out to destroy their own dream house. I think we need what my friend and mentor Dr. Dorothy I. Height describes, as an entire generation of individuals who are “dreamers, with shovels in their hands.”
We need global policy makers, and important global organizations such as the World Economic Forum, and the Forum of Young Global Leaders, to help reboot and re-energize the very idea of capitalism and free enterprise itself. Helping us all to reframe the debate; on what it is, how it works, who it benefits, whats our ultimate aim, and what we stand for. The debate needs to be focused around what we are all for, and not simply what we are all against.
We are going to need a broad cross section of leaders, from government, community and the private sector, who can help us all re-imagine our possibilities, very much like I did to a lesser degree with those 30 inner city youth, in that inner-city Banking on Our Future, Detroit classroom, with no chalk board or computers or books. Prior to this interaction, with me and Operation HOPE, these seemingly distressed youth thought that they had no relationship whatsoever, other than possibly a negative one, to issues of wealth, opportunity and entrepreneurship. But that was before I entered that classroom, with the power of an idea, for them. The world now needs a global classroom, and the power of new ideas.
What we all need right now is a new vision for the future. A vision not based on wealth or power, but simply the power of the idea (which is of course the sole power behind a Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum, a Bill Gates and a Microsoft, and now the Gates Foundation, a Ted Turner and CNN, a Steve Jobs and Apple Computers, A Quincy Jones and his unparalleled record in all these entertainment and business, etc).
What we need now is a vision, which includes us all.
Onward with HOPE
John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, the vice chairman of the bi-partisan US President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy, chairman of the President’s Council Committee on the Under-Served, and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council, focused on financial literacy and financial empowerment issues.