Bringing Intersectionality to the World of Finance
Issue   |   Fri, 11/11/2016 - 02:23
Chloe McKenzie ‘14
Before founding BlackFem, McKenzie worked as a mortgage trader at JP Morgan.

One day, while sitting on the couch watching TV, Chloe McKenzie ’14 sent out an email with a simple header: “I’m a doer.” This was McKenzie’s guiding mantra as a college varsity soccer player, a student and, most recently, a young entrepreneur. The email address’ domain was the website for the company McKenzie had just created: BlackFem, a nonprofit venture capital firm that teaches financial literacy to girls and women of color and creates opportunities for investments in their futures.

“She’d had this idea in general about wanting to help women and girls of color with finance and increasing their wealth,” said Chloe’s boyfriend, George Tepe ’14. “One day she decided she’d had enough just thinking about it, and she made it. Got the website and just did it.”

Today, 257 girls of color have graduated from the BlackFem’s programs and 97 percent have achieved financial literacy. BlackFem has partnered with more than six educational institutions including Columbia Law School, Amherst College, Smith College and Harlem Girls Cheer, and was recently sponsored by Capital One. By the end of 2017, the nonprofit’s goal is to have helped 5,000 new women and girls of color combat debt and become financially literate.

A Woman of Many Interests
McKenzie arrived at Amherst somewhat serendipitously, after having accidentally applied and gotten into the college thinking that she had applied to University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Fate really took over there,” McKenzie recalled. “I [knew] ‘this is where you’re supposed to be,’ so I put in my matriculation ticket to Amherst before I heard back from any other school.” At the college, Chloe was a walk-on member of the varsity women’s soccer team, a sports photographer for the Office of Public Affairs and a Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought major.

Service is Healing
Since the age of six, McKenzie had been set on going to law school and becoming a lawyer. But when she took a job as a mortgage trader at JP Morgan after graduating in 2014, life “took a right turn,” and she discovered a new passion for finance and trading. She loved the competitive, fast-paced nature of working on the floor and trading stocks, which she said reminded her of playing sports. Throughout her experience at JP Morgan, however, she was always aware that this was not the long-term place for her. She knew that she wanted to serve others.

“I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, and so service is really huge,” McKenzie said. “For me … I always saw service as healing, an opportunity for me to heal by helping others.”

At JP Morgan she joined the Analyst & Associates Volunteer Group and worked as a financial counselor for homeless families in New York City. This experience inspired her to begin thinking about combining her passions for finance and service but also exposed her to the limitations of philanthropic and volunteer efforts within work environments at for-profit companies. Most of her colleagues had joined the volunteer group to increase their chances of getting promoted. Instead of treating the families they served with empathy and compassion, many were patronizing, McKenzie said.

After a year at JP Morgan, McKenzie took a teaching fellowship working at charter schools in New York City. This, for her, was the final puzzle piece. Seeing the education system from the inside convinced McKenzie that the American education system is failing to adequately prepare the next generation of students — particularly students of color. Underserved schools, she said, are not providing students with financial literacy.

“That’s how you help people,” McKenzie remembers realizing. “You take all of the great things that you love about finance and you apply it from the lens of educating people.”

BlackFem began by holding financial literacy workshops for post-graduate students of color from Columbia Law School, targeting these students because they would likely be facing debt from student loan payments. She soon realized that even highly educated students at elite institutions could be financially illiterate. So, BlackFem created a high school program to target students at a younger age, and then a middle school program and “we ended up just continuing to pivot and move backwards … all the way down to four-year-olds.”

Today, BlackFem offers three programs: “Financial Fundamentals” for grades pre-K through eight, “Higher Education” for grades nine through 12 and “Financial Literacy” for college and beyond.

In “Financial Fundamentals,” students learn about “economic empowerment” and “foundational financial and investment concepts,” according to BlackFem’s website. This program teaches young children complicated financial concepts without being overly simplistic. When BlackFem was recruited to do a workshop with a group of four-year-olds in a D.C. summer program, McKenzie and her team formulated a model that used growing an apple tree as an analogy for compound interest. Evaluations of the children after the workshop showed that 98 percent of the students understood and absorbed the lesson.

Making financial concepts accessible but not oversimplified for various age groups and demographics of students is a key tenant of BlackFem’s model. “I don’t want to dumb anything down. I want 10 year olds dealing with $300,000,” McKenzie said. “I don’t want them to be afraid … the more you dumb it down, the less prepared they’ll be.”

BlackFem relies on its curriculum — which McKenzie calls its “secret sauce” — and highly trained teachers to achieve this accessibility. Teachers must be prepared to adapt their workshops and methods in order to relate to students coming from a wide range of educational backgrounds.

Ultimately, however, McKenzie is adamant that “it [doesn’t] matter if you had no education … or if you were in a failing school system — you can achieve financial literacy if it’s done the right way.”

“You don’t get to be like, ‘Oh well, the black kids from the poor areas don’t know how to learn,’” she said. “It’s like, ‘No, you don’t know how to teach!’ That’s the difference, right? It’s an adult problem — it’s a system problem.”

Professional Student
When McKenzie decided she wanted her non-profit to focus on educating women and girls of color, she knew she would need to prepare to justify her demographic choices to others.

“Pretty much everyone would know that women of color would be at the bottom of the totem pole, but I wanted it to be grounded in research,” McKenzie said. “Numbers don’t lie.” She found government reports and statistics on individual’s net worth in different social demographics and researched the history of how financial institutions have exploited communities of color. Eventually, she had the data and analysis to back her claims up to explain her choice of target demographic.

This practice of rooting her work in research comes directly from her time as an undergraduate, McKenzie said. At Amherst, she was an avid student, taking a new language every semester in addition to German. In her senior year, she wrote her thesis on rape in the military, a difficult and heavy experience that McKenzie describes as “the culminating moment of why Amherst was such an amazing experience.”

“If I could be a professional student that’s what I would be,” she said.

McKenzie directly attributes her success with BlackFem to the skills she learned as a student. “Going into the process and embracing everything you can learn is really important,” she said. “I think that’s why I’ve been able to successfully build my business.”

Radical, Intersectional Feminism
The concept of radical feminism is at the core of BlackFem’s values and practices, and McKenzie places it at the forefront of the company’s goals.

“We have to have our everyday practices informed by some version of radical feminism,” McKenzie said. “And to make it even better, intersectional radical feminism.”

“People are always like, ‘Oh, what’s your return on investment?’” McKenzie said. “And I’m like, ‘My return on my investment is that I have more girls now going into the economy who can make it better.’ Why are we not utilizing an entire demographic of people who could actually strengthen our economy?”

BlackFem’s commitment to intersectional feminist values is also informed by McKenzie’s personal and professional experiences as a black woman. In college, she felt unable to openly take pride in her identity as a woman of color. “I could be an athlete … I could be an LJST major, but could I be a black woman?” she recalls. “People had issues if you were that bold.”
At JP Morgan, McKenzie was the only woman and the only person of color on the trading floor. She said the experience was ultimately an empowering one, and she formed meaningful relationships and learned valuable skills. However, “having to deal with a hyper-masculine, overly-misogynistic frat house — let’s just call it that, because that’s all Wall Street really is — was tough.”

Although she still feels fear and self-doubt, McKenzie now sees them as something to welcome. “[BlackFem has] continued to grow, even with the mistakes I’ve made,” she said. “So I get to embrace waking up every day and feeling absolutely terrified and realizing if I don’t feel that way, then I’m doing something wrong.”