‘Financial literacy’ is a term that often seems daunting to outsiders of Wall Street, and inaccessible to people lacking higher education or societal power. Chloe B. McKenzie’s mission is to lift this proverbial iron curtain. “I don’t think anyone talks about activist investors at all,” she tells L’Officiel USA. “People associate activist investors with wealthy white men.” A published author, CEO of her own non-profit organization, BlackFem, and wealth gap and financial trauma researcher, McKenzie dedicates her time toward educating the Black female community on how to find inner peace when building wealth at every age. Her book, The Activist Investor, is a detailed guide on how to create systemic-based change through careful investing, while McKenzie's non-profit BlackFem's curriculum targets girls as young as elementary school, giving them tools to build a healthy relationship with money early on. McKenzie spoke with L'Officiel USA about the creative ways in which she is altering the exclusionary nature of finance.
L’Officiel: In a few sentences, can you describe who you are and what you do?
Chloe B. McKenzie: Yes! The work that I do sits at the intersection of finance education, social justice, and the visual and performing arts. On one hand, I consider myself to be what I call a ‘financial artist,’ but I’m also a researcher. Essentially, my personal mission is to close the gap for Black women and women of color, but I use different media platforms to be able to do that by helping people get educated about the wealth gap, building wealth-building capability, and having a healthier relationship with money and wealth.
L’O How did you first become interested in developing the financial education of young women?
CBM: I always thought that I would become a lawyer, but I started my career as a trader on Wall Street and fell in love with finance. However, I also felt morally bankrupt a lot of the time because I was trading student loans, credit card receivables, mortgages—the average debt that Americans touch.
I became a financial counselor at a homeless shelter, and that’s where I started to understand the disproportionate impact wealth inequality has on Black women and women of color. Then I really dove deeper into wealth inequality as a research issue, and wanted to ensure that the financial education that we provide for people not only helps us understand how to build wealth, but also help us heal from what I call ‘financial trauma.' I believe that marginalized populations have a kind of spiritual injury from all of the oppression that America has been built upon, from a financial perspective.
L’O: Can you expand more on financial artistry? What does it mean to be a financial artist?
CBM: When I started my research on how to effectively get people to address financial education, I began with this question: ‘What are the narratives that are made available to us that structure our relationship with money and wealth?’ I realized that a lot of the narratives that surround us on social media, in blogs, in our news, and even in our textbooks make us feel some sort of shame about money, like ‘This twenty-something paid off her loans in five days but you suck because you haven’t done the same thing'—that type of negative energy. So I realized that the visual and performing arts are these narratives that really speak to people. Art is one of those universal healers, but it’s also a way for us to have an entry point into finding a spiritual awakening around these issues. I see what I do not as ‘curriculum,’ but as helping people structure a healthier relationship with money and wealth. I do so by using music, visual arts, and traditional educational methods.
L’O: Why do you target students as young as kindergarten? Do you think it’s important to become financially literate at a young age?
CBM: The wealth gap is the most damaging and intractable inequality facing Black women and women of color. The median net worth for a Black woman is five dollars. The median net worth for a Hispanic woman is zero. Because the wealth gap disproportionately affects women of color, the only way to really create sustainable systemic-based change is to intervene as early as possible. With BlackFem, which is my non-profit, I work with students specifically through schools, but then I also do all of this other wealth justice and activism work for adults. There’s this incredible study that I’ve been building off in my own research that says that three-year-olds are actually building off narratives in their own head about how money and value show up in their lives. If that’s the case, then we need to start putting these narratives into their lives as early as K and pre-K.
L’O Why did you decide to write The Activist Investor? What was your aim in writing it?
CBM: I was proof-reading one of my best friend’s final law school papers, which happened to be on activist investing, and I thought it was really unique that becoming a shareholder of a publicly shared corporation gives you a right to vote on who sits on the board. I realized that in today’s political environment, corporations have a huge influence on where our country and our politics are going. I had this kind of crazy idea that if every marginalized person in America bought one share in a publicly traded corporation, we would actually have a controlling interest in that company. We would be able to put whoever we thought made sense to be on that board, which would completely restructure the way that politics looks. If people were going to pick up on this, I wanted to be able to say: you can build wealth and be an activist at the same time.
What’s cool about being an activist investor is that: 1) you don’t have to be a citizen to get a broker’s account to then leverage your right as a shareholder, affecting change on a corporate level, and 2) you can build wealth while using the landscape of the American political system. I thought that was a cool entry point for young people who are looking for a way that they can start building wealth but at the same time actually make some serious change, and they don’t have to wait every 2-4 years for congressional or presidential elections.
I also realize that a lot of Black culture influences profit centers in a lot of these corporations. If Black people and their culture are creating so many of these profits for these companies, but not reaping the benefit of the wealth being generated, then that’s what I call wealth injustice. I wanted to provide a solution for our culture to be able to be involved and reap the benefits of that wealth creation.
L’O: What advice do you have for young women trying to become more financially literate?
CBM: This might be controversial, but I don’t actually think wealth can be quantified. Unfortunately, we live in a society where the essence of our relationship with money is rooted in quantity, which creates really toxic habits that harm our ability to become financially literate. So what I like to say is that your feelings, as it relates to money, is as much of an asset as any type of economic instrument—like a bank account or brokerage account or a house. My biggest piece of advice is to start exploring the first time you actually experienced the power of money and wealth, because often, I’ve realized in my research, those tend to be moments of violation, like maybe your lights got turned off as a kid because your parents couldn’t afford something. Those types of financial abuse show up a lot when we’re trying to build up our financial literacy. Finance is much more of a spiritual, community-based experience than something technical. We intuitively know how to do it. The reason why we actually don’t follow our budget is because of those more emotional things impeding us because we haven’t processed some of the financial trauma that’s previously shown up in our lives.
L’O: What’s your next project you’ll be focusing on?
CBM: I am working on more research in financial trauma, shame, and abuse. I just chopped off all of my hair during quarantine and went completely natural, and one of my biggest projects is going to be exploring the relationship that Black women have with their hair and with money—people may think they’re not connected, but I’m finding a lot of evidence that they are. I’m trying to build a platform of narratives where Black women can begin building better financial literacy just talking about their hair in community with each other. I want to put better narratives out there in the world so that we can have a better relationship with money.