July 17th, 2014
Bolder Giving/Bolder Investing: Move Your Money to Align with Your Values
I never used the word philanthropy, but I grew up with its finest traditions disguised in plain sight as Black culture. My grandfather was the abstract impressionist painter Norman Lewis, and his legacy to our family has many complexities, shaping my experiences around money, philanthropy, and the world.
Far from the reaches of New York’s cultural scene, I spent my early years in “Small Town” New Jersey. As the only Black American family for miles around, we endured bigoted profanities painted on our fence and being run off the road on our bicycles. Yet somehow I managed to fit in as an academically-minded and sports-oriented kid; I even served as class president for several years.
My father earned a professional salary, but struggled with demons, some inherited and others self-imposed. We were fortunate to escape poverty that still haunts some extended family members, but when the economic bottom fell out after my parents divorced, the art scene extended cultural richness without a steady economic foundation. Financial boom and bust cycles were the norm. It felt like we were living the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, culturally fluent with power brokers while living without electricity and other essentials at an upscale address, dangerously close to homelessness and food pantries.
In our family’s times of need, we received kind support and whenever possible, we too, provided food, sent money, and regularly shared our home with anyone who needed it without expecting anything in return. At times, our home felt like a boarding house. But sharing was a way of life, a natural tide that flowed through our doors.
After my parents divorced, we landed in the SoHo artist community with my maternal grandmother. I was free to blend in and explore the big city. And yet, even where “otherness” thrived, I felt a degree of separation that kept me from completely fitting in. Thus, a young man’s existential exploration and wanderlust led me to a French boarding school for two years and Hong Kong for three (my intended destination was Senegal) to study economic development and international business.
Returning to New York and successfully securing several windfalls at Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, I wanted my money and connections to add up to social impact. Having personally benefitted from mentorship opportunities, I went rogue with friends to create an (initially unsanctioned) internship program introducing youth from Newark NJ to the world of finance, organizing SAT preparation, and connecting them with college and scholarship opportunities. We even helped some secure jobs at financial institutions. It was deeply satisfying to help change life trajectories.
In 2009, I teamed up with Lola West (civil rights activist, Wall Street pioneer, mentor and business partner since 2004) to launch Westfuller Advisors. We work with some of the leading philanthropists in NY – folks creating profound legacies. Each year, we’ve given a percentage of profits now reaching a steady 20% to the non-profit community. We give at that level because it’s where our personal histories lead us. I am grateful to make more money than I ever imagined, but when I turned 30, I asked myself what would bring happiness?
For me, money is a means to critically impact sustainable change. I try to move beyond a scarcity mentality and approach my giving not as charity, but a way of life. Committed to expanding wealth creation in underserved communities, some friends and I created a fund that supports social entrepreneurs focused on low-income communities. We invest in women and minority owned businesses working to improve low-income communities and drive incentives for everyone like solar retrofitting projects or high-end food services for public schools that promote delectable nutrition.
I still organize financial literacy workshops through different organizations, sharing what I’ve learned to help low income teens develop their full human potential. And I consistently return to the arts as a vehicle for strengthening and building community. I find personal meaning in supporting organizations like City Without Walls in Newark that provides arts education and supports emerging artists.
Along the way, I was introduced to Resource Generation, a group that organizes young people with financial wealth to leverage resources and privilege for social change. Attending their annual Making Money Making Change (MMMC) conference, I found a community of young people looking to create the world they want to see. I seek deep interconnectedness with my community of family and friends and feel inspired by the beauty of those around me. MMMC is one of those spaces offering me that grounding.
Sharing is an inherited legacy, an art form gifted to me. My grandfather’s work, often but not exclusively referred to Black American settings and culture. He contributed to the civil rights movement through art and I feel privileged to be his grandson. I am trying to do my part to enrich the world as my family has. Sometimes, I feel ordinary in an extraordinary world. But when I invest in people and their efforts to change communities, I feel extraordinary in my ability to impact change. That’s the power of philanthropy in plain sight.