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Paypal cements the legacy of Maggie Lena Walker

October 6, 2021, 8:05 PM UTC

We are here to praise Maggie Lena Walker’s name.

Walker became the first Black woman to lead a bank in the U.S. when she opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia, in 1903. By 1920, the bank had financed more than 600 home and business loans for Black families and ultimately held the equivalent of millions of dollars on deposit. And until it closed in 2005, it was the longest continuously-operating Black-owned bank in U.S. history.

Courtesy of The National Park Service/NPS

And yet, most people don’t know her name.

St. Luke’s was more than just a bank. For this child of a formerly enslaved, illiterate mother (conceived, historians believe, via rape committed by a white Confederate soldier) it was a movement to uplift Black women and communities, and a harbinger of financial activism to come.

The bank itself was both a revolution and evolution. 

It started as the Independent Order of St. Luke, a mutual benefit society created by a free Black woman after the Civil War to help provide financial and education assistance to Black people. It had, as a central operating feature, a commitment to uplift the Black women upon whose shoulders Black families and communities depended. Walker had started working there as a teenager and had risen through the ranks to lead the national organization. “Who is so helpless as the Negro woman?” Walker, then 37, asked in a speech in 1901. “Who is so circumscribed and hemmed in, in the race of life, in the struggle for bread, meat and clothing, as the Negro woman?”

Walker, then propose a bold vision. A department store to provide jobs and support suppliers. A newspaper to combat Jim Crow narratives.  But “[f]irst, we need a savings bank,” she said. “Let us put our moneys together…Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”

Let us indeed.

It is this spirit of vision, focus, and financial activism at scale that is at the heart of a new award in her name, established by Paypal to support the work of trailblazing women from underrepresented communities who are doing similarly outstanding work — this time, with new and modern tools at their disposal.

The Maggie Lena Walker Award announced its first honorees last week, four women — one an established leader and three up-and-coming — operating in different spheres but with the potential to have tremendous impact. Full disclosure: I was one of a diverse slate of reviewers — along with Liza Walker Mickens, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and co-founder of Vote Equality — that selected the winners. It was a surprisingly joyous duty. More on that in a moment. 

And here they are:

Achievement Award 

  • Kathryn Finney, founder and CEO, Genius Guild; general partner, The Greenhouse Fund: Finney has dedicated her career to investing in Black women-owned startups and empowering entrepreneurs who are breaking the glass ceiling and claiming their spot in industries that have historically excluded them. Through Genius Guild, a business creation platform that invests in Black entrepreneurs, and Greenhouse Fund, a pre-seed venture fund that invests in market-based innovations that end racism, she is rethinking and rebuilding how capital flows and is accessed in Black communities across the county.

Emerging Leader Award:  

  • Sheena Allen, founder and CEO, CapWay: Allen is the youngest woman to own and operate a digital bank in the U.S. Growing up in a town with only one bank, she saw first-hand the financial hardships suffered by the underbanked. In 2017, she founded CapWay, a digital bank and financial technology company focused on creating economic access and opportunities through inclusive financial products.
  • Chloe B. McKenzie, founder, BlackFem: As the founder of BlackFem, McKenzie is working to close the racial and gender wealth gap by mobilizing cities, political systems, cultural centers and education systems to be the mechanism through which we maximize the wealth-building capabilities of Black women and women of color, their families and their communities.
  • Vanessa Roanhorse, CEO, Roanhorse Consulting; co-founder, Native Women Lead: Roanhorse has spent her career building a better future for marginalized communities. Through Roanhorse Consulting, she informs how funders, investors and institutions in the Southwest approach inclusive economic development initiatives that impact Indigenous people and their communities. Through Native Women Lead, she has helped to co-develop one of the only organizations in the world that centers around Indigenous female founders, providing them the resources and connections they need to grow their businesses and livelihoods.

The award comes with mentorship from the Paypal ecosystem, which given their significant relationships across all sectors of business, is no small thing. And they’re paying these women up to $50,000 cash money dollars to help them expand their work. (Cash is queen, in my book.)

Having spent a good bit of time exploring their work, I am enormously impressed by these four mission-driven, entrepreneurial women. But what struck me during the entire evaluation process was how many viable candidates there were out there in the world. They are not outliers and this is not a drill. The short list was so impressive that the reviewers lobbied unanimously to share the names of all the final-stage candidates, so please do check out their stories and add their names to your binders of amazing Black women to be praised, supported, invited to speak at conferences, and paid cash money. 

And therein lies the joyous part. 

By praising Maggie Lena Walker’s name now, we have the opportunity to understand the world through the eyes of all the Kathryn Finneys, Sheena Allens, Chloe B. McKenzies, Vanessa Roanhorses, and the communities they seek to serve through entrepreneurship and financial inclusion and beyond. The pipeline of women worthy of the award is full and inspiring and in urgent need of our attention. It’s the legacy Walker deserves, and the future we all need.

Ellen McGirt

On Point

We need to talk about the Black talent pipeline In a job-seekers market, during a time of massive disruption, Black unemployment should not have increased as it did in August. This is just the most recent sign that disparities continue to exist in recruiting, hiring and promotion say two prominent CEOs in this powerful opinion piece. Maurice A. Jones, the CEO of OneTen, and Byron Auguste, CEO of Opportunity@Work, share similar missions: To modernize the labor and recruitment markets to allow previously undervalued talent to thrive. In the case of Black talent, they recommend a focused approach to understanding the capacity of the Black talent already in the workforce. It’s time to re-think credentials. “When companies require a four-year degree, they screen out more than two-thirds of today’s Black workers for a wide range of jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage without even assessing the skills that could qualify them for those roles.”

Unpacking Ozy While much has and will continue to be written about the downfall of all-buzz-no-traffic Ozy Media and charismatic co-founder Carlos Watson (here’s the column that kicked off the scandal and an update on their plans) here are two pieces worth considering for context. First, what made Watson such a big money darling? And what did the billionaire-adjacent culture do to management? This dispatch from former Ozy editor Eugene S. Robinson describes a brutal culture that traversed some complex racial terrain. “You know I’ve had many bosses over my life but I’ve only had one boss who looked like me, and curiously, this was the worst boss I ever had,” he writes. “In fact, some of the African American employees felt that there were two OZY’s. The white OZY and the Black OZY, where like America, employees were treated worse.” Below is an opinion piece from Lauren Williams, the CEO of Capital B, a nonprofit news organization for Black communities. In it, she describes the uniquely fraught landscape for serious journalists looking to serve Black audiences. Yes, the Ozy story is wild, she says, but mostly it’s “a stark reminder of the type of company and content that attracts the big money and how few profitable paths exist for serious Black news.”  And that problem won’t be extinguished as easily as Ozy.
New York Times

Fire all over the stage I recently caught up with author, BNC anchor, and columnist Charles Blow at the annual conference held by global equity-focused research thinktank, Coqual. While we spent most of our time talking about diversity and authenticity in corporate life, I took the opportunity to ask him about the adaptation of his exceptional 2014 memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones which debuted at the Metropolitan Opera last week. He described watching it as otherworldly. “My life, up there, while everyone was watching me watch it!” It’s also the Met’s first work by a Black composer, jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, well known for this work scoring Spike Lee’s films. The New York Times sent both two critics, one who specializes in classical music, the other in jazz, to sort out just how unique this work is. Pour yourself a cuppa something and pretend you’re sitting next to them at a dinner party.
New York Times


This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On background

And now a word about ‘Latinx’ Terry Blas is an author, illustrator, comic book artist and an occasional but delightful member of the explanation community. In this comic, he takes on the term “Latinx” the gender-neutral version of an already imperfect general term for people of Latin heritage. While it may work well in the U.S. or countries who aren’t primarily Spanish speaking, it’s doesn’t work well in Spanish-speaking countries. It’s more of a grammar thing, really. The “x” is not only hard to pronounce, it’s not scalable as a solution: It makes gendered words, of which there are muchos/muchas, unconjugatable. But inclusion-minded Spanish speakers are substituting “e” instead. It’s working for them! “Amigos” becomes “amigues” and “Latino” becomes “Latines.” What do you think? Try it out on your compañeres de trabajo and see what they say.

The devil in the advocate Maya Rupert holds nothing back in this essay on the painful folly of playing “devil’s advocate” when it comes to something as important as race. Particularly now. Discussions about race are already necessary, but now, in a time of heightened white supremacy sentiment, there is “a dangerous tendency for white people to engage in these discussions with people of color by summoning the devil himself and treating racism as a political disagreement around which two opposing viewpoints can reasonably form.” What you’re asking when you play devil’s advocate is for a person of color to justify to you their own value, safety and status.  It’s an act of cruelty, she says. “There is no way to productively ask a person to participate in an argument that questions their equality as an epistemological experiment,” she says. And yet, we still try.

A Japanese town that is filled with life-sized dolls The scarecrow looked so much like her father, recently passed, that neighbors spoke to it with reverence. It was then that Japanese artist Tsukimi Ayano began to see an opportunity to replace the dwindling population of her rural village with life-sized human tributes of friends and neighbors. Now, Nagoro has more dolls than human inhabitants, working in fields, waiting for the bus, teaching in a now abandoned school. “When I make dolls of dead people I think about them when they were alive and healthy. The dolls are like my children.”  The effect is both haunting and beautiful, as this six-minute documentary shows. Enjoy.
National Geographic




"Forget about upholding the tradition and just play who you really are." Terence Blanchard
Marvin Joseph—The Washington Post/Getty Images

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