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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
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

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New York Times

 

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On background

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Vox

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Moodboard

"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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