A billionaire hedge fund manager and a famous rapper look at capitalism the same way: An opportunity to ‘even that playing field’ in the business world

November 30, 2022, 5:39 PM UTC
Tony Ressler and Killer Mike onstage with Fortune CEO Alan Murray at the Fortune Impact Initiative conference, Nov. 29, 2022.
Photograph by Erik Meadows/Fortune

Capitalism is alive and well in hip-hop. 

Musicians today are carrying forward the genre’s tradition of speaking out on the perils of social inequality and the importance of helping their communities, but some think of capitalism as one of the most effective tools to do so.

Michael “Killer Mike” Render counts himself as one of those artists. The Atlanta-born, Grammy Award–winning rapper and activist has been making waves in civil rights and social justice movements in recent years, speaking out against police brutality toward African Americans and criticizing systemic racism

In 2020, Render cofounded Greenwood, a digital bank platform named after the Tulsa neighborhood that was in 1921 the site of one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history. Greenwood has a mission to serve underbanked Black and Latino communities across the country, and was recently valued at $325 million.

Growing up in an entrepreneurial family that owned its own farm and several rental properties, Render said Tuesday, while speaking to Fortune CEO Alan Murray at the Fortune Impact Initiative conference in Atlanta, that he “understood the power of a dollar very quickly.” And he said projects like Greenwood can work within the capitalist system to provide more equal opportunities for all Americans.

“I didn’t become a raging capitalist overnight. But as I began to work in activism I understood that the same people you were rallying against, you were going to their foundations asking for money, whether it be the Rockefellers or the Carnegies,” he said.

Render was onstage next to Tony Ressler, owner of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team and a billionaire hedge fund manager whose firm, Ares Management, handles $340 billion in assets worldwide. Ressler, who is an investor in Greenwood, agreed that committing to social equity causes has become a leading concern in the business world, and that the capitalist system could be engineered to achieve positive social outcomes.

“The truth is capitalism can be made better, and I’m a huge believer that we can make capitalism work for more. And that’s what people with influence should be trying to do,” Ressler said.

Ressler added that the business has gone through momentous changes in the past few decades. He says that 40 years ago, the primary focus was simply “getting ahead,” but operations like his are now seeing a much bigger push, both from inside and outside the company, to prioritize social causes, too, including his $5 million promise to the Atlanta-based Russell Center, an initiative aimed at facilitating entrepreneurship for Black Atlantans.

“Being more active socially, being more active in your community, having a focus on how to become a more diverse business. That’s not just good business. And it’s not just better for society, but it’s also what the vast majority of our employees want to see us do,” Ressler said.

Render said that Ressler made him realize how his social activist side could reconcile with moneymaking pursuits, and that investing in people and initiatives was the best way capitalism could help push forward social justice goals. 

“I understood that if I became the person to generate money, to provide jobs, to help communities through letting people help themselves—that that was more valuable to what I wanted to see overall,” Render said.

Render mentioned his idea for a “20-year plan” to achieve real change in capitalism and social movements, centered on education to ensure equal opportunities. Ressler agreed that a big part of his investments now center on how to “even that playing field” and place everyone in a position to have their ideas heard.

“Education is great for this country,” Ressler said, citing the example of his investment in the Russell Center, which he described as a place to “help young entrepreneurs or entrepreneurs of color access capital and mentorship, where it’s been more difficult for them, but yet their business opportunity is just as attractive as any other.”

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