For Chicago-based investor and philanthropist John Rogers, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s annual Wall Street Project in New York City is a must-attend event.
The three days of seminars and speeches in the Big Apple every winter is a chance for Rogers, the son of a Tuskegee Airman, and other African American businessmen and women to share notes and strategies on how to break into, survive and ultimately thrive in the largely White world of Wall Street by gaining access to capital.
But for African Americans, Wall Street is riddled with potholes. Many of the country’s major hospitals, universities and other institutions with huge portfolios to invest “have never worked with Black firms,” Rogers says. “They have never had their ‘Jackie Robinson moment.’”
Even now, with a Black man in the White House, Wall Street, Rogers says, can feel like “modern day Jim Crow.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson, the founder and president of Rainbow PUSH, created the Wall Street Project nearly 20 years ago to spark that “Jackie Robinson moment” by providing an opportunity for participants to hear from and meet some of the biggest names in finance and politics. It was at this conference where Rev. Jackson first introduced Rogers, chairman of Ariel Investments, to the CEO of General Motors.
Today, General Motors is one of Ariel’s largest clients.
“There is no talent deficit,” Rev. Jackson says. “There is an opportunity deficit.”
This is the conference’s 19th year and will be held from Feb. 16 through Feb. 18 at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel. This year’s lineup of heavy hitters includes John Thompson, CEO of Microsoft, Sheila C. Johnson, founder and CEO, Salamander Hospitality and co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and United States Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY).
There will be panels on “Corporate Finance and Equity Syndicates,” “Corporate Board Diversity,” “Global Economic Expansion Opportunities” and “Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Reconnecting and Sustaining Relationships with Wall Street.”
There will also be two international sessions, featuring high ranking U.S. and foreign government officials. “Global Economic Expansion” will feature panelists from different industries from across the globe, including Akwasi Opong-Fosu, Minister of State, Office of the President of Ghana and the keynote speaker, H.E. Eucatio Bakale, Minister of Economy, Planning & Public Investment, the Republic of Equatorial Guinea. That panel will be followed by “The South Africa – US Business Forum” with Florizelle Liser, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa, Mzwandile Masina, Deputy Minister of the Department of Trade & Industry, South Africa and Elizabeth Thabete, Deputy Minster, Department of Small Business, South Africa.
The Wall Street Project uses Operation Breadbasket’s model of research, education, negotiation and reconciliation to challenge Corporate American to end its shameful, multi-billion dollar trade deficit with minority vendors and consumers. “Unless we knock on the right doors, the doors will not come open,” Rev. Jackson says.
Sadly, the Wall Street Project has often been a voice in the wilderness. Richard Manson, CEO and president of SourceMark, a medical and surgical supply company, says, “Had we listened and taken action” 19 years ago when Rev. Jackson started pushing for more engagement with Wall Street, more awareness of the street’s vast power, “I think we’d be a lot better shape than we are now.”
For Rev. Jackson, the Wall Street Project is part of “the fourth stage of our struggle” for freedom and equity. The first stage was surviving the horrors of slavery, a 242-year sojourn. The second was “the season of Jim Crow and lynching when 4,500 African Americans were lynched.” The third stage was fighting for and winning the right to vote.
Those stages of the struggle left Black people “out of slavery, out of Jim Crow, with the right the vote” and almost “starving to death” because “we were denied access to capital.”
“We are free,” Rev. Jackson says. “But not equal. Effort and excellence means a lot. Inheritance and access means more.”
Access and opening doors is what the Wall Street Project is all about.
“We have never lost a battle we fought,” Rev. Jackson says. “And we have never won a battle we did not fight.”