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John Hope Bryant

You’ve Got To Be Resilient. You Need To Take “No” For Vitamins. | John Hope Bryant

February 16, 2024

In this interview, John Hope Bryant reflects on key lessons from his upbringing, learning to take “no” for vitamins, ignore the noise, and be comfortable in your own skin.

Bryant is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Operation HOPE, Bryant Group Ventures, and The Promise Homes Company. This interview is part of our series, Leading in the B-Suite, with Rhonda Morris and The ExCo Group‘s Adam Bryant


Rhonda Morris: What early influences shaped who you are today?

John Hope Bryant: There was a mix of pain and promise early on. The promise came with my parents, who each had a high school education, coming out of the traditional South, where their grandparents had been either sharecroppers or slaves. We ended up in California, where I was born, and my father became a businessman. We very quickly became this family of hustlers, and I mean hustlers in the most positive sense of the phrase. We bought and controlled a number of small businesses and owned an eight-unit apartment building.

We lost it all because my dad was full of pride. My dad wasn’t greedy but was proud and slightly arrogant and would not ask my mother for help. My mother was a savings and investment genius. My dad was a great hustler, and he could have passed along the money he made to build it and grow it.

Their marriage fell apart, and I saw domestic violence when I was four years old. And when my dad took the $4,000 that my mother had saved to send my brother to the college of his choice, my mom said, “That’s it, I’m done,” and she left. So that was both the promise and the beginning of the pain. We lost all our generational wealth just like that, and my mom had to start over. Andrew Young, my mentor, said that men and women fall for three reasons: arrogance, pride, and greed.

We went to live with a friend of my mother’s, though she told us she was her cousin. And her friend had a boyfriend who everybody said was my uncle. He saved my life at one point because I was playing on his porch and fell backward. When I hit the ground, I started swallowing my tongue, and he cleared my throat. He was my hero, but he was later murdered in front of me, ultimately because he did not want to admit that he didn’t have enough money to take care of his family and ours.

Again, it was pride. If he had just talked to my mother, she would have pitched in with the monthly bills. But he sold drugs to help pay the bills, and the drug dealers murdered him. They hit him on his bicycle in front of the house so we’d get the message. I saw it because I was waiting for him to come home. I was seven and saw him get dragged down the street. Then, my best friend was murdered about a year and a half later because he was hanging out with the drug dealer next door.

I tell these stories because they are lost to history if I don’t. And I share those defining moments so that you’ll understand why I was ready to listen to the banker who came into my classroom when I was nine years old to teach us financial literacy. Everybody else in my classroom was throwing paper planes and staring at the ceiling, but I was curious because I wanted to get out of the hood alive, and I wanted to find a pathway to help get everybody else out of the hood alive. I wanted to be the pied piper for a whole new vision.

Because I know Black folks are smart. We were doing so much with so little for so long that we could almost do anything with nothing. And when the playing fields are level, we succeed. But capitalism was not built that way. It’s what we don’t know that we don’t know that’s killing us. We confuse making money with doing well because all we’ve ever done is hustle to get the next dollar. It’s common sense to do that to survive, but no one ever told us that the real game is wealth creation.

So, when this banker explained capitalism in our classroom when I was nine years old, I was pre-loaded for an explosion of activity heading in what I hoped would be the right direction. I asked the guy one question: How did you get rich legally? He said, “I’m a banker and finance entrepreneurs.” I was done. I didn’t know what an entrepreneur was, but I knew I would be one.

Adam Bryant: So what happened next?

John Hope Bryant: This is why I value “Ph.Do’s” as much as PhDs. Being smart is not enough. Having knowledge is one thing; moving on it is another. I went home, looked up the word entrepreneur in the dictionary, and saw all the businesses in my neighborhood in a new light.

I then went to see Mr. Mack, a local liquor store owner who also sold candy. I said, “Look, sir, you’re selling the wrong kind of candy. All my friends just come here because there’s nothing else in the neighborhood.” He said, “You’ve got a lot of chutzpah. Why don’t you come work for me?”

I worked on inventory for him, including keeping the refrigerated shelves stocked. He had all these lists in the back with wholesale prices, retail prices, and the markup. I quit three weeks later. I borrowed money from my mom to buy wholesale candy, got some racks I set up in our house, and put Mr. Mack out of the candy business. I probably started 100 businesses between the ages of 10 and 20, most of which failed, but that didn’t matter. I took “no” for vitamins at that point.

Rhonda Morris: How have you dealt with all the headwinds that you’ve inevitably faced because of your race?

John Hope Bryant: I just ignore the noise. It’s all just noise. To quote Quincy Jones, “Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me.” To argue with a fool proves there are two. I’m not as good as my compliments, and I’m not as bad as my criticisms. God made me unique. No one has my fingerprints. Why would I want to be somebody else? All I do is maximize my potential, be present in the moment, ignore the noise, and stay focused.

Adam Bryant: Why do you think it’s so hard for us to have honest conversations about race and racism and differences in this country?

John Hope Bryant: Because we’re still in a civil war. Americans fought against Americans on American soil, and after the Civil War, the Confederates took over and they stopped Reconstruction. And everything you saw after that was civil war by another name. We never healed, we’re still in this intractable family feud, and we haven’t made peace with our pain.

Rhonda Morris: Do you think that will happen—that we’ll make peace with our pain?

John Hope Bryant: We have to. We had a Noah’s Ark moment with the pandemic that shut down the economy. And so when George Floyd was murdered, everybody was at home and watched the video of what happened to him. And everybody agreed on one thing—that what happened to him was wrong.

Now we have to figure out whether we’re better together, and we have to do that pretty quickly because 40 percent of this country is Black and Brown for the first time in the history of this country. In 1952, 90 percent of America was White. So it didn’t matter back then what the 8 percent of Black and Brown people said, thought, or did. But not anymore.

Ultimately, we’re an economic democracy. We vote our pocketbooks. So the color is not Black or White. It’s really green. It’s always been green. Slavery was green. It’s always been about money. The only way we solve this is to get everybody to understand the green. Simple financial literacy is the civil rights issue of this generation. This is the third Reconstruction.

Adam Bryant: For many reasons, it feels like the broader sense of commitment to DEI efforts is waning.

John Hope Bryant: Absolutely. But rainbows only follow storms. You cannot grow without legitimate suffering. Where there’s no pain, there is no gain. So this is just a moment. Every time there’s progress, there’s pushback. This is political pushback. This is fear-based pushback. But I think that economics will force us to come together.

If Blacks succeed, all races win because all economic boats rise. It’s about undeniable economics. What are the most profitable companies in America? The ones that are most diverse and inclusive. What are the most prosperous regions in America? The ones that are the most diverse and inclusive. So I’m very optimistic.

Rhonda Morris: What career advice do you share with young Black Americans right now?

John Hope Bryant: Don’t give up. Take what you’re doing seriously, but not yourself. Learn to become reasonably comfortable in your own skin, which is self-esteem. Love yourself, but don’t be in love with yourself. Love yourself because if you don’t feel good about yourself, then you won’t feel good about others.

So learn to love yourself whole and complete, drama included, and understand that if you expect a little grace from others, you better show a little mercy. So if you’ve got a shot, an opportunity, give somebody else a shot.

Finally, you’ve got to be resilient. You need to take “no” for vitamins. Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm. Just never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever give up. And give back. So my advice is never to give up, love yourself, and give back.


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