By the time Chloe McKenzie ’14 had finished her junior year at Amherst, she had a position lined up as a mortgage trader at a major investment bank. She graduated the next year and headed off to Wall Street for a job she loved, but she soon realized that it only “checked one of the boxes” she needed to be happy.
"We could make millions of dollars off of people’s inability to pay a $500 mortgage in Randomsville, Iowa,” she says. “It was intellectually stimulating, and I was never bored, but I also wanted something that made me feel full in the sense that I was helping people.”
That desire led to BlackFem Inc., a nonprofit she started in 2015 with a mission of teaching financial literacy to women and girls of color. It finished its first year on a budget of $50,000. Now, the organization is set to triple the number of programs it offers, thanks to new partnerships with schools and school districts around the country.
“I really love finance, but I really want it to be more service-oriented,” she says. BlackFem’s target audience is females of color between the ages of 4 and 30, and indirectly their parents and guardians, with the aim of creating opportunities for them to build and sustain wealth.
McKenzie, who is founder and CEO, has a full-time staff of six, two advisers and a small board of directors (including George Tepe ’14). She and her team run programs including workshops for college and graduate students on debt management, assessing the financial environment, and understanding benefits packages, insurance and taxes. This spring she’ll come to Amherst to talk with students about how to budget their Center for Community Engagement internship funding.
For high school students, BlackFem’s programs explore, for example, what it means to be a loan officer or a financial aid officer. A component on “parsing the student loan” gets young people to think about how to approach investing in their own education. “I can also talk about what it’s like to be a trader on Wall Street,” says McKenzie. “Since I was one, I know how it works.” She has students practice making their own investments with a simulator that lets them track the implications of various trading decisions.
A curriculum for third- through eighth-graders, called “Time is Money,” is designed to get girls in low-income families to think about money in ways that “begin to challenge the likelihood that their futures will be fraught with uninformed economic decisions.” The curriculum for pre-K through second grade aims to give children a sense of large numbers in the thousands, ten thousands and hundred thousands. It introduces them to the term “compound interest.” It also teaches them how to open a savings account.
McKenzie’s goal is to teach people not how to get rich but instead how to build and sustain wealth methodically, even intergenerationally. Among BlackFem’s corporate partners is Capital One, which McKenzie admires for its work to make responsible banking services available to underserved communities. BlackFem challenges and educates lending institutions, including Capital One, on how to better serve low-income communities.
BlackFem’s programs have reached more than 500 women and girls of color since June 2016. McKenzie’s plan is to increase that number to 5,000 in 2017 and to keep scaling up from there.
McKenzie chose the name BlackFem because, on one hand, she wanted it to have a mainstream ring. It doesn’t sound out of place alongside established asset management firms such as BlackRock and Blackstone. On the other hand, she wanted to make the mission clear. In black feminism, she says, there is this idea that “if you liberate the people at the bottom, then you liberate everybody.”