A graduate of University of Michigan’s Business School, Ryan Mack wants to spread financial literacy across the world. Ryan Mack began his career in Detroit, Michigan as a stock trader. He then worked as a trader for Knight Securities, the largest NASDAQ trading firm in the nation. In 2003, Mack started his own financial awareness group, publishing regular newsletters about financial-related issues that appeal to people from all income levels.
Although Mack had the opportunity to further his career with several of the nation’s largest financial planning firms, he believed there was a void in the financial planning industry, so he started his own company, Optimum Capital Management. Since then, Mack has been profiled in Black Enterprise Magazine; he has appeared regularly on major networks such as CNN and BET and was awarded the Tom Joyner "Hardest Working Financial Advisor" National Award.
I reached out to Ryan Mack and met him in uptown Manhattan to talk about his career and perspective on individual and global financial matters.
MC: Why did you decide to start your own financial planning firm when you could have advanced your career with other financial firms?
RM: Essentially, other financial planning companies did not cater to a broad demographic of clientele. I wanted to start a company that didn’t only deal with high net worth individuals, but that dealt with a more broad scope: individuals who are working class, who are in poverty, individuals who are high net worth as well, black, white, it doesn’t matter what race, creed, or religion; something that just really opened the doors of financial literacy and education to everyone.
MC: So you saw that the other firms were only catering towards higher net worth people?
RM: I was told that unless you work only with high net worth individuals, everything else is just a waste of time, by someone who worked in that organization. So, I decided to say "let me step out on faith and realize that I have the power within me to service individuals like my own family". Neither my father nor my mother is from a high net worth background. They were not individuals that are considered investment savvy or financial experts. Nonetheless, we needed fiscal responsibility and principles that can enhance our fiscal responsibility just as much as everyone else. As a matter of fact, even more so [since] individuals, who are earning less, are impacted greater by hardships of awful economic times, so they need services as well.
MC: Do you offer certain packages those people can afford or do you still offer them at high prices?
RM: What we do is that we have a for-profit company, but we also formed a non-for-profit company for those individuals that can’t afford our services. We’re doing 4 to 6 workshops per month and we’re doing a lot of economic programs every month. We have a program amassing a lot of organizations that work specifically with either formally incarcerated individuals, individuals that are hard to employ, troubled youth, troubled teens and we’re trying to amass that population in order to teach them and educate them about the principles of fiscal responsibility. So it’s not necessarily just through service through our company, which we do have packages that we can help individuals to implement…rich and poor.
MC: What common mistake do you see people making with their finances and how do you think this can be avoided with proper financial planning?
RM: The common mistake is probably as almost as if you have a cavity in your mouth and you know you have a cavity, you know you have a problem, but you don’t want to fix it. So a lot of individuals are aware that they’re not necessarily fiscally responsible. 41% of this country has a net worth of under $1,000 and over 90% of this country is unable to support themselves after 65 years of age without family or social security. So that means that 9 out of 10 individuals are not saving correctly, not budgeting responsibly. We’ve seen what happened with this economic crisis. A huge part of it was that these mortgage brokers were able to sell products to these individuals, who weren’t necessarily ready to purchase a home yet, they foreclosed, the bottom fell out and the financial crisis happened. Of course the massive growth of the credit default swap market probably played an even larger impact, but it was triggered by individuals not knowing enough about the products they were purchasing.
MC: How did you go about being featured on networks such as CNN and BET? Did you approach them or did they approach you?
RM: Well, they asked me because I’m very active, I’m always in the community, I’m always teaching, I’m always going out and reaching out to people to teach in a classroom setting or workshop setting. We really go "beyond the pale" to really make sure we’re getting this information out to people as much as possible, wherever possible, regardless of the demographic, regardless of their income, regardless of the location. We traveled to South Africa, we traveled to California, we’ve been to the Dominican Republic, we’ve been to Haiti; we go everywhere to teach to make sure we get this information out. And that’s how essentially CNN was like "wow, these guys are really diligent". We have a huge network of 20,000 people who, at a drop of a dime, we can send e-mails and newsletters out to. So CNN caught wind of us, and it just built from there.
It started in the projects of LafayetteGardens in Brooklyn teaching financial literacy and I just kept going, doing 4 to 6 workshops a month, no matter what. I’m putting newsletters out, I’m hustling, I’m advertising; I’m doing whatever I gotta do to get this message out and CNN said that ‘this guy is pretty good’. The best way to learn something is to teach. So in the process of me teaching it, I’m learning it just that more fervently, so at the end of the day, the skills inside of me got more enhanced, so they started realizing that "this is a financial expert. Let’s put this guy on the camera".
MC: So, tell me about your world travels of spreading financial literacy across countries like South Africa. Did you find it harder and more challenging to teach people in other countries?
RM: I actually thought that South Africa was a great trip. We taught hundreds of students about financial literacy. I thought that it was even easier to communicate the principles then in the U.S. They were even hungrier. Wherever there’s poverty, you’ll see hunger and creativity. They were eager to learn, ready to listen to ideas, ready to implement ideas; whatever they needed to do to get out of that poverty stricken environment. It was actually very encouraging when I came back to the states. You go from shanty towns of people who have four wall shacks and no toilets, just an outhouse, and really no resources at all and their very hungry. You come back here [U.S.] and you go on a public housing tour and see the people living in public housing with DVDs, satellite television and all sorts of amenities that are not necessary to live. It really just shows you what our idea of poverty is, compared to what their idea of poverty is. So it inspired me to really get out there and get more active.
MC: Tell me about that after school mentoring program you have. I read that you’re in your fifth year already. How’s that going along?
RM: It’s going great. Some of my students are actually writing their first book this summer called Memoirs of AAB. It’s a financial literacy book written by teenagers for the purpose of educating adults and everybody. So, it’s really not a youth book; it’s a book that everybody can pick up. They’re going great with meeting on almost every Saturday. Marquise Terry and Clarissa Garcia are gathering folks together to do more outreach programs, too. It’s really going to start picking up soon over the summer time as students are coming home from school. We really try to get these kids active. They’ve been on BET, Black Enterprise Magazine, CNN, Hot 97; they’re all over the place just teaching.
MC: So, you teach them how to teach?
RM: Yeah, we work with them, we teach them, and essentially the best way to learn something is to teach it. So as I’m teaching them, I’m teaching them how to teach financial literacy. Therefore, they’re taking the principles and they’re really internalizing these principles within themselves, empowering a whole lot of folks.
MC: Do you see that teenagers and college students have an advantage when it comes to taking in financial principles compared to older people?
RM: It’s that idea that they have less boundaries, less limits, less preconceived notions of what is and what is not possible. When you’re a baby, you never really think twice about learning how to walk. When someone teaches a baby how to walk, they don’t worry about falling and hitting their head. The younger you are, the less inhibitions you have about actually trying to reach certain goals. I realized that those who are young really have so few inhibitions and they really think that they can ‘reach the sky’ and if they can ‘grab the moon’ they’ll go forward. As opposed to adults who have a lot of skepticism, cynicism, and pessimism. It’s a perception of what people think or feel that they can not achieve, based on their surroundings. Whereas with the young folks, you can inject a sense of pride and faith within them so that they can say ‘regardless of my surroundings, I can overcome and achieve. The word says ‘no weapon formed against me shall prosper’, but a lot of older folks say ‘you know what, racism; I might not be able to overcome that’ or ‘classism; that’s a little too tough for me’. They’re more prone to having that victim’s mentality. We work with everybody, but the younger folks have gravitated very nicely.
MC: So what does the typical schedule of Ryan Mack look like?
RM: Well, today, I just dropped off my father to the airport; I had a couple of conference calls this morning, I have a workshop this evening with a group of folks who work with formally incarcerated individuals to see if we can coalesce and pool people together to work with individuals who are hard to employ. It all depends on the day. It’s always different. It really depends on who I need to teach and who we need to outreach to. We just started another company called EconNetwork.com, combining athletes and using athletes as the face of town hall meetings to help them advertise town hall meetings across the country. We have professional athletes, entertainers, and celebrities, and get them out there. Nobody really wants to see come and see Ryan Mack, but they’ll come to see a Terrell Owens or another local athlete that’s famous, then all of a sudden here I am, and I’ll come behind their notoriety and their fame to teach financial literacy. It’s almost like a ‘sucker punch’ to get people to come out. We’re also coalescing professionals across the country to start contributing to the website.
The main venture is just teaching. It’s always fun, it’s always different, there’s never a dull moment, it’s a 24 hour a day job, always thinking about different things and ideas and strategies we can put together to empower the community. These times are so crucial to understand these principles and if we don’t, this recession is going to stretch out and we’re gonna see a lot more hard times and a lot of people suffering from lack and poverty and we just have to change that and financial literacy is one of the ways we can.
MC: How do you stay on top of your busy schedule?
RM: Well, my weakness and my flaw is I’m a doer and more than a planner. So, I had to go out and hire planners to help me plan my schedule and help me organize workshops. Like with this workshop now, I told my team ‘I want to do this and I got the focus together and we got everybody together to do it’ but the team said ‘hold on Ryan, let’s plan it’. They helped to organize it; helped to cross the ‘Ts’ and dotted the ‘Is’ and made sure that things were all well. They helped put an agenda together, so now we’re going out there with a lot more planned programs. We have a good support team: Manyell Akinfe, Lloyd Cambridge, and Christina Hodges. We have a large support network of people who are in the news and media, who are aware of the work we’re doing and are so thankful and supportive of the work we’re doing. They help me to help the communities, so we all help each other.
MC: What are some lessons you think people can learn from this recession to help with a better financial future?
RM: The first lesson we need to learn is how to budget more responsibly. The simple fact that we have over a 5% savings rate for the first time in 14 years is a tragedy only because this is the worst economy in many people’s lives. It took a recession for us to get the savings rate to become positive. But now I think individuals understand that it’s important to have that rainy day fund of 6-9 months of living expenses in case you get laid off. It’s important to make sure you’re budgeting so you’re not a part of the 60% of the country who’s spending more money than they earn every month. It’s important that you have adequate insurance coverage so you don’t end up like Sean Bell, who had no life insurance for his family. So we have to have life insurance for our family in case, God forbid, something should happen to us. It’s important to understand that 50% of your estate does not have to go to the state or government because you don’t have to proper estate planning in place. It’s important to understand to make sure we’re eliminating our credit card debt. These credit card debts are decreasing line of credit and increasing interest rates all the time. We have to make sure that we don’t let the credit card companies dictate our future; we dictate our own future.
MC: How do you think the whole credit card debt crisis started? Do you think the media is to blame for why people are getting into credit card debt?
RM: No, I think that first of all, they’re very good at marketing; they’re very good at understanding who their marketing to. So, what they’ll say is you can essentially have free money at this time. When a college kid goes to school, first thing they’ll see is a booth there where individuals try to get them to sign up for a credit card. They sign up for a credit card and they get a free t-shirt. Now your FICO score goes down, nonetheless, if you start paying on your credit card, your FICO score can increase again. So these credit card companies are trying to inject all these things into our communities and into people’s mindsets, but what we need to understand is that the only two times that you need to use your credit card is for emergencies and for increasing your FICO score. Pay for it in full within the week, not the month.
MC: What advice can you give to teenagers and college students about getting a head start on getting their finances and their financial future?
RM: For teenagers and college students, I’ll give them four steps. The first step is to find your passion and your purpose. Write down five skills, talents, and hobbies that you have in your life. Things that you love to do and are always talking about with your friends. When you graduate you want to be working in a field that’s inline with your passion. If you can give 110% at your job, you’re less likely to get laid off. You can’t really give 110% at your job if you don’t really like that job in the first place.
Step two is to create a vision of where you’ll be, tangibly, within 5 years, 10 years, and 20 years. Then start meditating upon that vision, praying upon that vision, making it as tangible and concrete as possible.
Step three is to make sure you can find all the adequate resources in your life. Understand that people and knowledge are the most important resources you can ever have. Write down five people that you need to meet with within the next month and set down lunch appointments with them. They can be mentors, give you an internship, or give you a little insight on your field of choice. Write down five books that you’d like to read over the next five months; one book a month. Read three within your field of choice and two outside of it so that you can broaden your scope and your vision.
Step four is a tangible plan of action. Write down five tangible steps that you need to follow that can get you from point A, where you are today, to point B, that’s going to get you to achieve your vision. ‘I’m going to go to Fastwebs.com to fill out scholarships, I’m going to make an appointment with an individual who can become mentor, I’m will make sure to read that book to help me start my business plan even though I’m only 17, I can start my own company’. These are tangible steps that you can start doing today to get that company off the ground or get you career of the ground.
MC: Do you have any final thoughts?
RM: Well, I just like to say, at the end of the day we all need to have faith. Faith is the most important principle of any financial plan. Faith is half belief and half acting on your belief. People act on what they believe is going to happen. So, if you don’t have faith, and you believe that tomorrow is going to be bleak and filled with lack, then will act according to the belief. You’re not going to work hard, you’re not going to be motivated because you’re just thinking that tomorrow you’re going to be broke anyway. If you think you’re going to be broke, you’re always going to be broke. There’s almost like no choice than to want to have faith. If you believe tomorrow is going to be a good day, you’re going to act on this belief. ‘I’m going to put your plan together, I’m going to put your network together, I’m going to do everything possible so I can prepare myself and make provisions for all of the abundance of blessings that God is going to give me because I’m putting myself on the right track and I’m getting ready for that brighter day to come.
Moustapha Camara is the co-founder of T-Shirt Magazine, an online magazine focused on the t-shirt industry and t-shirt culture, and co-founder of Cashletes, a money themed streetwear clothing line. Camara founded T-Shirt Magazine with his older brother AJ in March 2008, at the age of 17, and Cashletes in the January 2009. Camara currently resides in Jersey City, NJ.