Black-owned banks have struggled to establish a national profile in the U.S. financial landscape for generations. Now a new Black-owned bank called Greenwood is poised to break through, thanks to a confluence of online technology and the persistence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
One key ingredient is a celebrity co-founder, which Greenwood has in the form of Michael Render, widely known as the rapper and activist Killer Mike.
Another is symbolism. Greenwood provides that in the roots of its name, which refers to the historically Black section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a thriving, affluent community known as the “Black Wall Street” of its day. In 1921, virtually the entire population of Greenwood was arrested and taken into custody by White officials, and the area was destroyed by white rioters, acting under the ostensible but mistaken excuse that a white female elevator operator had been assaulted by a black youth.
At least 36 deaths were attributed to the riots, and no white person was ever arrested or charged in the crimes committed in Greenwood.
The third element is perhaps the most critical one. Today’s consumers have come into a growing realization that their combined purchasing power can influence corporate behavior, and Greenwood engages them in a mission to focus on Black and Latinx businesses.
In an October 8 press release announcing the launch of the new bank, Greenwood co-founder and Chairman Ryan Glover explained that Greenwood will occupy a space that conventional banks have failed to fill.
"It's no secret that traditional banks have failed the Black and Latinx community. We needed to create a new financial platform that understands our history and our needs going forward, a banking platform built by us and for us, a platform that helps us build a stronger future for our communities,” Glover said. “This is our time to take back control of our lives and our financial future.”
The Black Lives Matter movement coalesced in 2013 after a jury in Florida acquitted a self-appointed neighborhood watcher in the killing of an unarmed Black teenager named Trayvon Martin.
The influence of the movement grew over the following years, resulting in a sharpening of public awareness over racial injustice, inequality under the law, and the brutalization of people of color by police officers.
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Some corporations began publicly supporting the movement, Nike being one especially interesting example.
However, much of the corporate activity took place outside of the national media spotlight — until this year, when everything changed.
The floodgates opened with full force last May, following the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota.
The commercial connection
Part of the public support for Black Lives Matter has been reflected in a surge of consumer interest in Black-owned businesses, and Greenwood provides an opportunity for its customers to take a significant step beyond shopping.
As a key element in its community giving program, Greenwood pledges a grant of $10,000 each month to a customer that runs a Black- or Latinx-owned small business.
Greenwood has also pledged to provide five meals to a family in need for every new customer sign-up, and a donation to UNCF, Goodr, or the NAACP with every swipe of the Greenwood debit card.
In addition, the bank has expressed interest in supporting brick-and-mortar Black and Latinx-owned banks.
Digital banking and the culture
One issue that Black- and Latinx-owned businesses have faced in the past is one of numbers. Their brick-and-mortar operations have been largely confined to their own communities, where walk-in traffic is mainly limited to local residents. Meanwhile, those same residents can range far and wide in in the search for goods and services.
Michael Render highlighted that issue when he noted that “today, a dollar circulates for 20 days in the white community but only six hours in the Black community.”
E-commerce has brought about a sea change. Black- and Latinx-owned businesses are not confined to local communities. They can reach out across continents to connect with customers.
Another prominent Greenwood co-founder, civil rights legend and former mayor of Atlanta Andrew J. Young, who also served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, took note of the connection to online banking.
"The work that we did in the civil rights movement wasn't just about being able to sit at the counter. It was also about being able to own the restaurant," said Ambassador Young. "We have the skills, talent and energy to compete anywhere in the world, but to grow the economy, it has to be based on the spirit of the universe and not the greed of the universe.”
That evocation of a universal community spirit establishes a cultural connection that Greenwood emphasizes through its tagline, “modern banking for the culture.”
In a sign of the Greenwood culture, last summer Mr. Render told the music publication NME that the global Black Matter protests “had made him optimistic for the future.”
“Instead of the audience just looking like me, because it’s a Black issue, it’s a combination of all people, races and ethnicities coming out,” he explained to NME.
Greenwood is not open for business until January 2021, but “tens of thousands” is the number of pre-opening account signups that Glover estimated since Greenwood launched its website last week.
It seems that Greenwood has already hit a note that resonates with people who are eager to use the power of their voices - and their purses - to push messages of hate and violence out of the public discourse.
Tomorrow, Thursday, October 15 from noon to 2:15 p.m. ET, Episode 2 of 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands - Business Elects to Lead will focus on one of the most important issues that we as a society have got to honestly reckon with – racial and economic inequities – and the importance of business leadership at a time when it’s needed most.
During episode 2, we’ll feature conversations with senior leaders from BET Networks, Pizza Hut, Zeno Group, Newman’s Own, Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose (CECP), Fresh Energy, Porter Novelli, Northern Trust Asset Management, UnidosUS, The Cavu Group, Tides Foundation, Okta and Ben & Jerry’s. Registration is free.
Image credits: Greenwood/Facebook
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.