Marcus Howard and Charles Hands III, friends and colleagues since their days as students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, became increasingly amazed as they read a book about the history of Black business ownership in Durham, N.C.
In the early 20th Century, a hub called Black Wall Street bustled with Black economic vitality. Enthralled with the information, the two young professionals dug deeper and were shocked to discover that at least one of the businesses, Mechanics and Farmers (M&F) Bank, is now 110 years old and is still thriving in 2017 with an office in every major city in North Carolina. Greatly inspired, Howard and Hands decided to go into banking.
“We’d read about Black Wall Street and the millionaires and the business owners. And we said, ‘Wait a minute, these African American people just got out of slavery and they created neighborhoods and prosperity. Why can’t we get back to that?’ That’s why we went right to the bank looking to put our money in there,” said Howard in an interview during the 90th anniversary of the National Bankers Association (NBA), a D.C.-based organization of minority-owned banks.
But when the 26-year-olds walked into M&F Bank to start the process of making deposits, they became disillusioned. Despite the fact that the historic Mechanics and Farmers Bank was still prospering and holding its own in a world of large White-owned banks, it had not kept up with advanced technologies and 21st century customer service methods.
“When we went into the bank, it was just not what we’d pictured,” says Howard. “What we saw though was solvable. We knew that, okay, we can create a solution for it and we can help build it up to what we believe it could be and what we imagined it was while we were reading.”
So, instead of walking out of the bank and bashing it on social media, Howard and Hands seized the opportunity. They decided to reach out to the bank’s leaders in a way that would get their attention.
“We didn’t email, we didn’t call,” said Hands. “We wrote a hand-written letter to the CEO and put a stamp on it and sent it off. In about a week, we got a call back.”
That call came from James Sills III, president/CEO of M&F Bank. Then came a series of meetings between Sills, the two millennials and other bank officials. Those meetings have started a new life for all involved.
It resulted in the formation of the M&F Bank Millennial Advisory Board. It has also sprung into a brand new business called Engage Millennials, a consulting company that helps businesses to effectively serve the next generation of customers. Co-founded by Marcus Howard and Charles Hands, the company offers a team of experts specializing in social media, millennial strategic planning and millennial marketing.
“This is very important because these are our future leaders,” says M&F Bank President Sills. “We need the energy. We need new customers. All businesses need new customers in order to survive. Partnering with this group; plus the other eight members of our millennial advisory board will help us in the area of technology and marketing. They’re learning something from us and we’re learning something from them. I think every bank is trying to tap into that group. I think they just need to figure out how.”
That’s where the National Bankers Association comes in. NBA President Michael Grant sees such value in Engage Millennials, that he is working to connect the company with all of the NBA member banks.
“Charles and Marcus are following the cardinal rule for young entrepreneurs – find a need and fill it,” said Grant. “They have identified strategies for getting millennials to support Black banks. They are committed to the success of these banks because they want the banks to reach more consumers so that African-Americans can become more economically self-sufficient.”
It’s been several years since Hands and Howard graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hands, originally from Wilmington, N.C., has since graduated from law school and now practices real estate and business law. Howard, from St. Louis, is now studying for a doctorate in educational policy and human development with a research focus in STEM education and the preparedness of teachers in low income, predominately African-American communities.
Despite their career paths, they exude yet another cardinal rule for entrepreneurs – passion about their product. They agree that their enthusiasm will be key to getting their messages across to their friends and contemporaries.
“The attitude of millennials about Black banks is they don’t know about them,” says Howard. “And so, one of the things that we want to do is make it known to the public that there are Black banks and they do have a social justice theme because a lot of these Black banks give right back into the community. And we want them to know that the bank that you currently are banking with may not be the best for your particular community. And so we’re kind of saying, ‘Hey you need to support an institution that cycles money back into your community.’”
The two young men say they have received positive reinforcements from friends.
“All of our friends are super excited and impressed by what we’re doing,” says Hands. “I think just getting a job is respected and it is looked up to if you get a good job. But what’s looked up to even further is if you do your own business and do something that’s unique and different in the world.”
Howard adds, “Again, not many of our friends knew about Black banks and so when we started this and started working with this, a lot of our friends started putting money in Black banks because they too believed in our vision. So that’s a part of what Engage Millennials is about. Our friends are sending that message to their friends and continuing to further the vision of a revitalization of economic power for the Black community.”
“We also learn from them. We learn how boards are run, we’ve learned how CEOs of banks think and how chief marketing officers of banks think, how banks run, how banks make money,” says Howard. “And what they get in return is marketing strategies and technological solutions from millennials.”