More Than Money
Issue #14

Young and Wealthy

Table of Contents

“Personal Stories”

What is Freedom?

What? My twenty-fifth birthday? But I don't even feel eighteen, let alone twenty-one! My high school friends say I haven't changed a bit. I like that. By the spring of ninth grade, I earned the label "delinquent," on my way to the doomed dead-end of Special Ed where all the other f***-ups were corralled. Like every other adolescent I've ever met, I have just wanted to do what I wanted when I wanted. I have wanted freedom. What gives anyone freedom but a bottomless bowl of gold?

This past decade I sought answers to this question. I lived on a socialist kibbutz in Israel; I worked for a year with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta, India; I lived with an avowed revolutionary in a burnt-out crack house helping to run a food relief program; and I worked in an adult prison and juvenile jail. I've ventured into the written works of such activists and artists as Emma Goldman, Henry Thoreau, and Adrienne Rich. Everyone I've ever worked with or read about has had to figure out how to secure a livelihood. That struggle for some has been devastating, even fatal.

I've never faced that. My parents have more money than they need and have always made it clear that they would help me financially if I asked. Indeed, on my twenty-fifth birthday, my parents sat me down to tell me that Dad had invested tens of thousands of dollars in my name. "Now you can have it," said my parents.

My first reaction was disbelief, then excitement. My adolescent freedom could be in my hand! Yet, I told my parents that I didn't want their inheritance. How could I live off of money I did nothing to earn? Money is not organic, it does not multiply through a natural, healthy process, but is accumulated because someone, somewhere, is laboring. Living off others in this way seemed evil.

I also feared that becoming a trust-fund kid would make me soft. Paid work has always forced me to break down barriers inside myself, to face truths about my character, my history, and the role money has played in defining both. My jobs have strengthened me. Why would I seek to escape the necessity of working?

But the freedom, the freedom! What am I giving up? A huge part of my heart longs to live without ever having to do any job again. I could call up my parents and say, "Let's discuss the inheritance-thing again." I could try to make arrangements that would allow me to live a life of no deadlines and no imperatives; a life governed only by my immediate inclinations.

Yet, I suspect that freedom is more than just getting to do whatever I feel like. Following one's every whim isn't freedom, it's fickleness. I define freedom as the ability to reach for dreams and to soar up high into unexpected wonders. That takes commitment and hard work as well as airfare and imagination. My dreams these days are to be a good writer and a good person. Money won't do that for me. Effort will.

Questions, circles of thoughts, bits of frustration still swirl in my head. I haven't told my parents to give away my inheritance. We plan to discuss it again when I turn thirty. I've told them I might want to start a foundation to help other young people pursue their dreams. They hope I'll buy a house first.

- anonymous author

Fulfilling a Personal Mission

I've been entrepreneurial since birth. I started my first business at age 12. My father was paying me $1.50 to mow a lawn that took eight hours. Not content with this arrangement, I decided to take the lawn mower to all the other houses in the neighborhood, and started a landscaping business. My second business made it into INC magazine's "Inc. 500 companies". I don't feel it is hard for me to take $100,000 and turn it into a million in fairly short order. At age 29 I'm on my sixth business, a medical waste treatment company.

Some people paint, some act, some play an instrument. My art is building businesses, and I'm good at it. My approach is not just to invest my money. I help to guide the businesses. I am great at strategic planning and keeping focused on the big picture, but I'm terrible at running the day to day operations. I need other people to do that.

I wrote up a personal mission statement a few years ago, and I refer back to it frequently. The highlights are to have high ethical standards, to be creative in what I do, and to be productive in a way that's good for society. I want my businesses to provide a service or product that is really needed, and to operate in a way that does not hurt society. I think about business ethics all the time; I want to be able to sleep at night.

Within those constraints, I will build as many successful companies as possible. It is not that I need a huge fortune to be happy. My personal needs are quite simple. Partly, I want to prove myself in the business world, and the accumulation of wealth is one good way to keep score. Yet, that reason is still too thin to motivate me deeply. A long time ago, I sat down to figure out my long-range personal goals. The heart of my plan is to be extremely successful in my business ventures with the ultimate goal of becoming a major philanthropist.

- anonymous author

Cutting the Ties that Bind

I became wealthy at the age of 21, when my father died six months after I had graduated from college. It was hard to make sense of my life without my dad. I missed him so much. At the same time that I had to make the biggest choices of my life, I had to face them without my father's guidance. Was I going to blow his money? Would I squander it by bad investment decisions? Would I make foolish career moves now that I didn't "have" to work?

Over the years, I've tried to find my own answers and stop worrying about whether my dad would approve of me. This was especially difficult in relation to work. I thought the only way to really be successful was to follow his footsteps and become VP of a large company. After college, I worked for years as an accountant in property management and high-tech companies. I hated the hours and the pressure, and I felt terribly lonely. No one I worked with shared my values.

Finally, by age 26, I began to make my own decisions and decide what I most wanted to do with my life. Although it meant a cut in pay, I began working as a manager at a natural foods supermarket. Here, my business skills were so valued that I went right to the top. I found workmates with similar passions about health, animal rights, and organic agriculture. I've worked in the natural foods and herb manufacturing industry ever since, glad to make a positive contribution to the community.

In many ways I am still my father's daughter. I really want to have money. It provides an incredible safety net and opens up so many life choices. I like being free to leave jobs I'm not happy with, and to work at interesting, lower-paid jobs yet still have a nice lifestyle. I'm mostly frugal, but not interested in living in complete simplicity!

For instance, it was hard buying my first car. My father had saved all his life by depriving himself of conveniences, so I felt caught in a clash of cultures and values: I wanted to buy myself nice things I've never had, yet at the same time I wanted to please my penny-pitching father. After some consideration, I skipped cheap and utilitarian and went straight for a sports car.

- anonymous author

Adventures in Philanthropy

I don't want money to rule my life. I hear about philanthropists who spend all their time dealing with where their money comes from and where it is going. I want to make art and videos, to make babies, to make breakfast in bed. I want to make revolution. For me, part of that is organizing with other wealthy women, to leverage our ability to make true change.

Many women with inherited wealth have archaic relationships with the men who control it. The men are the fathers, brothers, trustees, lawyers, and financial advisors that they inherited along with the money. Women often don't know what their assets amount to, whether they have stocks or bonds, or whether they're invested in socially-responsible companies or nuclear weapons and tobacco. They don't know where the money is kept, or who besides themselves benefits from it. They just know that they get a check every month.

But a younger crop is now coming up, and many of us have feminist moms. From the start, my mother instilled in me a spirit of independence--tough, true, and resilient. She is a great model for what I can do with the money I got from her and from her father. I've become quite competent managing my own money. Taking my mom's lead, I've also come to see philanthropy as activism, and to appreciate the possibilities and responsibilities that having money and progressive politics entails.

However, just contributing to social change funds was not enough for me. I wanted to be a "donor organizer," to expand and develop the progressive philanthropy movement. As a first step, I joined the board of directors of the Astraea National Lesbian Action Foundation. Later, I worked on the board of The Sister Fund, helping to implement their vision for a more multi-cultural feminist movement. I was the youngest member on their board.

At thirty, I became the oldest member of the board of the Third Wave Fund, a national activist fund for women aged 15 to 30. On our 25 member board we are black, Latino/a, Asian, Native American, and white. We are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and straight. We have different class backgrounds and different kinds of life work.

Unlike The Sister Fund and other women's funds, we focus solely on supporting young women and their work, and we've decided to include young male allies on the board, something few feminists who came of age in the 1970's would do. Men, too, can benefit from a feminist revolution. Our board work also takes place primarily via the Internet. This has allowed us to go national as a young people's organization and coordinate our efforts cheaply and efficiently.

We also approach our internal discussions about our various class backgrounds differently than the other funds I've been involved with. We get very specific and practical. Rather than just tell each other our stories, we ask ourselves what about our backgrounds makes it easy or difficult to raise funds or make grants. We then figure out how to build on these strengths and overcome our weaknesses together. This approach has been powerful.

For the next few years the Third Wave Fund is focusing its grant-making in several key areas: providing scholarships for young feminists, granting loans to small businesses owned and managed by young women, and fighting for reproductive rights and providing money for abortions when necessary. We also support a variety of organizing projects across the country that fight the Right and help develop young women's leadership.

While we build on the values and strategies developed by the women's funding movement over the last thirty years, we hope we are breaking some new ground. We like to think of ourselves as "a next step in philanthropy."

- anonymous author

Joys and Worries

Overall, I like being wealthy, having much more than I need to fulfill my basic needs. It has given me the luxury to leave a high-paying but unexciting job, to go to graduate school on my own terms, and to continue my research in biotechnology. I don't worry much about my money: my mother is a financial advisor and helps me invest wisely; I live fairly simply, and I do not spend money foolishly. Besides, my work is in a lucrative and cutting-edge field that would allow me to live comfortably even without my investment income.

I sometimes think about my motives in helping other people. I've been working with an El Salvador solidarity group for three years now. Recently we wanted to send a delegation down to deliver some material aid to a village. It was easier for me to write a check and go myself than sit through fundraising meetings. While in the village, I came into contact with people who didn't even have running water and had risked their lives to improve their community. The differences in our circumstances was painful. If I had to work harder for my money, perhaps I would feel I was giving enough. As it was, I went down to El Salvador at a time when I was in the market for a vacation. Is that honest giving, or just a search for adventure? I ended up considering both.

Money has a way of changing people, and I do worry about that. I want to stay as I am, and not lose my values. I would hate for people to judge me, either positively or negatively, just because of what they know about my finances, yet I know people do make those snap judgments. At school, I am often in conversations with fellow students who are lamenting about how to make ends meet. What do I say? I haven't really touted myself as a rich person. Being African American makes a lot of folks assume that I have less money than I do. Ironically, prejudice fools people. They just assume I am barely making it.

- anonymous author

Running My Own Race

I was eighteen when I inherited enough money that I would never have to work for a living. I felt guilty about having the money and not working for over seven years. I used to wonder, "Should I give up the money and just work as a waitress? At least I'd be free of this angst." But now that I am pouring my strength into developing an acting career, I'm thankful for my money every day.

It's funny. Even though I want to earn top dollar in my work and eventually live on my own paycheck, I feel comfortable using my inheritance to help build my career. I've just completed three independent films, two lead roles and a supporting role! Things are beginning to take off.

My biggest struggle has been getting control of my money. My parents are loving and supportive, but this sometimes shades them as being controlling and meddling. My inheritance is tied up in a trust structured so that I don't get full control of the money until I am 35. Well, I'm 26 and I want as much control of that money as possible now.

It is hard to find your own way when everything is provided for you. It is even harder if you never really get to strike out on your own, make your own choices, and take the initiative in your life. I hate subjecting my monthly income and spending decisions to my parents' approval. If the money is mine, it should be mine. This has caused lots of conflicts.

Yet, with my father's approval, I recently gained control over my income and more access to my principal. We did something very effective. We transferred the responsibility for managing my trust to a neutral party. I get advice from my new financial advisor now. It is often the same as my father's, but his advice feels easier to take or reject. Now that I am finally free to go for it, I am running my own race.

- anonymous author

Out to Win

My dad created a fast food chain. While growing up I would often sit with him, and talk about the trials and travails of the business, and I became quite comfortable dealing with money. In 1992, at my instigation, we set up a Foundation. I became its first director at age 27.

My goal is to assist community groups organizing for progressive social change. I do this through the foundation and through my work with the wider philanthropy community. I focus on multi-issue groups which build grassroots power.

While any broad generalizations risk being inaccurate, the wealthy young activists I know seem to view money and power differently than most of our older compatriots on the "Left." We are out to win, to really make a difference, whereas some of the older folks I know seem content to stay at the margins. Because they often choose purity over effectiveness, moral gestures over strategy, they are not at the tables where key policy questions are being decided. I have no desire to wear this "badge of marginality!" I want to get the job done.

That's why I choose to do some of my work with the mainstream, and often conservative, Council of Foundations. Progressive philanthropists often see the Council as the enemy, rather than as a contested terrain where our voices could make a difference and turn into millions of extra dollars for community organizations. If we don't seek a place at the table and speak up, how can we complain when these organizations ignore our issues and perspectives? It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we are not pushing mainstream foundations to get more input from grantees, to include more decision-making participation from people of color and poor people, who will?

I would be a more popular guy if I gave out hundreds of $1,000 to $2,500 "seed grants" to new organizations every year. But I don't see that as effective. We don't need more nonprofit organizations, we need better ones. That's why the McKay Foundation gives a few $20,000- $40,000 general operating support grants each year to the very best organizations in the field. We want to build institutions that will be around for generations.

I don't know if this is a generational issue, but I've become convinced that wealthy people should avoid anonymous giving. I didn't used to think this.

To my surprise, being "out" has made a number of people more comfortable with me, not less. They don't have to be guessing, "Is this guy connected to the money?" They see that I'm up front. I now see that we who have wealth do a disservice to our communities when we hide. Instead, we need to take explicit ownership and make ourselves accountable for how we use money.

- anonymous author

Why Work?

I earned my money. Yet, a lot of my good fortune was luck: my wife and I both worked in marketing positions at Microsoft from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, an extremely lucrative time to work at the company. We now have enough money, barring some calamity, that we never have to work again.

Since we grew up in middle-class families, it was a new experience to have the freedom to do whatever we most wanted to do. Gloria and I knew we had to think carefully about what we wanted, because the default pattern in this society is to let your lifestyle creep into big spending and thoughtless decisions. We wanted to avoid that aspect of having money, and use our money consciously as a tool. After determining our investment and giving philosophies, we decided to take a year off from work. Our goal was to volunteer with some charities and civic groups, and to spend time together before we had children--something we knew would change our lives forever in the not-too-distant future.

Now, I'm back at Microsoft. There are many people like me here, who no longer need the money but who are excited enough about their jobs to remain. The personal computer industry is changing the shape of the world and Microsoft is at the center of the industry. Employees have a real impact here. It is a compelling motivation to keep working. Another motivation is that my grandfather retired from the Navy at around 45 or 50 years old. He lived for another 30 years, but did very little with his life. He sat around, read the newspaper, and drank. I don't want to end up like that just because I can afford to retire.

- anonymous author

Doing a Lot with a Little

You have to be careful what you wish for in life. I always thought it would be great to have my work and personal life connected, and now, working with neighborhood youth, there's often very little line between the two. The other day I came home from an eye operation to be with my wife, and four kids were hanging out and doing their homework in our apartment. No big deal: I went to my room and crashed out. Youth work is about building community, and sharing my space is one way to help that happen. Thank goodness my wife feels the same way.

This way of life began a few years ago when I took my small inheritance, my teaching and business experience, and my love of young people, and I poured myself into Fresh Youth Initiatives (FYI), an organization in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. FYI got launched with one miraculous $5,000 grant from AT&T and a couple of $1,000 grants. The other ongoing expenses of the first full year were subsidized by me as our program gained momentum in the neighborhood.

Having investment money to dip into has definitely been part of the power I have drawn on. I started with a $50,000 trust fund that my parents turned over to me in my second year out of college. I put it into a socially responsible mutual fund, and by the time I turned 30 and started FYI, it had grown to $200,000. The past few years the market has been strong and my uncle, who is an investment manager, has given me some amazing advice. So even though I've sometimes lived on the investment income and used it to catalyze programs that now serve hundreds of young people in a 15 block radius, my principal has grown to $500,000.

My goals are to build FYI into a sustainable youth organization and to have one of the kids in the neighborhood take my job. I expect I'll live somewhere else but will be on the board. The ones in charge will be people who have lived in this neighborhood their whole lives and who will raise their families here. That's how it should be.

- anonymous author


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