Black/African Americans are charting unique paths to success
Building a future with a focus on helping the next generation, Black/African Americans share inspiring journeys.
Hear from individuals who’ve achieved professional and financial success, and are now paying it forward.
Restaurateur finds that success starts with her
The financial perspectives of Black women
Taking Control of Our Financial Success Without Compromise
The definition of financial success depends on who you ask. Here’s what the Black/African Americans we surveyed had to say.
4x more likely to plan to start a business.*
“Sharing our wealth”
25% more likely to be supporting their family financially.*
“Uplifting our community”
6% more motivated to give back.*
"Dedicated to our success"
37% of Black/African American women are more likely to be motivated by a desire for personal achievement.**
*compared to affluent general population | **compared to affluent general population women
Diverse Viewpoints: Exploring Wealth in the Black/African American Community
We spoke with thousands of individuals from different backgrounds and professional experiences – hearing a wide range of stories of success and wealth creation.
Our panelists share personal stories, advice and discuss our research findings.
Exploring Wealth in the Black/African American Community
Director, West Division Supervision Executive,
Merrill Lynch Wealth Management
On Screen Text:
Exploring Wealth in the Black/African American Community
Please see important information at the end of this program. Recorded on September 1, 2020.
MICHELLE AVAN: Hi, and thanks for joining us. My name is Michelle Avan, and I am a Supervision Executive in the West Division at Merrill. We are always looking for ways to learn more about how our clients live and what they need.
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[IMG ALT TEXT: Text on screen at 26 seconds. Text at the top reads: To better understand the financial needs of all of our clients, Merrill commissioned: Diverse Viewpoints Exploring Wealth in the Black African/American Community. Download the report at ml.com/diversity]
That’s why Merrill recently conducted a major study focused on the experiences and financial concerns of the Black and African American community. These aren’t easy conversations, but they’re important, especially given the events of 2020, and where we are as a society today.
I’m delighted to be talking about some of the key findings of that study today with these four amazing people.
Leslie Maxie, 1988 US Olympic Track and Field Athlete, veteran broadcast journalist, is the founder, co-principal of Maxie Media Group, a speaker training and media consulting firm.
Denita Willoughby is Vice President, Supply Management and Support Services for Southern California Gas Company.
Gene Hale is CEO of G&C Equipment Corporation, a construction equipment, material, and supplies company.
And Cleo Townsend, is an applied technologist and Director of Technology Solutions Sales, IQVIA the human data science company.
First, we want to thank all of you for taking the time for this very important conversation. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s dive right in. You’ve all taken a look at the study. Overall, did the findings resonate with you? Was there anything surprising? Leslie, I’d like to start with you.
LESLIE MAXIE: Okay, yeah. Well, thank you Michelle. I loved that one of the findings was that people starting a business did so as a key component of their financials. You see, part of my wanting to be an entrepreneur and wanting to start my own business was to have a space where I could show my kids what diligent work looked like. You know, they didn’t see me make the Olympic Team, all they’ve seen is a barrel full of old sweats and dusty old awards, but to see me in the work that I do as a business owner, gives them the opportunity to see me succeed, they get to see me fail, they get to see me pick myself up again. And it really has created the foundation for their lives to know that they can put that goal out there and see it to fruition, because they saw me doing that in my life.
MICHELLE AVAN: Thank you Leslie, so Denita, how about you?
DENITA WILLOUGHBY: I agree with Leslie. I thought the study really validated my personal thoughts about wealth accumulation and hard work. We know through systemic racism, gender bias, that it’s going to be difficult for us, and aside from those things, developing and accumulating wealth and money are challenging issues. So, if you know out the gate that it’s going to be extremely hard for us, I think it’s so much more important that we plan. And I always like to say, plan your work and then work your plan. And the other thing I want to just build on, what Leslie said was, expect to fail. If you know at some point you will fail, and you’re prepared for that, you’re more likely to bounce back quicker.
MICHELLE AVAN: Gene, how about you?
GENE HALE: Ah, good morning again. Yeah, the financial institutions have left over $60
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[IMG ALT TEXT: Text on screen at 3:54. Text at the top reads: $60 billion. More text beneath appears: The amount of new revenue financial-service firms could see annually if the wealth gap between Black and white Americans were closed. The text at the bottom of the slide reads: Source: “The Case for Accelerating Financial Inclusion in Black Communities,” McKinsey & Company, Feb. 25, 2020]
GENE HALE: billion in additional revenue that they could recoup from Black customers if they reach full parity in terms of wealth with white Americans. That’s a substantial amount of money, and you know, in a capitalist society, you would think that inclusion would be the way to go to capture that $60 billion dollars. So I just think that we have to work hard as the study said, and we always do but, until we find a way to get the banking institutions to really relax some of their policies, then I think that we might have a chance to pick up some of those dollars.
MICHELLE AVAN: Cleo, how about you?
CLEO TOWNSEND: Well, for me, it probably comes down to examination of the whole premise, in terms of looking at wealth in the African American community, and taking a step back, frankly. One of the things that I noticed years ago, as I got into the working world, was that I was at a disadvantage from my peers. I found that they had already had instruction on building wealth. But I didn’t have that additional advantage, and I realized that a lot of my peer set, who were, frankly, white, already had instruction and information that I didn’t have, and that put me behind the eight ball as it were. So, that I think being able to look at this on a broader sense, what can you do to establish a legacy so that it’s financial wealth of information that’s passed down from one generation to the next, from one group to the next?
MICHELLE AVAN: Thank you Cleo. So, the participants in the study spoke movingly about the need to overcome barriers in order to grow their wealth. Can you share some of your experiences with us in terms of what that meant for you?
CLEO TOWNSEND: Sure, when I go into a meeting, and I’ve been out in industry now 30 years let’s say, every time I go into a meeting, 9.5 times out of 10, I’m the only Black person there. Nine times out of 10, I’m the only non-white person there. So, what does that mean? That means I have to either A, be really concerned about that all the time, and worried, or, I have to embrace that differentness, that outsider-ness, and then wear that, frankly, as a badge of honor. Not as a matter of feeling special, but actually being confident in who I am as an individual, being able to carry forward and ideally to build – bring – build bridges to bring others with me.
MICHELLE AVAN: I like that, ‘building bridges to bring others along with me.’ Any of our other panelists want to comment on this particular question? Denita?
DENITA WILLOUGHBY: Yeah, I’ll comment. I grew up on the – yeah – I grew up on the south side of Chicago. My parents were very young, they were teenagers when I was born, and we lived in an all-Black/African American neighborhood. And it wasn’t until I went to high school where I encountered a diverse environment. And my parents told me then, you are prepared, you are ready to compete, and that you had to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and really, I think, set the stage so that when I went to college, and it was less than 5% Black, I was comfortable being uncomfortable. I was comfortable being one of the women, one of the Black people in the room because I was pursuing engineering. My mother also gave me some really good tips. She goes, ”You know, when I went away to college,” she said, “don’t go looking for bad stuff, go look for some good stuff.” She goes, “You will find what you look for.” And oftentimes when I was the only in a room, I learned this tip: Act like you’re the host of the party, and you invite them to your party. You help make them more comfortable because you are comfortable being uncomfortable.
MICHELLE AVAN: I like that, ’get comfortable being uncomfortable.’ Your mom gave some really great advice.
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[IMG ALT TEXT: Animated graphic starts at 7:44. Text at the top reads: Respondents who say they’ve had to work harder than others to succeed. The animation shows a long dark orange bar scrolling over the screen, with text on the bar reading: Black/African American: 60%. A shorter light orange bar scrolls over the screen beneath, with text on the bar reading General Pop.: 29%. The text at the bottom of the slide reads: Source: “Diverse Viewpoints: Exploring Wealth in the Black African/American Community,” Merrill and IPSOS, 2020
MICHELLE AVAN: So, the participants in our study cited the need to work harder. I’m guessing all of us relate to that finding, right? So, Denita, we’re going to go back to you. Can you tell us a bit about your career journey? What challenges did you face? And how did you overcome them?
DENITA WILLOUGHBY: First, I’ll say that I was really blessed to be born to parents that instilled values of education, hard work, and helping others. And again, told me that I could go and do and be whatever I wanted to be. And so, I actually believe that, and I went to college to pursue an engineering degree. But what I will tell you is the school actually did really good outreach to my high school, looking for minorities to pursue engineering degrees. So, I went to college, I got an engineering degree, and I came out and I worked for IBM, who again, I think the secret sauce is did outreach seeking minority candidates to join the firm. I saw other African Americans succeed, and that said to me that I could succeed. I then decided to go to business school, and I came out of business school and I worked on Wall Street, and I ended up getting laid off, and that was a critical setback for me. But again, being prepared and knowing that throughout your life and your journey, you will face setbacks, and I like to say a setback is just a setup for a comeback, and just having the faith and staying positive, and working on what you can do, and what you can control, I think sets the stage for future success.
MICHELLE AVAN: Thank you for sharing that. Leslie, would you like to expound on that?
LESLIE MAXIE: Sure, I mean I agree wholeheartedly what with what Denita is saying. The twice as hard is definitely a big part of what we face, but that it’s also an opportunity to make it a little bit easier for that next person. I have a phrase that, when Black women rise, we rarely rise alone, and that has been my consistent experience that sisters make — make space for other people coming behind us who look like us, who may not be reflected in that room, to make sure that we have a space.
MICHELLE AVAN: Wow, Leslie, I like that. I like where you’re coming from in terms of the hard work is not done in vain, right, and when we’ve done the work and work twice as hard, those coming behind us don’t have to be put in that same situation. We set them up for something even better. So, let’s get to the next question and talk a little bit about our financial goals. According to the study, the African American community values self-reliance. We know that all too well. And one way to get there is by starting your own business.
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[IMG ALT TEXT: Animated graphic starts at 10:32. Text at the top reads: Respondents who plan to start a business. The animation shows a long dark orange bar scrolling over the screen, with text on the bar reading: Black/African American: 11%. A shorter light orange bar scrolls over the screen beneath, with text on the bar reading General Pop.: 4%. The text at the bottom of the slide reads: Source: “Diverse Viewpoints: Exploring Wealth in the Black African/American Community,” Merrill and IPSOS, 2020]
MICHELLE AVAN: In fact, affluent African Americans are four times more likely to say that they want to start their own business, than the affluent – the general affluent population. Gene, can you tell us more about what motivated you to be an entrepreneur?
GENE HALE: Sure. You know, just the idea of growing up in the south, my idea of controlling my own destiny and challenging myself was my primary motivation. My first business was a shoeshine stand in a barber shop owned by Blacks. I had to buy my own shoe polish, get my business license, and other items related to the shoeshine business. I was encouraged by those older people, gentlemen, in the barber shop, to be self-reliant, and that I had no choice but to control my own destiny. The racial bias and unequal distribution of wealth in general, and education, that existed in the deep south at that time, was just really devastating to many young Blacks like myself. But I think that, for me, I have always known at an early age, that I wanted to be a businessperson, to make money to help support myself and other people. But I realized too that I can’t spend a lot of time worrying about the racism. So what I had to do was just get a mindset that, if I’m going to be a successful businessperson, I have to deliver the products, I have to deliver them in a very professional way. I have to really understand that people pay for professionalism, people pay for good service. And my idea was to work harder, as everyone talked about, and also to work smarter.
MICHELLE AVAN: So now let’s talk about something that I’ve heard you all say quite a bit, it just in various stages as we’ve been here talking and that’s on our legacy. And historically, Black Americans have not benefitted as much from intergenerational wealth transfer as the general population, but we have inherited a very strong legacy of strength and activism.
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[IMG ALT TEXT: Animated graphic starts at 12:47. Text at the top reads: Respondents who say that passing down wealth to the next generation is part of their financial plan. The animation shows a long dark orange bar scrolling over the screen, with text on the bar reading: Black/African American: 35%. A shorter light orange bar scrolls over the screen beneath, with text on the bar reading General Population: 18%. The text at the bottom of the slide reads: Source: “Diverse Viewpoints: Exploring Wealth in the Black African/American Community,” Merrill and IPSOS, 2020]
MICHELLE AVAN: We’re known for that, particularly in the face of challenges. And in our study, setting future generations up for success, we cite it as a top motivator by Black Americans, even more often than the general population. What will it take for us to improve the financial experiences of the next generation? Gene, how about you start us off.
GENE HALE: Sure, I think that more education to our young folks about financial literacy is at the top of my list, and that includes a financial analysis of balance sheets and income statements, those kinds of tools that are used in business every day. And we talk about the benefits of using a trusted financial advisor for future wealth, many Blacks, we don’t engage in that way as we should. We’d rather, I think, in some cases, just put our money into the savings account in a bank and the money never grows as we know. I also believe that banks and financial institutions need to reach back into the minority communities to initiate annual recruitment of African American internship positions, to teach them about the financial industry as they grow up. Also, I think that banks, you know, they have to improve their lending to African American businesses. Those are the kinds of things that I think that, if we could get everyone on the same page in regards to educating our people, banks relaxing some of their requirements for small businesses, I think that would be a very significant positive move in the right direction to help educate our people.
MICHELLE AVAN: Thank you Gene. I do like where you’re going with that. Is there anyone else on the panel that would like to offer some comments?
LESLIE MAXIE: I have a comment. I’m a linguist. I’m a big believer in language, and I believe that in the Black community, some of the cyclical issues that we’ve faced around – around money are generational curses almost, if you will. Are related to how you talk about money. And so, to really be very prescriptive about the language that we use with young people, as it pertains to money, that we’re speaking from a place of abundance, positivity, and truth. And when our children are hearing us talk about money, if we’re not speaking about it in an empowering way, then we’re disempowering them and ultimately hurting their ability to take whatever legacy we’re trying to give them, and push it forward in a positive way. So, I think that if we really, really get clear about the language that we use with our young people, that that is a first, yet a crucial step that we can take to start to help them to have a positive relationship with their finances.
MICHELLE AVAN: I like that Leslie. Making it as common as saying pass the salt. It seems so simple, but yet it’s something that we have to put in place. Great dialogue. So, in the survey, Black / African Americans were far more likely to view local and community leaders, and successful Black entrepreneurs as role models. And Denita, I’d like to start with you first. Who was your financial role model?
DENITA WILLOUGHBY: My financial role models were my parents, who had middle income jobs. My mom was a teacher, retired a principal. My dad was a police officer, retired a police commander. But it wasn’t just about how much money they made, it was that they saved their money, that they invested their money, that they’re diversified their portfolios, that they actively worked with financial advisors to build wealth, and they invested in the real estate market. And so, that taught me, if they could do that with these middle-income jobs, I better be successful, right, they gave me the tools, and so I just tried to build on that. And Gene talked about financial literacy, but I think it has to go back and start in kindergarten. We’ve got to train and educate our children that we just can’t be consumers. It is not about the car you drive. It is not about the purse you wear. And we also have to hold companies, I think, accountable. Companies that aren’t investing in our community, we should not be purchasing their goods. And I think we’ve got to have a more comprehensive strategy in African American community about how we spend our billions of dollars that we earn. And until we do that, I think we’ll continue to be consumers and not be – and continue to have this wealth gap that we see.
MICHELLE AVAN: Cleo, how about you? Who is your financial role model?
CLEO TOWNSEND: For me, the primary positive financial role model I had was my father. You know, he never made a lot of money with what he did, he was a machinist. He worked security. He did different things. But the man knew how to squeeze a dollar. And there was always food in the house. And he was super, super, super frugal. Now I can’t say I’ve followed all of his lessons, but they’re there. I also want to double back to something else. You know, we were talking about the heritage, and intergenerational wealth, and passing on the lessons. A couple things come to mind with that. But one of the challenges that occurs is, particularly for those that have come up, and were say first generation upper middle class who are Black folks, quite often what you find is that next generation financially regresses. So, in large part, we’d, for whatever reason, we’re not quite inculcating that same ideal, and maybe it’s because they didn’t have the struggle, maybe it’s because we made it too easy, maybe it’s a litany of things. But those are things that we have to be very mindful of. And the last piece I want to throw out, is that thing that we really, really, really forget about, but now in the – where we are now from a say a coronavirus perspective, it really brings out certain things. Specifically, the fact that we need to take care of our bodies. You know, you look at all of the issues that we, that Black Americans have, that brown Americans have, in particular, in this country, and you look at the increase of rates that we have of a lot of these disorders. And you think about how we can help ourselves. And it’s not just a matter of maintaining your own health but setting that example for your children as well. Here’s how you can make money, which is fantastic, and here’s how you can accumulate wealth, but here’s how you can accumulate health and maintain that for yourselves and your progenitors.
MICHELLE AVAN: Interesting observation Cleo, because the reality is, if you don’t have self-care and take care of yourself, the financial stability means nothing. So, I love that you folded that into, to that conversation to give us more of that to think about, because that’s very real, and prevalent in our community. So, we’re living in a time like no other today, with discrimination, social injustice, protesting, just a lot of heaviness that is on our hearts, What are your thoughts on how, what’s going on in the world is impacting this discussion that we’re having? Let’s start with our gentlemen first, how about let’s go to Cleo.
CLEO TOWNSEND: Hmmm, gee, where do I start with that? We’re at the confluence of multiple things right now, obviously. We have the coronavirus, which has been highly impactful here in the US and worldwide. You have the fact that everyone, as a result, was essentially quarantined. Then on top of that, of course, we get into being reminded that a life in the US, one life in the US is not the same as another life in the US. That, when you go back and you have the conversations, for me, at least, trying to have that conversation with my son, or having the conversations again with my son, it is – to say that I’m concerned is putting it very, very, very mildly. I am concerned for my country, I’m concerned for my democracy, I’m concerned for my – my wellbeing, and for that of my kids. I’m just putting it out there.
MICHELLE AVAN: Thank you Cleo. Gene, let’s go to you.
GENE HALE: Sure. You know, growing up in Birmingham Alabama, I was 14 years-old and I was permitted to participate in the Martin Luther King march. And the headquarters was this church where the three little girls were killed. And at the time, I witnessed the police beatings of the older people, dogs being unleashed on people, and today, I still see that same thing. So, what I’m afraid of is, if we can’t sustain the current movement that we have now, I think things will probably be a little bit better for the next few years, but not overall the way we think that it should be, because, again, when you go back to all the years that I’ve participated in those marches, I still can draw a parallel as to what happened then and what’s happening now. I’m just worried that if this doesn’t take a real turn for the better, we will probably still wind up in a place where we were 40 years ago.
MICHELLE AVAN: Leslie, how about your observations?
LESLIE MAXIE: Well, it’s powerful to hear the men speak. You know, I have clients who were part of the civil rights movement in the late ‘60s, early to mid-‘70s in athletics, that really put their careers on the line to achieve parity, to achieve the ability to earn an income in track and field, and in sports beyond. And one of the conversations that we had been having for the last couple of years was what are athletes doing with their platform? What are athletes doing with their platform? And to see now that they’re coming together, that they’re coming together, their using the capital that our influence provides, that these platforms give us to demand change. My only hope, as Gene was saying, is that we can sustain this. We can sustain this to a point where we see some actual change.
MICHELLE AVAN: Denita, why don’t you close us out on this topic, and let’s hear your final insight on it.
DENITA WILLOUGHBY: You know, I think my perspective is very different from the other speakers in that I feel a lot more optimistic, and I truly hope I’m not being naïve. But what I’m seeing as a result of this public health crisis, this global public health crisis, we see our economy in a downturn, we see unemployment, especially in the LA region at 19%. We’re at unprecedented times. However, what is motivating and inspiring me the most, that I feel people’s opinions are changing. And so I feel like people are opening their eyes, I feel like they’re listening more, and wanting to be part of the solution. I know at my company, we’ve been having what we call these community conversations, where people are expressing their views. We’re talking about what it means to be an antiracist. We’re talking about how it feels to be Black in corporate America and what corporations can do to support – better support African Americans.
So, I’m optimistic, and I think what we as Black people have to do, we have to hold people accountable. For those companies that are not supporting and hiring and promoting and advancing African Americans, we don’t need to spend our money with those firms, and I think that will speak volumes, and I think that will help move the needle.
MICHELLE AVAN: Thank you. I appreciate every one of your insight and observation on this very important and timely and critical topic for our community and for our people. Let’s close with one last question that I’d like for each of you to answer. What’s the single most important piece of advice you’d give to the next generation of Black Americans? So, I’m going to start with Leslie first.
LESLIE MAXIE: You know, I encourage everybody as a starter to read this study, read the study, because you’re going to see yourself in there in some things that are done well, and some things that are challenges. To read the study first, and then think about what things that apply to us now and what things we aspire to. You know, where do we see ourselves? And you know like I said before, the emotion around money is so deeply important to really be present to how we’re feeling when we’re talking about money. Are we coming from a place of abundance, or are we coming from a place of lack? See, it’s never, never too late to start to build that legacy of wealth, and it’s never too late to shape or even reshape what you want that legacy to look like.
MICHELLE AVAN: How about you Denita?
DENITA WILLOUGHBY: I would say, set financial goals and hold yourself accountable. And your financial goals can start off very simple. It could be to protect your credit score. It could be to avoid or minimize your credit card debt. It could be to save and defer a certain percentage of your income. And then as you get older, it could be to create five streams of income, to have a multimillion-dollar stock portfolio, or diversified portfolio. So, holding yourself accountable to the financial goals you set just gives you, or allows you to create a roadmap so that you see your future and you can actually control it.
MICHELLE AVAN: Gene, let’s hear from you.
GENE HALE: Yeah, one of the things that I taught my kids early on was to start thinking about retirement, and they were 10 years old. They said, what are you talking about? What is that? And it was a lead-in to talking about financial literacy. But also, just as a general overview of I think that for the next generation of Black / African Americans, they have to be persistent and dedicated to what it is that they’re trying to accomplish. They have to never give up, and remember that, you know, each failure, or setback, to me that’s a chance to learn how to overcome adversity, and also how to prosper in this economy.
MICHELLE AVAN: Cleo, last but certainly not least, what’cha thinking?
CLEO TOWNSEND: Thank you. Well, the first thing I’m thinking is I really should have been taking notes as the other panelists were talking, because that was all fantastic advice. On my side, I would – I tend to tell folks, start early. You know, going back to that idea of pay yourself first. Do that. If you’re, you know, if you’re 19, 18, 20, 25, 13, something as simple as compound interest is your friend. Just starting with that, starting early. And then also, making a relationship with a financial institution. Doesn’t matter – well, you know, pick one, pick several, but you know make a relationship there so that they know who you are. That this institution knows who you are, so that later on, if you need them for something, they understand that you are a longstanding customer and then they’ll have probably a little bit better opportunity to work with you on your terms. And I think probably the last thing, is going back to that self-care. Make sure that you are investing in your health as well, so that you can take care of yourself, so you can take care of your family, so that you can be there for your family in the long term. I think that in our community we just don’t stress that enough, and I think it is vitally important that we make sure that we’re doing what we need for ourselves. Take that time, make that as an investment as significant as your financial investment.
MICHELLE AVAN: Wow, like you Cleo, I was thinking to myself: I should be writing this down. Our viewers are going to love, love, love, love, this conversation that we’ve had. The four of you are such powerhouses. So again, I want to personally thank you for your time, and your knowledge, your experiences, and sharing what was on your mind with us. Thank you.
DENITA WILLOUGHBY: Thank YOU.
CLEO TOWNSEND: Thank YOU.
MICHELLE AVAN: We hope everyone listening today took away something of value from this candid and courageous conversation. This research is just one of three studies Merrill recently commissioned to better understand the needs and priorities of our diverse communities. I encourage you to take a look at our studies exploring the financial needs and experiences of the LGBT+ community and the Hispanic / Latino community on ML.com. Share them with friends and family, and don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any questions you have about your own financial needs, goals and challenges, whatever they are. Thank you for watching.
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Ipsos is the third largest market research company in the world, present in 90 markets and employing more than 18,000 people. Merrill or any of its affiliates are not affiliated with Ipsos. In partnership with Merrill, Ipsos conducted multiple waves of research throughout 2019, employing a variety of research methodologies, starting out by interviewing Merrill stakeholders who serve and represent the diverse communities. In parallel, they synthesized and reviewed an array of publications and academic research on the topics of diversity, wealth and inclusion in financial services and beyond.
· The Online Community and the In-Home Qualitative research was conducted from July to September 2019. We spoke with n=6 respondents from each of the three affluent communities in their homes and hosted an Online Community of n=20 respondents from each of the three communities.
· The Quantitative research was conducted from September to November 2019. We spoke with n=450+ members of each of the three communities and compared them to a representative sample of the n=1000 respondents from the affluent general population. We surveyed: n=455 members of the affluent Black/African American Community, n=512 members of the affluent Hispanic/Latino Community, n=509 members of the affluent LGBT+ Community.
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