How Black/African Americans pursue — and define — success

A study reveals how common experiences have shaped the Black/African American community’s financial goals, concerns and aspirations


By Diallo Hall

IT’S A RITE OF PASSAGE for almost every Black child in America: the moment we realize that the world sees us as different.

For me, that moment came when I was 8 years old, as I played soccer with a white classmate on the playground. “You could never come to our house to play,” he said. “Why?” I asked. Hesitating, he pointed to my skin.

These kinds of experiences leave us questioning our place in society; the idea of “otherness” is always lurking in the shadows. No matter how successful we are, it’s hard to escape the reality that the world has a different set of rules and expectations because of the color of our skin — rules and expectations that can shape our financial futures, priorities, definition of success and, of course, the odds that we’ll be able to attain our goals. Recent events across America have served as a reminder of just how far we have to go. But there’s another side to the story. Black Americans have a rich history of overcoming obstacles, and many of us have refused to be complicit in our own oppression.

To better understand how identity informs the financial experiences of Black/African Americans, Merrill undertook an immersive educational journey to hear what members of the community had to say, gathering stories from academics and employees, as well as parsing data from an online survey of hundreds of affluent Black/African Americans. The findings are featured in “Diverse Viewpoints: Exploring Wealth in the Black/African American Community,” one of four reports1 Merrill published on the financial realities of diverse communities. You can also check out the findings of the companion studies on the LGBTQ+ community, the Hispanic-Latino community and the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.

“Shepherding the wealth of our clients is an incredible responsibility and opportunity that we approach with the utmost care,” says Adrienne Hughes, National Client Experience executive, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. “To do so, we continuously seek to understand and learn from our clients and the communities that we serve. Gaining insight through research and conversation is critically important to delivering on our commitment to the community — it helps ensure that we are positioned to meet every need both now and in the future.”

Denita Willoughby headshot“I get excited about passing along property to my kids.”
— Denita Willoughby, CEO, Big Energy Group

The Black rules for success

If you spend even a short amount of time around Black professionals, you’ll invariably hear the refrain, “You have to work harder to succeed.” In the study, affluent Black/African American respondents were twice as likely to agree with that statement (60%) as the affluent general population (29%). And many of the study participants as well as the people I spoke with credited the support they’d received from their parents or relatives as the foundation of their successes later in life.

Denita Willoughby, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where her father was a police commander and her mother a school principal, recalls her mother’s “no excuses” mentality when it came to schoolwork. “Growing up, my mother used to grade my papers with a red pen. Whenever I made mistakes, I tried to explain that I was doing my best. But she would have none of it. She’d say, ‘Make your best better!’” says Willoughby, CEO of Big Energy Group, who was a vice president at a large gas utility company in Los Angeles at the time of the recording.

Cleo Townsend headshot“Every time I go into a meeting, nine times out of 10, I’m the only non-white person there. I have to embrace that differentness and wear it, frankly, as a badge of honor.”
— Cleo Townsend, director, Product Delivery, Saama Systems

For Gene Hale, born in Birmingham, Alabama, as one of 11 kids, self-reliance has been a guiding principle. His father, who was deaf, was known to be the best car washer in town. Growing up, Hale and his brothers helped their father with his business. After college, Hale began working as a financial analyst with a major Wall Street firm, financing construction equipment and materials. Six years later, in 1981, he launched his own firm.

“In my line of work, there really aren’t any Black people,” says Hale, who is also chair of the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce. “I was told people would call me names. But I wasn’t going to concentrate on that or allow it to be an excuse for not succeeding. I don’t really dwell on clients who don't want to work with me. I just move on to the next deal.”

Product delivery executive Cleo Townsend, who was a technology sales director at the time of the recording, for his part, says he’s learned to use his identity to his advantage. “Every time I go into a meeting, nine times out of 10, I’m the only non-white person there. That means I have to either be really concerned about that all the time or I have to embrace that differentness, that outsiderness, and wear it, frankly, as a badge of honor. Not as a matter of feeling special but by being confident in who I am as an individual and building bridges to bring others with me.”

Gene Hale headshot“Financial institutions need to initiate annual recruitment of African American internship positions to teach young people about the financial industry.”
— Gene Hale, CEO, G&C Equipment Corporation

The need of Black/African Americans to overcome enormous obstacles to find success, as well as their deep sense of commitment to supporting future generations, may help explain some of the other key challenges and financial goals highlighted by the study. Here are three of the most important messages:

We want to build businesses. For many Black/African Americans, the barriers to success in the corporate world have pushed us toward becoming entrepreneurs. In the survey, affluent Black/African Americans were four times more likely to plan to start their own businesses than the general affluent population. When Leslie Maxie learned that her job would likely require relocating her family or a long commute, she decided instead to strike out on her own and turn her employer into a client. “I’ve always had a measure of entrepreneurialism in my blood from my father, Roston Maxie, but I was motivated by his legacy and by necessity,” says Maxie, a former Olympian who now runs a speaker training and media consulting firm. “I realized I could create a path for myself that wouldn’t have otherwise been there.”

How much more likely affluent Black/African Americans are to plan to start their own businesses than the affluent general population

Our trust has to be earned. Thirty-four percent of affluent Black/African respondents said a financial institution can build trust with them by demonstrating an understanding of the unique issues of their community, compared with 13% of the general population. Focusing on outreach to the community, respondents say, can help. “Financial institutions need to reach back into minority communities to initiate annual recruitment of African American internship positions to teach young people about the financial industry as they grow up,” says Hale. “Also, I think that banks have to improve their lending to African American businesses.” Adds Willoughby, “We should not be purchasing the goods or services of companies that aren’t investing in our community. I think we need a more comprehensive strategy about how we spend the money that we earn.”

We’re committed to our families. Black/African American survey participants were more likely than the affluent general population to report that they supported their family financially. They were also more likely to say “others asking for financial help” was a source of financial stress. In addition, Black/African American survey participants were five times more likely to be planning to financially support or assist their aging parents than the affluent general population. “I took care of my mother for a number of years toward the end of her life,” says Townsend. “That was a responsibility that I took very seriously. Beyond that, there are times when I just accept that my loan to someone is really a gift. If someone is in need, you just do it.”

Leslie Maxie headshot“When we speak to young people about money, we need to speak from a place of abundance. If we’re not speaking about it in an empowering way, then we’re disempowering them.”
— Leslie Maxie, 1988 U.S. Olympian and founder of Maxie Media Group

Black/African Americans who have attained financial success were also more likely to name setting the next generation up for success as a top motivator, compared to the affluent general population. “I get excited about passing along property to my kids,” says Willoughby. “I often think about how one day they will have the option to live in one of our properties and invest the money from the others. This gives them a very strong foundation, teaches them about cash flow and hopefully makes them become even more intentional about their financial planning.”

Maxie agrees. “When we speak to young people about money, we need to be prescriptive and speak from a place of abundance. If we’re not speaking about it in an empowering way, then we’re disempowering them and ultimately hurting their ability to use the legacy we’re instilling in them and move forward in a positive way.”

My beliefs, too, were echoed in many of these findings. While the Black/African American community is far from homogeneous, I think many of us share one conviction: Forgetting those in need is not an option. Like many who have experienced discrimination, we understand that if you're not good, we're not good. I think this is the gift we bring to the world.


Diallo Hall is a longtime content strategist and editor whose experience includes serving as director of Thought Leadership at Fortune and senior editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

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This article features third-party individuals not affiliated with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated ("Merrill") and is for information and educational purposes only. The opinions and views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Merrill or any of its affiliates.

1 Ipsos is one of the world’s largest market research companies, present in 90 markets and employing nearly 20,000 people. Merrill or any of its affiliates are not affiliated with Ipsos. In partnership with Merrill, Ipsos conducted multiple waves of research from 2019 to 2022, 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 Black/African American, Hispanic-Latino, and LGBTQ+ communities.

The Quantitative research was conducted from September 2019 to May 2022. We spoke with n=450+ members of each of the four 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 LGBTQ+ Community, n=1011 members of the affluent AAPI Community.