“I just bring the best version of… me to the table because I want everyone else to do the same.”

—Thasunda Brown Pickett, CEO of JP Morgan/Chase Consumer Bank

American citizens are blessed to live in a place that still exemplifies freedom and opportunity for many. As Meredith King Ledford, MMP has written, “Opportunity is one of our country’s most cherished ideals and one of our most valuable national assets (that) inspires each generation of Americans—regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, or national origin—to reach his or her full potential.”

Is there still opportunity in America? In 2017, a Gallup poll surveyed people around the world that wished to leave their country and immigrate permanently to another country. Where do they wish to move? By a huge margin of nearly 4 to 1, the number one choice was the United States! (The U.S. was followed distantly by Germany, Canada and the UK).

In recent days, there has been a lot of talk about slavery and systemic injustice in America. There’s no question that there have been painful failings in our history. All people have not been treated fairly or equally in America, sometimes painfully so.

It is good to have an accurate picture of history, and that also includes the success and upward mobility that many Americans have experienced. The Civil Rights Movement helped expand the freedom to succeed to Americans that previously encountered steep hurdles.

Why do so many people aspire to come to America? It is the promise of opportunity! Today we look to history for role models of individuals that took the opportunity to succeed by demonstrating extraordinary character and persistence.

Thomas Sowell proved the value of hard work.

Now age 90, Thomas Sowell is mostly retired, but he is still a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover institution. A highly respected author and thinker in economics and social theories, Sowell’s book, Basic Economics, is still praised and used in classrooms.

Born in 1930, in the depth of the Great depression, Sowell’s father died before he was born. He grew up primarily in Harlem and was the first in his family to make it past the sixth grade. 

Sowell worked hard and achieved excellent grades, but dropped out of high school to serve in the military until after the Korean War. After the war, he resumed his academics. He attended Howard, a historically black college, then was accepted into Harvard. 

It was not all smooth sailing, as Harvard was extremely demanding. His first semester in the Ivy League, Sowell nearly flunked out, receiving two F’s in two days. But he remembered a warning given him by a beloved professor of English at Howard as he left for Harvard: “If you flunk out,” the professor told him, “Don’t come back here and tell me you didn’t make it because white folks were mean.” 

Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Sowell hit the books hard. He graduated magna cum laude and went on to obtain a Masters at Columbia University and a PhD at University of Chicago.

Sowell’s work ethic is legendary. In addition to teaching at multiple universities and working at policy think tanks, he authored more than 30 books. And for a quarter of a century, he also wrote a weekly column. Finally, at the age of 86, Sowell retired to focus on his hobby of photography, still giving an occasional interview. (Oh yes, and he just came out with one more book, Charter Schools and their Enemies, on his 90th Birthday!)

Helen Keller succeeded with the help of a committed mentor.

Born in 1880 in Alabama, Helen Keller became blind, deaf and mute before her second birthday due to an illness. She was a wild child and impossible to educate because of her strong will and her disabilities.

Fortunately, for Helen’s parents, at age 7, an extraordinary teacher was recommended for the job. Anne Sullivan Macy had been mostly blind herself, unable to read or write for much of her life. Like Helen, Anne did not fit into “normal” society. She had been forced to live with mentally ill patients as a child, then at a home for unmarried pregnant women. Finally, her plea to attend the Perkins School for the Blind was accepted. Anne learned to read and write, had her vision somewhat improved by surgery, and graduated ready to become a teacher herself.

Under her patient and wise tutelage, Helen learned to read (using Braille), write, and even speak. Together for 49 years, Sullivan was her instructor, companion, translator (Helen did not speak clearly), and lifelong friend. In this rare video of them together, Sullivan explains how she taught Helen to speak.

Helen Keller went on to write 12 books and speak to large crowds. She became an activist for women’s suffrage, a philanthropist who donated to the NAACP, and co-founder of the ACLU. The story of Helen and Anne Sullivan was made famous by her autobiography, The Story of My Life, and its adaptation for film and stage, The Miracle Worker.

An immigrant becomes an overnight tech success through innovation.

Mike Krieger in 2018 by Christopher Michel

Mike Krieger grew up in Brazil and met his future business partner, Kevin Systrom, while attending college at Stanford in California. Systrom had an idea for a new social media app that would allow people to “check in” to the internet using an image. In 2010, Krieger built the app which became Instagram. As TechCrunch editor Josh Constine noted, they “may have inspired more photography than any two humans in the history of the world.”

However, Mike almost had to be replaced for the project. By 2010, he was due to return to his home country of Brazil. He needed a work visa to stay in the U.S., and after waiting three months for his application to be approved, was “approaching the point of hard conversations.” As he told Bloomberg.com, he almost told Kevin to “forget about it and find somebody who is easier to hire” when his H1-B visa came through.

Mike commenced work and within a matter of weeks had the first version of the app. Vacationing with his girlfriend at the time, Kevin’s girlfriend asked if they could make her vacation photographs look more professional. As a result, Mike developed and added the photo filters which helped attract users to the platform.

The first week alone, more than 100,000 users downloaded the app. Two years later, Facebook acquired the company for $1 billion dollars. Mike Krieger served as the company’s Chief Technology offer until 2018, by which time it had a billion users.

While Krieger’s story is extraordinary, it is one of countless success stories of immigrant business owners. According to Arnobio Morelix at the Kauffman Foundation, Americans immigrants are twice as likely to begin businesses as native-born Americans. Perhaps they recognize the opportunities more readily and dare not take them for granted!

A woman with a commitment to excellence breaks new ground.

Chief Executive Officer of Chase Consumer Bank, Thasunda Brown Duckett oversees a network that employs more than 47,000 employees, serving 23 million households nationwide and handling more than $684B in deposits and investments. On her way to becoming the first African American to hold this prominent position, Duckett ran mortgage lending and auto finance divisions. She is also a board member of Nike—all gigantic accomplishments, especially for a working mother in her 40’s.

Thasunda (called simply “T” by all who know her) is passionate about personal finance because she grew up in a family that lived on the financial edge. When her father was laid off from his job at Xerox, the family could not make ends meet on his meager pension. They moved to Texas where her mother became a teacher, to start over.

Duckett’s parents emphasized education, character and the importance of always doing her best. They told her, “You need to be 2x better… be so good that you cannot be denied.”

Thasunda studied hard and obtained an opportunity to intern with Fannie Mae in college. That impressed upon her the importance of financial literacy and home ownership. Eventually, Thasunda helped her parents buy their first home. “What are you saving for?” is her favorite question. It went viral at Chase, inspiring conversations among employees about the opportunities they were saving for!

Duckett acknowledges the opportunities she has been afforded, and those who went before her to ensure that they existed. “I am on the shoulders of giants,” she said at an awards dinner celebrating the careers of top women in the industry. “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

Seize the opportunities before you!

Seize the opportunities before you!

Hard work, a mentor, innovation and excellence… this is a formula for success—especially in the United States of America!

Enjoy your Independence Day as we celebrate a country that still provides the freedom to succeed. Opportunity in America is still alive!

Need help with your personal finances? Explore what Partners for Prosperity can do for you! We practice Prosperity Economics—an abundant alternative to typical financial planning that gives you more FREEDOM with your money!

—By Kim Butler and Kate Phillips