Afra Smith knows what it's like to feel swallowed up by debt. Six years ago, her credit score was in the mid-500s. She owed more on her high-interest car loan than her car was worth. She'd racked up about a dozen payday loans and was blacklisted from opening an account at all but the most forgiving banks.
"I had a massive amount of student loan debt," recalled Smith, who played Division I basketball at Bowling Green State and graduated with a degree in gerontology. "I was late on every bill that you could possibly think of and had every blemish on my credit profile."
Then, in 2016, after more than a decade working in a variety of social services agencies, she got her hopes up for a promotion and was devastated when she didn't get it.
"I just felt completely stuck," Smith said. The only way out, she thought, was to head back to school. She got a master's in business administration - and a lot more debt. It only made things worse.
"A lot of people think financial literacy is about people in poverty," Smith said. "(But) I was making over $70K a year in corporate America, embarrassed. And no one knew."
Things changed when she started working with a financial coach. For the first time, Smith learned to make and stick to a budget. She began saving. She paid off $30,000 of debt. And she changed her thinking too.
"Making more money wasn't the recipe to getting out of my situation," Smith said. "It was me learning to really master my budget, master my mind and understand I was in control of my life."
Then, believing that "you can't save your way to wealth," she turned to real estate. Soon she was graduating from the Associates in Commercial Real Estate (ACRE) program, a six-month Milwaukee-based program designed to bring people of color into the field. She bought a house.
In 2019, again looking to move to the next level, she decided to start a business. "I asked myself, 'What am I great at?'" Smith recalled. "And I'm like, 'I've mastered this art of getting myself out of a massive amount of debt ... and I have a story to tell.'"
She'd done enough research to know that plenty of other people, especially Black people, were waging a similar battle. She learned that the racial wealth gap is greater for those with college degrees, and that the wealth of the average Black family is projected to fall to zero by 2053.
Aiming to chip away at those inequities, Smith launched The Melanin Project, a financial coaching company offering one-on-one sessions and group financial seminars. Though she'll take clients of any background, she targets Black women, who are disproportionately likely to be breadwinners for their families. If she can help them get their finances in order, she figures, she can make a difference for their whole households. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith has done most of her sessions by Zoom, a format that tends to work well for the working moms and organizations she serves.
Unlike a financial advisor, who might advise clients on the finer points of stock options or taxes, she focuses on basics like setting up bank accounts, automating bill payment, cutting unnecessary expenses, drawing up a budget, saving for emergencies and making a plan for repaying debts.
"My financial plan is not about high terms, such as net worth and all that. That doesn't work when you're struggling, and it didn't work for me," Smith said. "I teach people to master their budgets so they can figure out how to invest with someone else who's amazing at investing and taxes and real estate."
She sees The Melanin Project as a tool not just for education, but for advocacy. She's adamant that payday loans should be outlawed and that schools should add financial literacy to their curriculum.
To reach a wider audience, Smith has filled her Instagram account with short video pep talks and tutorials, and she wants to launch a YouTube account for more in-depth videos. She's also writing a book and looking for ways to collaborate with local nonprofits.
Like many entrepreneurs, she's still got her day job - as a diversity consultant for UW Health - and has no plans to leave. "I want to keep my job forever," Smith said. "I'm going to be a 9-to-5 millionaire."
But while finance might never become her main gig, it's a passion that extends well beyond her side hustle. Anyone who knows her knows she loves talking about money - including her teenage nieces and nephews in Alabama.
When Smith visits them, she'll point out the car window at a dilapidated house. That one would be a good investment, she tells the teens who will inherit her wealth. At the mall, it's the same. "I'll get you shoes, but I think that we should take a portion of what I was going to give you and put it in Bitcoin."
She wants them to be able to hold onto their inheritance and make it grow, she explains. "No one talks to us about finance. I'm gonna talk to you about finance. I'm gonna annoy you with finance."
The four questions
What are the most important values driving your work?
Integrity. Be guided by my mission and not by other people's view of my mission.
How are you creating the kind of community that you want to live in?
I build community with the sharing of my story. That's what brings the folks who resonate and identify with what I went through and are still at that place. Me being vulnerable - that makes other people comfortable,
What advice do you have for other would-be entrepreneurs?
You're not going to be motivated all the time. What guides entrepreneurship is not motivation - it's what you do on the days that you don't feel motivated. You've got to keep working. It's about discipline, consistency and sacrifice. It's not possible to be motivated everyday.
Are you hiring?
No, not today, but it's likely in the future I'll be hiring an executive assistant. I'm overwhelmed with the volume of stuff coming in, in a positive way.