Michelda George’s love affair with finance began with an intervention. In her mid-20s, she was in a very different place. The first-generation Haitian American was deeply in debt, with a poor credit score and unpaid traffic tickets in her glovebox, while she somehow scraped together enough for a vacation or a night out with pals. One of her five older brothers, Peter, stepped in. He shamed her into parking her car and using a bike. He put her on a stringent spending diet: Just $25 from each paycheck was hers to use as she wished. It was tough, but worth the unexpectedly joyful reward: freedom.

Now George, 37 and newly married, is dedicated to helping others to achieve that. That makes her a natural fit for a strategic program manager role in Gov. Spencer Cox’s Utah Small Business Credit Initiative — especially because the program serves underrepresented and underserved communities. Growing up in South Florida, she doesn’t recall anyone trying to help those in her community to qualify for loans with decent interest rates or learn to budget, save and invest. She’s excited to fill that gap for other historically marginalized communities, typically defined by race, ethnicity, geography, economics, gender, veteran status and LGBTQ orientation. As a person of faith, she sees it as her calling.

Deseret talked to George about how some communities get left behind.

Your brother’s approach was harsh. Did it work?

He helped me get on this financial trajectory, to learn how to save and invest and live on a budget and live below my means. It was a spiritual experience because five years later, it gave me the opportunity to know what it was like to be debt-free and in control of my life. If a work environment is toxic, I’m out. My car’s paid off. I have nice savings. I have credit. I’ll work at 7-Eleven or McDonald’s until I find another job. It empowered me. That’s when I learned that financial literacy and education generally impact every other area of our lives. They can determine what we have access to, what our life experiences are. I wondered, could this be something I could do as a profession? Because I’d love to be able to set people free.

Where did you begin?

I started watching “CNN Money” segments on TV and paying attention to the titles of the people that were on those shows. I started looking into those job roles. That’s how I ended up working at a private equity firm; being a life insurance agent gets you on that path. I was working under senior financial advisers, collecting data and doing interviews with people to find out where they were financially so that we could build that five-year plan in the computer. And I was like, this is not as out of my reach as I thought. Then I wanted to move up. I’ve been in what they call the financial services industry now for going on five years.

“Black people in this country have fallen in between the cracks. And that is not something that can just be swept under the rug because there are success stories.”

Why is it important to nurture entrepreneurship in diverse communities?

When you work in financial services, you start to see that this world is majority white males. It’s like that across the country. In my experience, I’m talking about South Florida, a place where it’s extremely diverse. It’s not like there are not Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, Black people, Indigenous people inhabiting this space; there are plenty of them. But if you go downtown and into these finance institutions, you will see that most people in these roles are white, and they’re probably 45, 50, 60 years old. I want to emphasize that because I’ve had a lot of people say, “Well, you’re saying that because you’re Black. You’re using that as an excuse to market yourself in this way.” No, this is the reality.

I also noticed that no one was coming into our communities, knocking on our doors to say, “Hey, let me help you.” We had a group of agents that did door-to-door knocking; it was similar to real estate, where you go and say, “Hey, are you interested in selling your home?” They were not deployed to the Black and brown communities that were just three blocks away. So I started hosting free financial literacy workshops at our brokerage on the weekends when nobody was there. I was able to get quite a few clients to sign up for life insurance and, like, that starter package: the foundation, working on their budget, finding out what 401(k) plan they had at their job. I wasn’t a licensed investment person, so I couldn’t advise them on what to invest in. But if they weren’t taking advantage of their 401(k), I would tell them, you need to sign up. It was basic: Save for a rainy day. Then I started going to universities, saying: “Hey, can I come teach your college kids about credit and how to budget and how to take advantage of scholarships and try not to get into debt? Because it’s possible.” There was a huge need.

Why are financial basics so hard to figure out?

They may have never heard about life insurance. They may not have ever heard the word investment, or 401(k), or asset management or a trust. So you’re trying to tell people to go online and research a word they did not even know exists. That’s why people are saying that representation matters, that the influence of environment and parents matters, because you raise your children in the way you want them to go. But when you have access to information, that’s what flows through your family. We can’t say all struggle because there are some successful Black professionals, entrepreneurs and businesses. And there are countries that are successful. Africa has good infrastructure in some areas where people are educated well. I don’t want to say all, but just historically, we know that a large majority of Black people in this country have fallen in between the cracks. And that is not something that can just be swept under the rug because there are success stories. Because that’s not fair.

“That’s when I learned that financial literacy and education generally impact every other area of our lives.”

How do you personally help people to figure out some of these challenges?

For me, it’s more soul-driven. I have a strong desire to serve people. Honestly, I know what freedom felt like, for me to be financially in a place where I no longer had to go into a toxic job. I literally don’t. If I can get the people that I interact with to that point where it clicks for them, they’ll know what freedom feels like. Once you feel like you’re in complete control of your life, that you get to decide and dictate what kind of food you want to eat, or where you want to travel, whatever that is for you that makes you happy. When you can do that and not live anxiously from paycheck to paycheck. I know what that felt like and meant for me to be able to dictate my level of care in every area of my life. It felt like freedom.

This story appears in the March 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.