Last night, as I finished my last paper of the semester, I turned to Nightline just in time to see their coverage about Ephren Taylor–the accused Ponzi schemer who is accused of stealing money church folk around the country. It is people like him who are responsible for the suspicious way that many church folk view successful ministers. However, this story hits me pretty close to home because I had the opportunity to meet him a few years ago.
In the summer of 2009, I attended my fraternity’s national conference at the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, I had just completed my first year as a PhD student in Strategic Management at Temple University. I was struggling to find some way to make my nonprofit research interests appear relevant to my department. (I was still idealistic and I believed that I would be able to gain enough faculty support to actually graduate from there. If I knew then what I know now, I would have been preparing to transfer out.) After a lot of deliberation, I had settled on researching social entrepreneurship within the context of faith-based organizations and I was in the process of identifying suitable organizations for the case study that I had hoped would become my dissertation.
It so happened that Ephren Taylor had been chosen to give the keynote address at the conference. I was a bit excited about being able to meet him. He had become a millionaire by the time he graduated from high school and was supposedly using his gifts to revitalize urban communities. As a researcher, I really hoped for the opportunity to pick his brain and get a better understanding of how his model worked. Intuitively, some aspects of it made sense to me. He would invest money into cities where abandoned houses were being sold for $1. Then he would renovate the homes, sell them at market rate, and distribute the returns across his investors. Still, I knew that I would need to get more information from him in order to assess the viability and replicability of his strategy.
When Ephren Taylor had finished his presentation, I went up to him to introduce myself at the prompting of one of my very supportive frat brothers. I had hoped that he would be interested in working with me or at least giving me more information about his overall program, but he sort of brushed me off and told me to email him later. I did and nothing ever came of it. Nonetheless, I was always excited whenever I saw him on TV. It felt good to see a young, African American man using his wealth in order to make a difference in depressed communities.
Needless to say, I was shocked when I found out that it was all a farce. Ephren Taylor was pretty much a Black version of Bernie Madoff mixed with the stereotypical wealth televangelist who made his money at the expense of his poor parishioners. The people who were unfortunate enough to invest in his projects were now pursuing litigation against him. Pastors like Bishop Eddie L. Long (who was in the midst of his own scandal) issued statements begging Taylor to return their congregants’ money. The scenario would have made for an interesting, yet tragic case study.
My heart goes out to the many people whose lives Ephren Taylor ruined in the name of greed. Still, I can’t help but think of the countless legitimate Christian social entrepreneurs who will always be looked upon with great suspicion because of his actions. When the report on Nightline ended, my 69 year-old uncle’s response was “that’s why I keep all my money in the bank.” My mother echoed his sentiments. The two of them began talking about the many people they knew who had lost all their money in investments that had gone wrong. I tried to explain to them that there is a big difference between a bad investment and the criminal acts that Ephren Taylor had committed, but it was to no avail. As a people, African Americans are generally wary of investing in the stock market or in businesses partly because of a lack of exposure. People like Ephren Taylor only give us more of a reason to be wary.
Thankfully, for every Ephren Taylor there is a Charlotte Stallings. She was a financial expert who was invited to speak at the same conference. I appreciated her presentation, which was a combination of personal stories and illustrations about the stock market and financial literacy. There are also people like Farrah Gray, another child millionaire and entrepreneur who is now a powerful motivational speaker. I read his book Reallionaire while I was in divinity school. It is a part of the reason that I decided to go into business for myself (along with Apprentice winner Randall Pinkett’s book Campus CEO).
In the end, it is my hope that the wolves in sheep’s clothing like Ephren Taylor will not keep church folk from seeking out financial advice from the many qualified, trustworthy experts that are out there.
For more information, check out this article on Ephren Taylor on ABCNews.com.