Frankly's #WCW (Woman Crush Wednesday) series features some of our favorite female founders who are focused on providing goods and services that improve the lives of women and girls.
I'm so excited to introduce Briana, the founder of The Prosp(a)rity Project. We love the org's mission of dismantling the barriers that Black women face, which include being: the most economically disenfranchised, suppressed & underrepresented in business/entrepreneurship & at greatest risk of compromised health/wellness.
Welcome Briana - would love for you to tell us a little about yourself.
Hi there! I’m Briana Franklin and helped co-found The Prosp(a)rity Project, of which I also serve as President & CEO. I’m a 2x-entrepreneur who is fiercely passionate about eradicating the $1.7 trillion U.S. student debt crisis. I personally have been severely impacted as a result of graduating from college with over $115K in student loans.
What a hair raising number in regards to student debt in the US. Also appreciate that you have personal experience with student loans - I'm curious how you ended up on this career path. You could have optimized for paying off that debt immediately, geography, industry, etc - what led you to starting the Prosp(a)rity Project?
For me, this career trajectory couldn’t have been more unexpected. Not only did I not anticipate that I would go into the social impact space personally or professionally, but at one point, I was pretty adamant I wouldn’t go that route. A few years ago, I attended an event for young nonprofit professionals in Atlanta, but I really only went because I was invited personally by a connection and wanted to be polite.
The way The Prosp(a)rity Project came about was (believe it or not) through a survey project I started as means to get hired for another prospective work opportunity I was pursuin. It was a classic case of when you stop chasing something, you allow what it was you were seeking—or something even better—to find you!
So to go from reluctantly attending a nonprofit gathering as a plus one to actively building/leading such an organization in just 2 years is astonishing, and I’m pretty proud of myself for being open to that change in course.
I love that this was so unexpected for you and am grateful for that connection of yours who invited you! Can you share a bit more about The Prosp(a)rity Project?
We’re a Silicon Valley-based, nationally-operating organization dedicated unapologetically to serving Black girls/women in the U.S. and empowering them with tools for financial literacy, entrepreneurial/professional success and holistic health & wellbeing.
We’re currently taking these measures via our Economic Empowerment Initiative (EEI), which is our pilot program through which we’re eradicating the student loan debt Black women hold. Black women collectively hold an estimated $35B in student loan debt as a result of the larger $1.7T student debt crisis. EEI is aimed at both eradicating the student loan debt as well as increasing their average financial literacy rate, which is around 35%—the lowest of any demographic—to create for them higher rates of generational wealth and generosity. We are training our Prosperettes to be giving-inclined in whatever ways they're capable of and to the highest extent possible, whether that's finances, other resources, time, energy, knowledge, etc.
In our inaugural cohort, we have 22 outstanding women (Prosperettes) who collectively hold over $1.7M in student debt, with their individual amounts ranging from $13K-$295K. They span 12 states, nearly 15 industries and from 20-41 years of age. They bring a strong degree of variance to the table, which has presented somewhat of a challenge in terms of systematizing the program, but also at the same time been incredibly helpful for humanizing the problems we’re addressing across multiple contexts. We award 100% student debt relief (we've been terming it a "retroactive scholarship") along with financial coaching, taking them through our career accelerator's mentorship/workshops.
How did you select the Prosperettes in this initial cohort?
All potential Prosperettes complete a written application and an interview to better understand their financial situation and future plans. We then make selections in alignment with resources available to provide a given cohort. We make decisions based on the following:
- High Student Debt to Income (SDTI) ratio
- Extenuating circumstances (such as having to financially support non-children/being financially supported by other relatives)
- Coaching compatibility: plainly put—will they be a good fit to receive guidance from potential mentors?
- Promise (not potential!) for impact. Our program adheres to the motto, "Of whom much is given, much is expected." Since our Prosperettes receive an abundance of resources (financial and otherwise), we vet thoroughly to see which applicants are in this for the good of their communities versus simply their own personal gain. We dig deep to get an understanding of where they feel their impact can be the strongest through the work they intend to do, and whether that would come about by starting a business, switching jobs/industries or advancing their education.
- Extent of impact: Since the fourth component to our EEI is paying it forward, we want to ensure an applicant knows that even once her time in the program is complete, she's expected to keep her involvement going by returning the favor through:
- Time: by volunteering with our organization
- Money: by sponsoring a future Prosperette
- Experience: by mentoring a Prosperette
Wow - sending support to the initial 22 cohort! Would love to hear more about how The Prosp(a)rity Project's Economic Empowerment Initiative has impacted this cohort so far.
Our Prosperettes hold over $1.7M in student loans, and with there only being 22 of them, that equates to an average of about $80K a piece, but the range as mentioned is much wider.
Through our programming, we’re aiming to challenge traditional groupthink surrounding the debt crisis on a couple of different fronts: the first being that awarding student debt relief is a “handout.” The way we see it, student debt relief should be considered a means to an end, as opposed to the target outcome to aim for in and of itself, because once a person’s debt burden is erased, what happens next? Ideally, they’ll be free to move forward in life and become better positioned to build personal wealth, as well as increase their capacity to generate meaningful, far-reaching impact.
However, without a strong financial foundation, a person who suddenly goes from owing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to debt-free will more than likely not have the first clue of how to make wise money decisions, let alone how to leverage such resources to help others.
Our Prosperettes understand this fundamentally, and have all expressed an eagerness to increase their financial knowledge and evolve in their capability of being good stewards of their money.
I think the approach you're taking makes a ton of sense, giving financial foundations to get this group of women to financial freedom. The debt crisis is often minimized, with many saying "it's just the way it is." Can you give some insight into student debt, particularly the effect on Black women?
With regard to the crisis as a whole, I think people are painfully out of touch with, or I’d even argue in denial about, the contributing factors. One of the most alarming things I keep running into when speaking with the Prosperettes/others who have student debt (that I even remembered was true in my own situation), is that people recount their student loans as “not seeming real” when they first signed the paperwork as freshmen.
It speaks to a rather rampant disillusionment that absolutely no one is talking about publicly, and even more upsettingly gets dismissed as “excuses” by the bootstraps crowd who can’t begin to empathize with the young people (and their peers, since this crisis is by no means exclusively a millennial/Gen-Z issue!) who have to live with the consequences of being deceived into going this route.
There’s a quote I came across a while back that sums the situation up pretty perfectly that says, “College is viewed as a necessity but priced as a luxury”, and it’s high time people start connecting these dots.
As it pertains to Black women, this crisis is especially detrimental since it’s compounded by a staggering pay gap of $0.61-0.64/$1 along with an overrepresentation in the blue & pink collar workforces and inversely an underrepresentation in the white collar workforce. That being the case, it’s truly no wonder our average lifetime net worth is only $0-$11K. It won’t correct itself overnight, and that’s why we’re so passionate about being the driving force that will effect this change.
Once again, I know the numbers, but the impact of seeing them never lessens. For those who strive to be a better ally to the Black community, what can we do to ensure more people understand the disproportionate burden of systemic racism on Black women?
Love that this is a question, since Black women tend to get offhandedly categorized as “women of color”, which is technically accurate, but this labeling fails to acknowledge the anti-Blackness responsible for a lot of discrimination Black women face from women of other minority groups.
It’s important to pass the mic, so to speak, to learn directly from Black women about the systemic barriers they face. All too often, we’re spoken for by other women of color or our collective experiences are conflated, which constantly leaves the nuances of intersectionality (being at once Black and female) overlooked.
And it can’t be a one-off discussion when convenient or trending in the media; allies—or as I like to call them, advocates—must be willing to have these conversations over and over again.
Our founding team, save for our CTO, is comprised of Black women who have all seen discrimination up close for years. Yet, we were still no less rattled when hearing one of our Prosperettes (who’s a pharmacist and needless to say has obtained the requisite credentials) share her experience of being questioned as to whether she was “trained” to administer flu vaccines by a patient. So even for us, the learning process is ongoing.
To truly dismantle these oppressive and disenfranchising systems requires getting intentional about making those on the receiving end feel heard/validated, as well as holding the perpetrators fully accountable, and more than anything, staying the course.
We're always trying to learn and listen more here at Frankly, and I personally, as part of the Asian-American community, have definitely seen unacceptable anti-Blackness in a variety of spaces. What you're doing is so needed - can you tell our readers about a memorable / rewarding moment you've had building The Prosp(a)rity Project?
In all honesty, I’m incredibly humbled by all of the developments we’ve experienced, even more so because of how short of a timeframe in which they’ve occurred, but if I had to declare one as most memorable, it would be getting featured in Forbes. Since 2018, I’ve had my sights set on making their Under 30 list, and after attending the corresponding summit that fall, I became especially determined to make it happen.
To get what in my mind was another step closer by being picked up for coverage in the publication just two years later felt like such a major milestone, and I’ll carry it with me forever.
That article in Forbes was awesome, and I'm so happy that a major publication is spreading the word. Can you share with our Speak Frankly fam about how you spend your time as a founder?
Prosp(a)rity has become my entire life, for better and for worse, and I do find it really hard to set boundaries even within my own schedule to keep it from being all-consuming, especially since out here in CA, everything’s still closed, so there’s really not much else I could fill my time with anyhow.
But, my days for the most part consist of outreach/prospecting, attending meetings (the Zoom fatigue is super real), planning and enrichment via books/podcasts. When I first got started, it was all about the 18 hour days, 7 days/week grind, which as one could imagine, became incredibly taxing after a few months in. I’ve since stopped “super scheduling” (packing 10-12+ meetings into a single day) and designated Thursdays as my “untouchable day” where I’m fully walled off from anything external and able to power through lingering to-dos uninterrupted.
Managing yourself can be super hard - trying to find the balance feels like a never ending journey. Can you share your process with how you started The Prosp(a)rity Project and any best practices on how to start a social venture?
This is tough to say because my entire journey has been trial by fire, and I wasn’t even remotely familiar with the social impact/nonprofit space prior to Prosp(a)rity, so I can only comfortably speak to this based on how my own experience unfurled. That said, this entire operation began as a survey project launched to get hired elsewhere believe it or not, and once the influx of responses and positive feedback poured in, I quickly saw this had potential to stand on its own.
From there, my partner, who later ended up becoming our CTO, saw how intense my new demands were and insisted I bring on additional hands on deck so I didn’t burn myself out from going it alone. That led me to reach out to two longtime friends from high school and college, respectively, who at the time came on as our VP and secretary (they now serve as our COO and Chief Programming Officer), and within about 2 weeks, we brainstormed to launch the EEI.
Once the nature of the program became more defined, we knew a for-profit model didn’t make sense and realized that we’d just gotten ourselves into the nonprofit business, so we obtained a fiscal sponsorship (FSA) which allows us to operate with 501(c)(3) status while awaiting independent designation from the IRS (which is still quite a waiting game due to Covid-induced backups.)
With fundraising, the plan was initially to generate capital on the front end, then open the application and make award decisions, but we instead ran the application simultaneously with our fundraiser. We were conflicted about making this switch because of course it would’ve been much more reassuring to everyone involved if the money was already in the bank and able to be disbursed upon selection of awardees, but the upside of doing things the way we did is that our Prosperettes have actually been our secret weapon for attracting donors/supporters.
As we’ve gone along, we found that finalizing the other pieces (expanding the team, bringing on advisors, obtaining endorsements, etc.) has been a comparatively smoother process, since those who gravitate towards our work tend to be a natural fit, and it usually works out.
All this to say, it’s perfectly okay if instead of going chronologically from 1-6, your journey goes more like 3, 5, 1, 4, 6, 2, since that’s exactly what happened with me, and all things considered, we’re going fairly strong!
What can we do to help the Prosp(a)rity Project?
There are a number of ways that those interested can get involved! We’re largely donation-based for the time being, so for those interested in making a contribution, please visit https://theprosparityproject.org/donations, or support our Forward The Culture fundraiser, which we’re running for the rest of Black History Month. (All donations go to the same place, with 80% of all revenue going towards awarding student debt relief to our Prosperettes!)
For those unable to contribute financially, other equally meaningful ways to get involved with the cause include boosting on social media (@theprosparityproject on IG and @prosparityproj on Twitter) and joining as a volunteer (email us at email@example.com.)
Anything else you want to share with us about the Prosp(a)rity Project?
I just want to say a massive thanks to Jane and Heather for this platform and recognition of our work! We definitely have our work cut out for us to make our intended impact, but as the saying goes, it truly takes a village, so huge thanks to our Frankly family for being part of our Prosp(a)ritribe and taking this journey with us.