Young Change Makers: Why and How Briana Franklin of The Prosp(a)rity Project Is Helping To Change…

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Young Change Makers: Why and How Briana Franklin of The Prosp(a)rity Project Is Helping To Change Our World

Take pride in taking care of yourself. — A very nefarious aspect of entrepreneurship is the expectation of “no days off”. When I say this, I’m not at all suggesting that there are shortcuts to success and that making meaningful strides shouldn’t take sweat equity and a diligent work ethic, but rather that the coinciding thinking that we’re machines who can “sleep when we’re dead” is incredibly detrimental and until recently, hasn’t been talked about enough.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Briana Franklin.

Briana “Bri” Franklin is a businesswoman, philanthropist and student debt expert/thought leader with a passion for socioeconomic and holistic empowerment of Black girls and women.

Having taken on a financial burden of more than $120K in student debt through her undergraduate studies at Dartmouth College, Bri developed an acute appreciation for the challenges many student debt holders experience, including diminished ability to establish financial independence, take advantage of personal freedoms, such as starting a family/home buying, launch business ventures as well as creditworthiness.

In recognizing the extent to which other Black women in particular experience adversity at the hands of the $1.7T student debt crisis as well as lack of financial literacy, she formed The Prosp(a)rity Project as a solution for eradicating these systemic barriers.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I’m a proud Atlanta native through and through! I’ve lived in virtually every major area within the city, from Midtown to Buckhead to the SWATS (Southwest Atlanta) to Vinings. I grew up with my younger brother, and once our parents remarried, maternal stepbrother and sister, and later our step-brother through our dad’s remarriage.

I spent much of my childhood dabbling in all kinds of sports (soccer, gymnastics, tennis, swimming, ballet, ice skating and volleyball), then as I got older, stuck primarily stuck to cheerleading and non-athletic extracurriculars like student government, language clubs (Spanish and Mandarin) and Beta club.

Nothing super spectacular, just a nerdy city-country girl who enjoyed spending time with friends and family.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Even though it was only for a brief time, I was a member of the WEB DuBois Society, which was an enrichment organization that brought together high-school aged Black students all throughout Atlanta. I started the intake process in seventh grade, which hilariously began with my math teacher, Ms. Stone, who I loved so much and was so sweet, asking me, “Not to be rude, but what are you [racially]?”

I answered “Black” and was a bit confused as to why she asked, since I never had any doubts/ambiguity about my racial identity but later learned that she did so to make sure I was eligible to be nominated for the program.

Once I was accepted, I began going to the monthly Saturday sessions that commenced in the fall of my freshman year of high school, which were just a blast. Some sessions were fairly lowkey and entailed us doing simple ice breakers and exercises on paradigm shifts, while others emphasized college preparedness. One time, we were even treated to an acting workshop led by actress Jasmine Guy (most known for her role as Whitley Gilbert in the 90’s sitcom, A Different World.)

Unfortunately, the program was shut down my sophomore year due to lack of funding, but for the short while I was involved, it was a wonderful experience and was what I largely credit with helping shape my sense of self as a young, academically focused Black woman.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

In my eyes, making a difference is getting into “good trouble”, as termed by the late, great Former Representative John Lewis. As my eyes have opened to the injustices we’ve faced historically and that we continue to face presently, I’ve come to see that taking a mindset of asking for forgiveness, rather than permission and thinking — but more importantly, acting — unconventionally or even at times, radically, is often very necessary for actualizing change.

That doesn’t always sit well with others (parents, bosses, friends, law enforcement) and is therefore typically branded as uncooperative or disruptive behavior, but asking nicely or sitting back and waiting on someone/something else to make the first move rarely ever accomplishes anything, so getting into good trouble is usually what it takes.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Through The Prosp(a)rity Project, our team is looking to get into good trouble of our own by dismantling the systemic barriers to Black women’s advancement — namely, their combined $35B in student debt and 35% financial literacy rate. The former statistic comes as a byproduct of the $1.7T student debt crisis, while the latter is attributed to a longstanding history of being the most un- or inadequately financially educated of any gender/racial demographic.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

The genesis of The Prosp(a)rity Project begins during my time as an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College from 2013–2017. At the time, I was blissfully unaware of the impending financial consequences of pursuing a college degree, focused on navigating my way through my courses each quarter and wouldn’t know the true reality of my situation until about a year after graduating.

In the spring of 2018, I joined a fintech startup devoted to optimizing and providing information around the process of refinancing student loans, and it was in this role that I first began getting a sense of what this growing problem really entailed and how it was affecting me individually.

Part of my responsibilities included surveying college graduates to ask about their knowledge of their student debt status, and since it felt entirely hypocritical to take on an authoritative position around something I was not even familiar with in my own context, I finally worked up the courage to confront my own situation and did the math to determine that I was approximately $120,000 in education debt.

What made owing this much money far worse was how difficult it was for me to earn enough income to pay it off at a consistent rate, since I embarked on a professional journey that’s highly atypical for an Ivy League graduate, taking on a series of contract, temp and part-time jobs since graduation to make ends meet, rather than the far more customary cushy six-figure corporate salary.

These circumstances proved to make establishing financial independence, among other things, next to impossible. In every way, I was starting my post-college “real adult” years off with a horrific disadvantage. I consistently struggled to afford basics — let alone a rent payment, which made living on my own out of the question — at points was forced to abandon prior entrepreneurial pursuits and repeatedly found myself zeroing out whatever savings I attempted to amass thanks to the inconsistency of cash flow that resulted from inability to land steady, well-paying work.

My situation used to anger me because for the longest time, I took the stance that it ‘wasn’t fair or my fault’, but I eventually grew to accept that it was life and ultimately, that it was my responsibility to both improve and do something about on a larger scale to prevent others from being affected.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

You bet! The small yet significant bridge connecting the time outlined above and the start of The Prosp(a)rity Project two summers later was a phenomenon I refer to simply as: The Email.

For the better part of 2019, I began seeing an entirely new side to my student debt struggle, which was familial strife, stemming from being locked into cosigner agreements with two relatives. As mentioned, I for a period was largely in denial about my student debt burden, which caused me and my parents to butt heads repeatedly, but the worst falling out occurred that summer, when after months of ignoring my loan payments, my negligence finally caught up with me in the form of a credit drop of more than 130 points.

While this of course was anything but ideal, it wasn’t my credit blow that shook me out of my complacency, but rather, the email I received from my father, informing me that his score had also taken a massive hit thanks to my inaction. At that very moment, August 1, 2019, I decided to grow up and do right by him and myself and turn things around at first for us, then eventually for others as well.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

To be entirely transparent, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or getting myself into when I first started this work because its original form was in fact, a survey project. I wasn’t the least bit of the mindset that this would be an entrepreneurial endeavor, since I was actually setting out to get hired for a DEI role with a social media influencer.

Like employers everywhere last summer, she was seeking to diversify and improve inclusivity of her brands amidst the global resurgence of #BlackLivesMatter, prompted by the unjust deaths of George Floyd x Breonna Taylor x Ahmaud Arbery, and in having followed her work for so many years, I felt I was the perfect person to help her (a middle-aged white woman) reach more audiences of color.

However, as the responses rolled in, a totally different outcome occurred, which was me recognizing the importance of helping my own community, since by and large, the responses coming in from Black women (for reference, the survey asked about things like socioeconomic status, employment experience(s), mentorship history, general health/wellness/fitness standing and other subjects along these lines) were pointing unmistakably to a deficit across the board in comparison to respondents of other races/genders.

After coming to this conclusion, I shifted gears to focus on creating an entity that would unapologetically and emphatically serve this demographic. Oftentimes, entrepreneurs identify a business idea then try to make it fit around an existing problem, but as you can see in this case, I did the exact opposite and built the organization specifically to meet a need.

That said, I wouldn’t entirely recommend doing things exactly the way I did, since my early on mistakes cost us a decent amount of time and money due to acting without a concrete plan, so for those considering the path of entrepreneurship, know that it takes a careful and intentional mix of both acting and planning!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

On this journey, there has been no shortage of happenings that qualify as “interesting” (for better and for worse…), but if I had to narrow in on one to share (which isn’t exactly a story per se), I’d say the emergence of my identity as an “expert” has been the most interesting. Never in my entire life have I considered myself someone who has expert knowledge of anything, so it’s been indescribably humbling and fulfilling to hear others refer to me as such, especially for a cause as dear to my heart as the student debt crisis.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

Easily, being so naïve as to think I was going to file for and obtain 501(c)(3) status overnight. As outlined above, The Prosp(a)rity Project isn’t my first foray into entrepreneurship, and before this organization, I’d formally established one business and conceptualized a second — The English Major Takes Tech and Friction Factory, respectively.

After poking around on several business and state government forums, I quickly ascertained that incorporating TEMTT as an LLC was the best course of action and was able to do so within about 3 days.

In remembering the ease of that experience, I went into this one with the same frame of mind, thinking all I had to do was complete the required paperwork and await a letter from the governing body responsible for their issuance (which I also learned in this case would be the much less friendly IRS as opposed to the local Secretary of State office), when the reality this time around was that obtaining ©(3) designation not only is a months-long process, but also can result in a rejection, if the organization is not deemed a qualifying nonprofit cause.

At the time of making these discoveries, it felt like the road for us had run out, but thankfully, I was surrounded by so many fighting spirits in the form of my fellow co-founders, our volunteers, advisors, supporters and community members who refused to allow me to accept failure and encouraged me to explore workarounds, which include getting a fiscal sponsorship to operate with 501(c)(3) status while waiting for independent designation as well as retooling our 35*2 Free Initiative entirely to improve our chances of having our application accepted by the IRS.

A close second is thinking we were going to raise $3.5M in our first six months of operations. Go ahead; laugh with me 🙂

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Most definitely! My partner, Matt, for one, who is also a co-founder and our CTO, has been massively instrumental in keeping my spirits high and eye on the prize as I navigated the dog days that comprised the first several months of TPP’s operations. We’ve been fortunate to experience some exhilarating highs but also some devastating lows, and because I deeply internalize everything, each blow hit me 10x as hard as it did everyone else, so without the unwavering support of him and our other co-founders, I’d probably have thrown in the towel a long time ago.

On the mentorship front, I’ve had so many enter my life, but those who have had the deepest impact on this journey thus far are Adam Capes and Lisen Stromberg.

Adam entered the fold not even two weeks after our launch and quickly took a strong liking to our mission, which I didn’t see coming at all, given his background as a forty-something white dude and wasted no time helping my team and I get clear on our brand identity/story and fine-tune our various presentation materials.

He later invited me to join a mentorship group he put together, which was so helpful to be part of, since entrepreneurship can be an incredibly isolating path, and having the support of others on that same journey did wonders for my mentality/resilience.

Due to an increased schedule load, I unfortunately couldn’t continue in the group for very long, but luckily just a few months later, I was introduced to Lisen, who after our first phone call enthusiastically agreed to join us as an advisory member and later became so much more than that.

Since day one (I’m not exaggerating), she’s steadily put her privilege, status, connections and resources to work in whatever capacities able to help me succeed both professionally and personally and opened up countless doors previously unimaginable, such as helping us land THE Sallie Krawcheck as the keynote speaker at our 35*2 Free Financial Empowerment Conference this past spring and outside of TPP, helping me land a contract role that’s been able to help me tackle my own student loan debt!

Safe to say, I’m an infinitely better leader and person because of each of these individuals.

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Transparently, we are still in the process of cementing the logistics of our 35*2 Free Initiative and haven’t yet started the program, but, we’ve assembled our first cohort of Prosperettes, which is 15 members large, and heard so many of them share how even being selected for this opportunity has already made a positive impact on their lives.

One of our Prosperettes who holds over $295K in student debt (the most of anyone in our cohort) has communicated to us that our organization/program is what gives her hope about her situation, since she’s thus far felt utterly helpless and incapable of improving it on her own, which needless to say is equal parts humbling and motivating for us to keep putting in the work necessary to finally do what we’ve set out to so she (and the rest of them) can realize their full potential.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Donate — Above all else, capital is the most effective short-term solution for resolving the effects of the $1.7T student debt crisis, full stop. But the reason many people are so reluctant to allocate their dollars toward such relief is the rampant mischaracterization of student debt holders as shiftless freeloaders trying to dodge accountability for their actions, when really, they’re by and large hardworking, aspirational individuals who took what they were taught were the right steps to achieve upward mobility but instead were caused great financial harm.
    -I see lots of arguments and accusatory statements vilifying those speaking out against the student debt crisis, insisting people should effectively “Shut up and be grateful they were able to get an education”; in addition to being insensitive and outright deplorable, this line of thinking totally ignores the systemic and predatory factors at work that take most advantage of first-generation, low-income family and underrepresented students as well as the fact that they begin taking on this responsibility before they can legally purchase alcohol or rent a car.
    -What’s more is that nowadays, a college degree is not the career/financial guarantee it used to be for previous generations, so it’s quite easy for graduates to find themselves un- and underemployed and as a result, left with minimal or no means to repay these loans and subjected to the plight described above.
    In short, money really can make the biggest difference!
  2. Educate — The topic of student debt relief is a deeply polarizing issue; people either are entirely for it or vehemently against it — rarely does anyone waffle in the middle. As touched upon above, those in opposition tend to be folks who: never had to take out student loans, were not drastically (negatively) impacted by their student loan burden or are resentful of the fact that others in the position they were once (or may still be) in are up for the opportunity to have this burden alleviated.
    -At the root of these ways of thinking is an “every person for themselves” belief — aka individualism — which is the direct enemy of communal empowerment.
    -A few of the people I’ve come into contact with about The Prosp(a)rity Project were initially reluctant to get behind us in any regard because of this, but after I shared with them the statistics around the student debt crisis and for Black women in particular (which are that their average lifetime net worth is $0-$11K, on average, student loans consume 111% of their income and they are 5x more likely to default on their loans, to name a few), this changed their outlook and made them much more empathic to the issue, which is why the value of getting education around this subject cannot be overstated.
  3. Communicate — Thirdly, it’s so important to spread the word and share this information with your friends, family and community, especially if you are someone not of an underrepresented gender/racial background — reason being, people tend to be more willing to listen to those who share some aspect of their own identity.
    -Whether or not the student debt crisis has affected you or a loved one directly, the effects of this issue do in fact impact us all, and the more open, authentic dialogues we can have around it, the better our chances of achieving resolution.
    (And for politicians specifically, know that you hold real power to revitalize the lives of millions of Americans and that student debt relief has tremendous potential to breathe new life into our economy and should at all costs be reduced to a popularity chip to win votes!)

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).

  1. Passion can sometimes come at a price. — In the inaugural days of The Prosp(a)rity Project, I was eager as all get out to help the women in our 35*2 Free Initiative (then called the Economic Empowerment Initiative) — so much so, that I declared we would be awarding 100% debt relief to all of our Prosperettes (22 at the time), for a total of $1.7M…by the end of the calendar year (6 months from when we incorporated), no less. Looking back on this, I’m proud of how boldly I pushed myself to dream and not playing it small, but at the same time, massively embarrassed by how foolish this was and moreover, sad that this auspiciousness eventually led to major let downs for our Prosperettes when we later shared that we’d have to greatly scale down the amount we’re able to offer for our retroactive scholarships. If I could go back to that time, I would have made enlisting more knowledgeable counsel to advise us on how to best formulate our program model a top priority — and most of all, raised the funding for the program BEFORE admitting beneficiaries!
  2. Be very cautious about mixing friends and business. — Early on, I didn’t have many people to call on when forming the organization, nor was I really planning to assemble a team, since this was intended to be a short-term survey project to obtain employment elsewhere. But, once things started taking off at the exponential rate they did, the work volume quickly became far more than I could manage solo, which led my partner to recommend I turn to close, entrepreneurially minded friends who could step in to help.
    In doing so, I brought on Cori, a good friend of mine from college who I knew also was fiercely committed to social justice and at the time served as secretary then later our Chief Programming Officer, Matt himself, given his tech chops as a software engineer, and a former acquaintance I attended high school with who I knew shared my passion for business building and was great with money.
    Without getting into too much detail, that last friendship unfortunately didn’t survive the cessation of our professional relationship, which also created quite a bit of disruption throughout the organization and to be blunt, made things very messy. For that reason, I would strongly caution anyone considering going into business with friends and/or family to think twice and then a few more times after that.
  3. Take pride in taking care of yourself. — A very nefarious aspect of entrepreneurship is the expectation of “no days off”. When I say this, I’m not at all suggesting that there are shortcuts to success and that making meaningful strides shouldn’t take sweat equity and a diligent work ethic, but rather that the coinciding thinking that we’re machines who can “sleep when we’re dead” is incredibly detrimental and until recently, hasn’t been talked about enough.
    I at first fully bought into this B.S., thinking that if I wasn’t subjecting myself to 18-hour workdays and skipping meals to avoid disrupting productivity that I wasn’t a true “grinder” and am ashamed to say, even wore my 4-hour nights of sleep and malnutrition as badges of honor.
    It wasn’t long before letting myself go in these ways caught up with me and had adverse effects on my health, including hair loss, falling back out of shape and fainting from low blood pressure. Thankfully, these things were entirely reversible, and I eventually did restore my health, which began with incorporating balance back into my life and making time for self-care on a consistent basis, but I’ve read far too many stories of others who weren’t so fortunate.
    TL;DR: Work hard and strategically, but don’t grind until the gears fall off.
  4. In business, there is no room for fear of money. — Based on everything shared about my backstory, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I haven’t always had the best relationship with money. Being up to my eyebrows in debt while simultaneously being out of work/earning minimum wage put a pretty sour taste in my mouth after a while and made me extremely squeamish with all things cash-facing — even actions as small as checking my bank balance or credit score would cause me stress, so I avoided touching them with a ten-foot pole for several years.
    I’d say I’m past that now for the most part, since gradually improving my financial situation has done a lot to relieve this tension, but when I started The Prosp(a)rity Project and became primarily accountable for our financial affairs, I was still very much terrified of this terrain. But I knew that if we were going to be a successful, efficiently run organization, I had to face my fear and get comfortable tracking our income/expenditure and getting as familiar with our numbers as possible.
  5. Yes, there are others who understand and can relate to you! It was initially very hard for me to accept that entrepreneurship wouldn’t be universally embraced by everyone in my life and even in some cases, would cause me to clash with relatives and close friends, but that unfortunately is a major downside that comes with pursuing this path. I know at the heart of the criticism and skepticism is love and not wanting me to struggle, and I appreciate the concern for what it is, but it does get hard to maintain healthy relationships with those who try to talk me out of what I’m doing and are generally unsupportive, since I believe so strongly in my vision.
    But thankfully, I encountered communities of other entrepreneurs, racial/gender equity advocates, student debt crisis experts and aspiring/successful changemakers who offered me the support and encouragement needed to keep pushing and to whom I could offer the same reinforcement in return.
    Attending conferences and conventions helped with this substantially (the biggest two I’ve gone to so far are the Forbes Under 30 Summit in 2018 and Afrotech in 2019), as did local networking and believe it or not: LinkedIn! Don’t be afraid to branch out and immerse yourself in new circles — it’s not what you know or even who you know, it’s who knows you!

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Best answer I can give here is the classic adage, “If you want something done, do it yourself!” Even if you don’t plan to take on the student loan crisis specifically, I think we can all learn from the spectacular failure of the Biden administration to make good on the campaign promises to wipe out education debt for the masses. It would be awesome if he followed through on this, but it’s not very likely, so I tell people all the time to avoid hedging any bets on this happening and take as much action as possible to lessen/eliminate their debt burden, and the same applies for any other social impact effort.

If you’re counting on someone else to step up and lead the charge, be prepared to wait for a long time — possibly forever!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Going to maintain the answer I put for this in my last interview and once again go with the one and only: Robyn Rihanna Fenty! As a first-generation entrepreneur who has built my organization 100% from scratch, I am continuously inspired by her example, given how many barriers she had to overcome to make a name for herself and achieve success as a business owner even once she did.

Though to my knowledge, she wasn’t saddled by any debt (or at least, any major debt), I remember reading that despite her tremendous success in the early years of her music career, she was on the financial decline at the end of the 2000s due to being taken advantage of by her accountant and on the path to going broke, so to see her in less than a decade’s time make the ultimate comeback, largely through the launch of the Fenty empire (Fenty Beauty & Savage x Fenty), has filled me with so much hope for my own journey.

I genuinely thought at many times that I would die with my student loans or spend the sweeping majority of my life paying them off/living in poverty, since my debt pile felt like something I was drowning in and unable to escape, so being able to see another Black woman who also came from humble beginnings actualize such impressive dreams has in every way influenced me to stay committed to doing the same.

How can our readers follow you online?

  • Website —
  • Instagram — @theprosparityproject
  • Twitter — @prosparityproj
  • LinkedIn, YouTube and Facebook — The Prosp(a)rity Project

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Young Change Makers: Why and How Briana Franklin of The Prosp(a)rity Project Is Helping To Change… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.