Kamala Harris photo

Remarks in a Moderated Conversation with Rashad Bilal and Troy Millings During the Nationwide Economic Opportunity Tour in College Park, Georgia

April 29, 2024

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, everyone. Good afternoon. (Applause.)

MR. MILLINGS: Good afternoon, Atlanta. How's everybody doing? (Applause.)

How's everybody doing? (Applause.)

Okay. We're in Atlanta. But — but before we get started, I want to welcome you to the Economic Opportunity Tour. This is stop number one. And what better place to do it here in Atlanta, Georgia?


MR. MILLINGS: The city of opportunity.

We want to acknowledge a few people before we get started: Senator Jon Ossoff — (applause); Senator Raphael Warnock — (applause); Representative Steve Horsford, who is the chair of the Congressional Black Caus- — Caucus — (applause) — and is celebrating a birthday with us today.


MR. BILAL: Happy birthday.

MR. MILLINGS: Happy birthday.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: And Vincent Evans, who worked with him. (Laughs.)

MR. MILLINGS: Representative Nikema Williams — (applause); and the leaders of the Black Economic Alliance, who have helped partner to make sure that this tour runs smoothly. So, congratulat- — and thank you guys for being here today. (Applause.)


You know, we do events all the time. But this — this is a little bit more different, I would say that — (laughter) — you know, a different dress code. They're not as enthusiastic for our presence.

MR. MILLINGS: They're warming up. They're warming up.

MR. BILAL: But I — it's more presidential —


MR. BILAL: — for sure.

Well, first and foremost, thank you for inviting us to have this conversation. It is something that we are definitely looking forward to, for sure.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Me too. Thank you.

MR. BILAL: So, my first question is: How are you and the President building an economy that provides an opportunity for all?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, let me start by, one, thanking Donald Boone for that introduction and being here. He is one of the almost 50 entrepreneurs that I invited to my office at the White House last summer to talk about their work and so I could listen to them and learn what we needed to do to get the word out about what we are doing.

And this Economic Opportunity Tour, as much as anything, was borne out of that and then a dinner that the three of us had at my house and — and is, therefore, about being on the road to let folks know what is available to them in the spirit of understanding we have so many entrepreneurs; we have so many people who have incredible ideas. They are innovative, hardworking, ambitious, have aspirations, have vision.

None of that we lack for in the community. But for most folks, we lack access to the resources that will feed those ambitions and those aspirations.

I chose Atlanta to be the kickoff for this Economic Opportunity Tour for many reasons that include one of the leaders who is among us — and I would ask us to rise and applaud him — and that is Ambassador Andy Young — (applause) — who is here with his wife, Caroline.

And I will tell you, as a point of personal privilege, Ambassador Young has been an — an advisor to me, a mentor to me, and a friend and has always talked about his vision — his shared vision with Dr. King — about the vision for America that included a vision that was about fighting for civil rights and understanding that to achieve true equality, we have to also have an economic agenda.

And that agenda must include speaking to people's ambitions, that, yes, everybody wants a job — and President Joe Biden and I are very proud that, in our administration, we have brought Black unemployment down to historic lows — but that's a baseline.

We also are focused on something Ambassador Young has talked so much about, which is creating opportunity for people to build wealth and to, thereby, not only strengthen their family — Donald Boone talked about that — but strengthen the economy of the community as a whole. Then everybody in society benefits.

So, that's why I'm here and to talk about what we have done, whether it be an extension of the work I did in th- — in the United States Senate to get 12 billion more dollars into community banks or the work that we have done — and you heard the panel earlier today — that is about uplifting our capacity through the Treasury Department.

I want to thank Secretary Yellen, in her absence, for what she has done to be a partner to me around focusing on a number of issues that are about access to capital but with a focus, also, on minority-owned businesses.

And then what we did to create the Economic Opportunity Coalition, which is fo- — you know, Bank of America, Wells Fargo Bank, Google, and getting private equity to invest in community banks — some of the local community banks being represented here — to increase access to capital so that our entrepreneurs in the community have a place to go where it's — that the people who are doing the — the lending know the community, know the capacity of the community, know the mores of the community, and can provide not only capital, but the — the knowledge that so many need to understand how to run a business.

You have a great idea, but you don't necessarily know how to run a payroll; don't necessarily know what kind of system there is for business taxes in a way that allows you to maximize — right? — your resources; don't necessarily know how you're going to keep up your inventory; and — and don't necessarily know what is available in terms of creating access to markets. So, you have a good product, but you need access to markets.

So, the work that we have been doing over the last three years has been focused on all of these areas and also understanding the context in which we exist, which is the longstanding disparities, and understanding that in spite of those who, in certain parts of our country, want to attack DEI, we understand that you can't truly invest in the strength of our nation if you don't pay attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion. (Applause.)

We are, for example, paying attention to the fact that in order for any family or individual to have economic well-being, much less the opportunity to create wealth, we need to take into account the history of, for example, the ability of Black folks in America to own a home.

Let's go far back enough — we can go even further, but let's go far back enough to remember the G.I. Bill that was a promise by our nation to invest in who we call the "Greatest Generation," who fought in that war. And so, there was a policy that said: Let us reward them for fighting for our nation and all that we hold sacred and give them access to loans for homeownership.

And the reality, however, of a well-intentioned plan is that it was not well-intentioned in the way it was implemented for a lot of people in that Black veterans did not receive, in equal measure, those loans. And so, whereas a whole population of people had public policy that was about federal investment on lifting people up, certain folks — and Black folks, in particular — veterans — did not receive the benefit. So, now, look at the disparity that's created even by that.

We look at the history of — of redlining. We look at the history of segregation. We remember what happened — I know we're going to talk about — about these urban plans and what that did to cut freeways across communities and limit their access to commerce.

We look at what we've been dealing with as a — as an administration around bias in home appraisals, even to this day, where it is well documented that when a Black family in certain places is trying to get an appraisal for their home, be it to get a second loan or to sell it, they're appraised at a lower value than a similarly situated white family.

And so, these are some of the areas that we are focused on through our economic policies. We've been dealing with student loan debt, understanding that, you know, Black students are much more likely to take out a Pell Grant. We've seen an increase in tuition over the years, but the increase in — in Pell Grants has not been commensurate with that. We're working on that a bit. But student loan debt and the forgiveness of that as a way to allow people to have more assets that they can then put into buying a home or — or building a business.

So, these are some of the examples of what we've been doing. We've been focused on medical debt. Let me just add that.

Medical debt can be one of the fastest ways that somebody can go bankrupt. And often that medical debt is accrued because of some medical emergency that someone or someone in their family has experienced that they didn't have the savings or the anticipation for. And we have now put in place a rule that is in the process of being implemented where we have required that medical debt cannot be a part of your credit score — (applause) — and medical debt cannot be considered when your credit is being evaluated for a car loan, a home loan, things of that nature.

So, these are some examples what we've been doing.

MR. MILLINGS: Yeah, I want to stay with that theme of access. Because it's a — it's a real issue. When we talk about access, and especially communities of color, we've lacked it. A lot of it has been done for many reasons but, specifically — and you kind of alluded to it — urban renewal.


MR. MILLINGS: So, I'm interested in knowing what work is being done to address some of these historic inequities.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, during the late '50s and '60s, there was this whole policy push — national policy push that was called "urban renewal." But what it ended up doing was — and — and it was supposed to be about making life easier for people that live in the areas where it happened. But essentially, it was about a policy that was directed in making it, many people will say, easier for folks who had wealth and means to — to move to the suburbs and still have access to the — to downtown. I'm oversimplifying it, but that's essentially it.

And you see across the country — I'm going to be in Detroit on this tour. I'm going to be in Milwaukee. As you all know, I'm from California, from the Bay Area. We saw it there — where these — these freeways were built and — basically to cut through communities, which bifurcated the community so that folks couldn't have easy access to, let's say, the small businesses from where they lived. And it ended up decimating these communities for years. So, what we have been doing through our infrastructure bill is putting resources into basically reconnecting communities.

So, here in Atlanta, for example, Freeway 75 and 85, what we are doing is — is dealing with the fact that — I guess there was a division from Sweet Auburn from downtown — and what we need to do to reconnect by creating basically pathways that include, over that pathway, creating parks — but literally the infrastructure and recreating that infrastructure so we can reconnect communities.

So, here in Atlanta, there is going to be $158 million out of our infrastructure bill that will do that work. And it's going to create, we estimate, about 13,000 jobs and — (applause) — and also focus on affordable housing, which was one of the big issues that we're facing as a country. (Applause.)

MR. BILAL: Another major issue for entrepreneurs is access to capital. We know that, I think, less than 1 percent goes to Black businesses. So, what are some steps that you guys are doing to kind of correct that issue, which suffocates a lot of businesses from getting started or from expanding?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, here's where I come to this point. It — none of us have achieved success without support — none of us — and without someone or — or people who understood our talent and our dreams and encouraged us to achieve it and showed us how to achieve it.

And as much as anything, the spirit behind the push for access to capital — and, in particular, on this tour, focusing on minority small businesses and Black-owned small businesses and small businesses and entrepreneurs who are Black men — is to recognize the disparities that have existed around the access to the opportunity to achieve success.

Again, I will say, because success is almost always a function of some investment from a community or others that went into the individual who then achieved success. So, the access to capital push that we have made has been about, yes, getting more federal dollars into community banks. It has been about getting the private sector and the big banks to invest, because they will admit, and we know, they are not necessarily in the place where they are — where we need them to be situated to know the community.

Access to capital is — encompasses a commitment to also making sure that we are doing the teaching to then create the access to market. So, it's about financial literacy — a lot of what we talked about before around helping people know how to start a business and keep a business going.

And it's also about understanding that our small bu- — you know, I know I use — I interchange the word "entrepreneur" and "small business." I think, basically, depending on the generation, someone considers themselves an entrepreneur — (laughs) — in terms of younger small businesses, but it's all entrepreneurship, right?

What we also know is that our entrepreneurs, our small-business owners are not only leaders in business but community leaders, civic leaders, hiring locally, mentoring, creating opportunities for economic development and growth within individuals and communities.

So, the work we are doing to extend access to capital is about tapping into the ambition that exists, the aspirations that exist, and then giving people the — the resources that are necessary: money and other resources to actually achieve success.

Can you talk a little bit about how you all achieved your success and how this kind of approach would lend itself to — to others having a story similar to yours?

MR. BILAL: Yeah. You know, we started with an iPhone and idea. That's — that's how we always say. Like, we — we didn't have any capital when we started, right? And that's the beauty of social media. Technology has really empowered everybody and kind of leveled the playing field.

But what we're seeing is that when we're interviewing, you know, other entrepreneurs that may not have the same business model as us, they have an extremely difficult time. And especially when we look at the next generation of unicorn companies —


MR. BILAL: — billion-dollar, multi-billion-dollar companies, those are mostly tech companies. And you do need a lot more money to start a tech company.


MR. BILAL: So, I feel like the entrepreneur in Morehouse and Spelman, they have just as good ideas as Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, but they don't have the capital.


MR. BILAL: So, they either abort those ideas or they work for those companies. But even that's an issue because we know that we are not hired at the same rate in Silicon Valley as other people as well. Right?

So, even talking to Robert Smith and a lot of other people like that, this is a very complex problem. But I think, from our perspective, we have a unique perspective because we actually get to talk to entrepreneurs every single day.


MR. BILAL: And we can understand how $100,000 could just accelerate their business, right?


MR. BILAL: Fifty thousand dollars can accelerate their business, right?

And even looking in the crowd, we have entrepreneurs. I see Pinky Cole. I see Eastside Golf. And these are young entrepreneurs that went out on a limb and bet on theirself, right? But a little bit more capital, they can be the next McDonald's.


MR. BILAL: They can be the next Nike, right?


MR. BILAL: And that's what we need in our community, so they can employ — (applause) —


MR. BILAL: — so they can employ not just 100 people, but 100,000 people.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: That's right. And that — you hit it on the head in terms of how we feel about this.

This is — you know, th- — yes, there are going to be those who need $20,000 loans. But folks need million-dollar loans. (Laughs.) Right? (Applause.) And — and when we talk about a small business, it will be — it could be a dozen employees, but it could also be 200 employees. And it is that piece of it that is about getting to that next plateau that is very much how I'm thinking about this tour and the work that we are doing.

So, yes, it's about start-up capital but also what is required, then, to grow and to scale and have it be sustainable.

One of the pieces I failed to mention before but I'll mention now is the President and I, when we first came in, made a commitment that we are going to increase by 50 percent the number of federal contracts going to minority-owned businesses. And we're on track to get that done. (Applause.)

So, part of the point of this tour has been to give folks information about how you apply for a federal contract. The reason that we made that commitment is because we then put in place more information that is available to more people about how to get a federal contract, because a lot of that, historically, has been who you know.

And when you get a federal contract, it is potentially yours for life. And it's very sustainable and can be the source of great growth for that individual who owns that business and — and beyond.

I'll also say this, and I was saying it to a few folks earlier: The work that we have accomplished as an administration — be it the infrastructure bill and what we are doing to invest — it'll be trillions of dollars in infrastructure: roads, bridges, sidewalks, all of that; transportation, public transportation. What we have done with the — with the — the CHIPS and Science Act, which is about investment in technology and research and development. What we are doing with the Inflation Reduction Act, which is about at least a trillion dollars invested in the climate, but a clean energy economy.

One of — one of the compelling reasons for me to start this tour now and to ask all the leaders here for help in getting the word out about what is available to entrepreneurs and small businesses is because we are in the process of putting a lot of money in the streets of America for this growth. And we want to make sure everyone has access to the opportunity to take advantage of the contracts and the work that is being generated by this policy push.

And so, we want to make sure people know about it and then know where they can receive the support to be ready to take on the work and then to grow their capacity.

I was very surprised to learn that over 70 percent of construction companies in America — and I'm pretty sure that number is still correct — 70 percent of construction companies in America employ 20 or fewer people. Those are small businesses — right? — who, when we're big building back up America's infrastructure, a lot of that is construction work. Got to make sure people know about what's available to them to actually take those jobs.

MR. MILLINGS: Yeah, I think that's — that's why this moment is so important, right? I always believed that, first, it's the awareness part.


MR. MILLINGS: We understand what needs to be done.

Then it's the education around it, which I think people kind of leave out. Then it's the action piece.


MR. MILLINGS: And it — it feels like there's some action, especially with this tour. There's the action that's going to take place.

I want to talk about something that's important for every entrepreneur, and that's the cost of living.


MR. MILLINGS: Affordability.

And so, we've seen interest rates — obviously, over the past four years, they've risen. What — what steps are being taken to lower the burden of — of housing costs?


MR. MILLINGS: Because, like you said, there's disparities in it. We can go all the way back to the G.I. Bill. When we talk about the creation of — of generational wealth throughout communities, it's kind of missed us. So, what is being done now from your side?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, to your point, we know that homeownership is probably the most effective way to build intergenerational wealth. And it just — it's a fact. (Applause.)

And — and just think about it in this context. As a homeowner, then as a parent, if you have a child that wants to go to — okay, this is what I'm going to say — Howard University. (Laughter and applause.)

MR. MILLINGS: Such a great choice. Wonder where you got that one from.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I couldn't help myself.

Or FAMU or — (applause) — or Spelman or Morehouse or Clark — (laughs) — and — and Clark Atlanta, yes.

And as — as a parent, then, as a homeowner, if you have some equity in your home, you can say to your child, you know, "Don't take out the loan; I'll take out some of the equity to help you pay for tuition so that you don't graduate with extraordinary student loan debt and so that, when you graduate, you can do your dream job and not worry about those hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and you can go on and — and prosper."

As a homeowner, if your child says to you, "I want to start a business; I've got a great idea," and you, as a parent, can say, "Let me take out some equity to give you some start-up capital" — intergenerational wealth.

However, again, as we've already discussed, there have been biases and explicit laws and practices that have been in place over generations to exclude certain folks and communities from that opportunity to create that wealth.

And so, we're focused on it also knowing that the — the net worth of a homeowner is about 40 times that of a renter. Think about that. And so, what we can do to uplift and create opportunities for that are very important.

So, one of the things we've done is we have proposed that there would be, for first-generation homeowners — so first-time homeowners — at a certain income level, a $25,000 credit to be able to put a down payment down, which we know would make a huge difference. (Applause.)

And then we're looking at an additional policy that would be about basically, for — for those who qualify, $400 a month in tax credit so people can be able to pay their mortgage on a monthly basis. (Applause.)

And we are on track to — a commitment to build 2 million more affordable housing units, including what we're doing here in terms of the freeway. (Applause.) So, that's important.

But the reality of it is that when we focus on this issue, we got to realize that part of the reason everything is so expensive is we don't have enough supply on the market. And this is a national problem.

So, our investments are about also what we need to do to build affordable housing. I'm looking at some issues around how we can look at vacant commercial real estate and conversion. There's a lot of this issue that is about also what we need to do to focus on local rules that might make it d- — zoning rules that might make it different for these things to happen and how we can create incentives that are productive for everybody.

And then it gets back to, for example, the student loan debt. And what we have seen — we have — we have now forgiven over $150 billion in student loan debt. (Applause.) On average, we're looking at somewhere around $70,000 per person. And especially if we're talking about people in public service — nurses, firefighters, teachers — and doubling the number for them.

But — but one of the other things I've asked the leaders here in terms of helping me get the word out: Let people know they qualify for student loan debt [forgiveness] even if they never graduated. That's really important for folks to know.

Because, you know, think about in terms of the logic of the policy. Why is it that — that the case? Because, sadly, they didn't graduate, some people, because they couldn't afford to keep paying tuition. But they still have to pay back that loan.

So, help us get the word out so that people apply. And I guess that gets to the heart of this tour and everything else we're doing. Folks in a lot of situations just don't know what's available to them, and I need the help of the leaders who are here to get the word out so people know what is available to them.

MR. BILAL: Well, that leads me to my next question. I'm not sure if you already answered it or not, but I was going to ask about student loan and what the administration has done for — obviously, there's millions of Americans that, once again, are suffocated with student loan debt and it's really crippled their lives.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, you know, I'll tell you, we went bolder with this — our plan and — for student loan debt relief, and then the Court cut some of the stuff that we were doing. But we have not stopped.

And so, we are through whatever — and all of the powers that we have through executive orders and things of that nature been forgiving, again, up to f- — $150 billion of student loan debt.

What I have seen in my travels around what this means for the people who have applied and figured it out, it's extraordinary. I mean, I've met people who have been forgiven, you know, three-digit thousands of dollars of debt. I — I've met teachers who've been teaching for 20-something years, carrying that debt and not giving up the profession of teaching. We don't pay him enough as it is. (Applause.)

And, you know — and so, thinking about that — and let's think of ab- — you know, there were those who resisted the policy from the beginning and said, "Well, why do they need — they should pay off their loans. Why do they need it forgiven?"

Well, let's — let's go back to the example of public servants — nurses, firefighters, teachers. We — yes, we don't pay them enough. And do we — the people who have a calling to, for example, teach other people's children, who pay for school supplies out of their own back pocket, and the benefit they give to all of us as a society, should we not think about that and think about the fact that we want them to stay in that noble profession?

I think about the number of young people who have a calling to do that kind of work, similar kind of work, who have to go to some other kind of job because they need to pay off their loans, when we want that people would be able to follow their passion, especially when it benefits all of us and uplifts society.

So, the reasons behind the policy include just that.

And, again, let's just let people know that they don't have to have graduated in order to — to get their debt forgiven, especially if that might mean that, if they want to go back to school, they can go back and — and know that they can afford to go back.

MR. MILLINGS: Well — well, this is coming from a teacher — I say educator now — turned entrepreneur. I couldn't agree with you more. Pay our teachers. (Laughs.) (Applause.)

First, I just want to thank you for this. This has been an amazing opportunity. But we do have entrepreneurs here in the building. Where are our entrepreneurs at? (Applause.) There they go.

MR. BILAL: Big Dave's Cheesesteaks. (Applause.)

MR. MILLINGS: That's a fact.

MR. BILAL: I see Isaac Hayes in the back.

MR. MILLINGS: Shout-out to Isaac Hayes.

MR. BILAL: He can't sing as good as his dad, though. (Laughter.)

MR. MILLINGS: No, no. We wouldn't want him to, either. (Laughter.)

What piece of advice would you like to leave this audience? Like I said, this is — Atlanta is such a hub of innovation for many businesses, but what would you like to leave this audience with in terms of advice for entrepreneurship?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: That you are worthy of and entitled to receive an investment in your dream and your ambition, and to seek out the resources that exist — and we're trying to make it easier for you to find those resources — but seek them out.

And — and know — you know, it's interesting, there's some — there's some studies that show that Black entrepreneurs are often less likely than others to actually apply for a loan for fear they will be rejected. I mean, there's pretty significant data that supports that point.

So, part of my advice is: Go for it. Apply for it.

And — and all — and get the word out, right? We don't — we don't lack for really incredible vision and — and entrepreneurial, creative thought. And so, it's just a matter of, like, let's not let society or history impede or silence those ambitions.

And then I would urge everyone to know, for example, community lenders and to seek them out.

I was just earlier at RICE, and what's happening there in terms of helping young entrepreneurs get ready and then have access. I met this young brother; he's now — he's now going — he's got a water company and is now going to be selling at Walmart. Right?

And so, there are institutions and places that are available to you, groups that are available, mentors here.

I would say to the entrepreneurs who are here: Make sure you — you talk to the person sitting next to you because they may just be that person who is willing to mentor you or willing to give you some advice about how they achieved their success.

But don't give up, because we need you. Our country needs you. And that's how we're going to be strong. (Applause.)

And — and I would — I want to just put a fine point on it. Be proud of your ambition. Be proud of your ambition. Have ambition. Dream with ambition.

Do not ever be burdened by other people's limited ability to see what is possible. Don't let that burden you. (Applause.)

You know, my mother always used to say to me, "Don't you ever let anybody tell you who you are. You tell them who you are." Right? (Applause.)

I have another saying. (Laughter.) I eat "no" for breakfast. (Laughter.) I don't hear "no" until maybe the 10th time. Don't hear "no." Don't hear "no."

MR. BILAL: Madam Vice President, thank you for your time.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, thank you. (Applause.)

Kamala Harris, Remarks in a Moderated Conversation with Rashad Bilal and Troy Millings During the Nationwide Economic Opportunity Tour in College Park, Georgia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/371516

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