When Sharon Epperson got the news that she would be one of five African-American professionals honored with a Trailblazer Award from Westchester County, she was humbled. It also made her wonder what it meant to blaze a trail.
For Epperson, a correspondent with CNBC and a personal finance guru, the road to the award has been paved with hard work and a bit of naiveté.
The New Rochelle resident was the youngest person in the New York bureau of Time magazine when she started her career in the early 1990s. It was there that she noticed the daily ritual of some colleagues who gathered around the monitors to watch the stock ticker. She started asking about the importance of stocks and bonds and about the best mutual funds. She learned quickly and eventually Epperson became one of a few African-Americans to be hired to dispense financial advice on-air in 1996.
“When I started at CNBC a friend said, ‘Why do you have to be Jackie Robinson?’” referring to the trailblazing baseball legend. “Then five years later he said the same thing because they still hadn’t hired that many people (of color) on air.”
Part of the issue was media representation. In the last 22 years, the minority population in the U.S. has risen 10.4 percent, but in that time the minority workforce in TV news grew only 3.7 percent, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association.
Despite a lack of other minority women rising in the ranks Epperson’s career growth has been constant. She’s contributed to the “Today” show as well as “NBC Nightly News,” as well as written about commodities and personal finance for several national publications. She’s also the author of the book “The Big Payoff: 8 Steps Couples Can Take to Make the Most of Their Money and Live Richly Ever After.” But being an African-American Epperson saw a need to reach out to her own community to offer people financial knowledge.
“It’s something that the African-American community has not focused on as much as others groups.” Lack of knowledge has been blamed for the significant wealth gap that persists between black and white Americans. According to a study by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, 42 percent of white Americans have an IRA or Keogh, compared with 7 percent of African-Americans. Only 23 percent of black women own stock and the report revealed people of color are less likely to inherit wealth. Epperson said her mission is to make people fluent in financial literacy. And she wants to start with the young.
“I speak to my kids and their friends often about money. I ask them what could you get if you didn’t get this iPhone, if you bought Apple stock instead? Where would you be right now?”
It became important for Epperson to talk about the financial lessons she missed growing up in Pittsburgh. Her parents were both educators and she excelled academically throughout schools, but she didn’t realize how far behind people like her actually were in getting their financial education.
“We were doing a story on IBM and I remember a colleague said, ‘I remember when my grandfather bought me my first share and it was the first stock certificate I had,” Epperson recalled. “Well I don’t have that background. I started asking why would you buy a stock? Why would you buy a bond? I had to start at the very beginning.”
Because she started to build her financial knowledge from scratch it helped her teach others to do the same. She tries to encourage those who aren’t as fortunate to build a foundation in finance. “We have to start with let’s talk about IBM, let’s talk about that industry.”
Epperson added, “I think we take for granted how many people care about money.”
She said with the economy still in flux, it’s important to help people build a foundation for wealth or at least start a rainy day fund. Epperson said she also would like to see more people like her do the same.
“I wish I wasn’t blazing a trail in 2013, but I have a responsibility that I take very seriously. I want to continue to talk to my people about money. And when I say my people that’s very blasé, but I think this is a time to focus on women and women of color and see how I can help encourage, inspire and help them.”
The annual Black History Month and Trailblazers Award ceremony will be held Feb. 28 at 800 Westchester Ave., Rye Brook. The event will run from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.