Sen. Tim Scott's Mission: Build Wealth Among 'The Most Vulnerable'

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott has become a leading conservative voice focused on building wealth among people of color. Scott tells host Michel Martin about his ideas for growing the economy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This is the time of year when people in many industries and professions hold conferences. And people interested in politics and policy are no different. So we thought we would take a minute to dip into two of the meatier conferences going on this week in Washington. In a few minutes we'll hear from a small business owner who took part in the White House sponsored event - the White House Summit on Working Families. But first, we're joined by Senator Tim Scott. The South Carolina Republican was one of the featured guests at this week's National Journal Summit - The Next America: Making America Work. The event highlighted ways of improving economic opportunities, particularly in minority communities. And Senator Scott, who is African-American, has become an important leading conservative voice focused on building wealth among people of color. Senator Tim Scott, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

SENATOR TIM SCOTT: Thank you, Michel. It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: So what did you talk about in your remarks?

SCOTT: Well, I talk about my personal story - my personal journey from poverty to at least some miniscule prosperity. It really focused on A - the power of education. It started off with the power of a switch. My mama loved me with an apparatus - southern apparatus of encouragement. I didn't appreciate it then but I appreciate it now. It's called discipline. But I talked about three real pathways to creating wealth in America. Homeownership's part of that path, business ownership or entrepreneurship's a part of that path and then understanding how to have an equity position in the marketplace - whether it's mutual funds or stocks. You have to be in a position of ownership, really, to experience true wealth in America. And so, while I want to find ways to help people escape poverty, I think, we have to ignite the conversation around prosperity so as to create more business owners who then employ people who come from those areas where we want the most help.

MARTIN: Why do you think you were invited to this event? Did you have a special role to play?

SCOTT: I think the good Lord has provided me with a mess that I created when I was younger that has become my message so I can be a messenger of hope and opportunity. And so what I really did was share my own personal journey and then talked about how my journey reflects that same journey of so many other folks who have succeeded. And so I don't see it as an elected official. I see it as an entrepreneur. I've spent most of my life as an entrepreneur - adult life as an entrepreneur.

MARTIN: What was your business?

SCOTT: I had a couple of Allstate Insurance agencies. I had a real estate company and dabbled with cleaning for little while. But I started selling and working for myself - selling Krispy Kreme donuts and vacuums - Kirby vacuums door-to-door, Amway distributor as a young fella - all looking for ways to make my ends come together, helping my mother who was a single mom support the family and pay bills in high school and in college.

MARTIN: I'm curious about that. I'm interested in that because traditionally, at least in the current era, the Republican Party is identified with a message of get out of the way of business - that the best way to build prosperity is to get out of the way of the prosperity builders. Now obviously, there are a lot of people who believe that that message isn't actually thoroughly embraced when it comes to certain favored industries. So we can - but that's, you know, that's a whole different conversation. We can set that aside. But other people feel that the government has a role, particularly when it comes to minorities, in ensuring fairness because the government has been, in the past, an active player in ensuring unfairness, for example, actively discriminating against certain people. And so they feel that now the job of government is to remove those obstacles and to be like a vigilant guardian of fair opportunity. And I just wanted to know how you - how you see that question.

SCOTT: I think it's a - there's a careful balance that can be created where you look at the challenges of the past, you look at the success of the future and you find your path forward. I recently attended the 50 year anniversary in celebration of the Civil Rights Movement. And if you look at how that came together back in the '60s, what seems to be an unknown fact was that Republicans and Democrats voted in high numbers - Republicans a slightly higher number than Democrats - for that legislation. So the fact is that while we have a very curious and provocative past as a country, the question's how do we move forward as one nation?

MARTIN: Do you feel the major task now is incremental in the sense of, you know, a program here, a tweak there or do you feel that there's some kind of underlying, you know, philosophical shift that needs to take place in order to create the kind of prosperity that you - one would hope to see that would be shared among the many and not just a few?

SCOTT: I think most often when we talk increments, we're really talking short-term hopes of something happening in a big way. That typically doesn't manifest, though we've spent a lot of time and resources trying to make it happen. I'm more of a long-term person. It's just how I am. When I run my businesses, I'm always looking five years down the road. And so when I think about policies and/or philosophies that will create a permanent change for those folks most vulnerable economically, I don't think of short-term solutions, I think of long-term transformation. And that, for me, starts with education. The fact of the matter is that when you look at the employment rates, I see those as symptoms. I think of problems as the graduation rates when you look at the - especially specifically the black community - and so I take that and I transpose that same philosophy in business. And I find that as a small business owner, there are two major impediments to my success. One was access to capital. And there are some things that we can do to help create incentives to having more access to capital. I spoke Saturday afternoon with Bob Johnson, the founder of BET, about how we can work on ways to create more access to capital. And the second is having a strong, clear business plan and vision on how to make your business succeed.

MARTIN: It's believed now that reaching out to black voters may have saved the political career of one of your colleagues, Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran.

SCOTT: That's probably true.

MARTIN: And so I wanted to ask about that - if whether do you feel that that race has changed the dynamics a bit of how the Republican Party views black voters. I mean, it's not a secret that the Republicans have viewed black voters as kind of a hard sell and many African-Americans feel that they make only, kind of, nominal and token efforts to reach out to them. And, you know, the feeling is that it's kind of a wasted effort because the voters are so entrenched in the Democratic Party. And so I just wondered whether you think that that race - since this is your region, not your state, but your region - you think it's changed anything in how people view that?

SCOTT: Yeah. I think what I've learned in my previous races is you typically find an audience where you're willing to go. And so it's our responsibility as elected officials -and specifically as Republicans - to go into every single corridor of our district. And for me I see that, not simply in South Carolina but nationwide, I want to change the dynamics - not politically - but I want to change the dynamics economically. I want to change the dynamics of hope in this country and so that's where I'm coming from. But I think the answer to your question is I think Thad Cochran's race proves that if you spend enough time and you're sincere, authentic and hungry, you can have success in places where others say you can't have success. And frankly, as much as Republicans did a better job reaching out to the black community and minority communities, we have to make sure that the minority communities are willing to embrace and at least listen to the message that comes from folks who have an art. So that's a two-way path and I've experienced it when I speak in different places that folks are already made up their minds on what I'm going to say and then after I speak they're like, oh my gosh, that make sense. You really want to help poor kids get a better education. You want single moms to have the type of flexibility at work so they can take care of their kids. Well, I was a poor kid raised by a single mom. Why would I not care about those issues? It's because of these stereotypical labels that we place on people and we don't give individuals an opportunity to speak for themselves.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, one more question. I wanted to end where we began - on the conferences in the summit that you participated in. What's the value of that? You know, some people look at that and they tend to be invited audiences, a few people who are already kind of very well positioned. What's the value of participating in something like that?

SCOTT: I'll tell you that what I saw in the audience - which was very different than I see in most of those prepared audiences - I saw a ton of young people, amazing diversity and I saw people listening not only with their ears but with their eyes. And I believe that means that their hearts were engaged. If we have an opportunity just to start a debate, a conversation about multiple paths forward, the benefit is those folks take that conversation out of the room and perhaps invite speakers to come into their communities to have that conversation or they start doing the research and having those conversations with their friends. What changed my life was having the ability to have a relationship with a small business owner, who was the South Carolina minority business owner of the year. And when the banks were not impressed with my business plan, I had the opportunity to convince one of the folks who had watched me work for over a decade. He was one of my clients, then invested in my business to help me get started and then I had enough seed capital to go back to the banks and get a small $20,000 line of credit, which then helped create the insurance business, the real estate business and everything else. So the power of relationships, perhaps, is the clearest answer to your question.

MARTIN: Senator Tim Scott is a Republican. He's the junior senator from South Carolina but he was kind enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C. Senator Scott, thanks much for joining us once again.

SCOTT: Yes ma'am, Michel.

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