How Charles Payne Overcame Poverty and Became an American Success Story
When looking at entrepreneurs who command admiration and respect, it’s easy to think that they’ve always been where they are. In reality, that’s almost never the case. Every successful entrepreneur has overcome tremendous adversity to get where they are today, and despite how it may look to the public, they still face tremendous adversity every single day.
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Budding entrepreneurs should understand that behind the carefully crafted public image, the world of entrepreneurship is hard — frustrating and gritty. It’s also incredibly rewarding.
Today, I’m going to share the story of Charles Payne. Most people know him as the host of a popular Fox Business program, Making Money with Charles Payne. But what most people don’t know is that in addition to being a financial mastermind and television host, he’s also a wildly successful entrepreneur and Air Force veteran who has overcome tremendous adversity throughout his life. And that ability to overcome adversity, combined with his financial savvy, is why he has achieved so much.
It started at a young age when Payne grew up with two different childhoods. One as an Army brat, moving every year but living an amazing life, and later, one of poverty and violence when his parents separated and his mother moved he and his brothers to Harlem, New York.
It was at that point that Payne realized how lucky he had been.
A tumultuous early life
“Growing up on military bases, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, shielded you from everything that was going on in the world,” Payne says. “I immediately saw the harshness and the poverty and the frustration. It was a culture shock. And the other part of that was the financial challenges.”
Payne admits he was naive, and when his family got their first apartment after the move, they went through their first winter without heat or hot water: “I never thought about where heat or hot water even came from. Up until this point, I thought every place came with a fresh coat of paint, heat, hot water and the things that most of us just take for granted.”
Payne says that poverty and violence were the parts that really stuck with him. He recalls stepping over addicts on the sidewalks on his way to and from school. But he wasn’t willing to wallow in self-pity, so as the oldest child, he stepped up and began working to help support his family.
“I did any kind of hustle I could,” Payne says. “I started cleaning windshields at stoplights and eventually got a job at a bodega, which was great. We were so poor that I started really thinking about money — and I had never thought about that a single day in my life until then. I felt a responsibility to bring in the money we needed as a family. That’s when I thought of the stock market. I think we all think of Wall Street when we think of money, so I started reading The Wall Street Journal.”
Things didn’t change right away, though. As Payne explains, “It was hard as hell. If people could go back and look at what the old Wall Street Journal used to be — it was just a bunch of tables and lines and no explanations. It took me a long time to learn what was going on.”
By the time he was 14, Payne told his mother he was going to work on Wall Street. He bought his first investment, a mutual fund, at 17, signed up for the Air Force that year as well, and then shortly after his 18th birthday went to boot camp. While enlisted, Payne enrolled in college and completed his degree. Upon graduation, he had a wife and kid and $1,000 to his name.
A time for change
“When I got out of the Air Force, it was me and my wife and daughter living in a one-bedroom apartment,” he recalls. “It was like I had come full circle to where I had started, so I immediately started working two different jobs while continuing to go to college.
That was where he said it all started to change: “I got the call for a job at EF Hutton, and that was one of the top 10 moments in my life. It was $13,000 per year, which at the time was all the money in the world to me. But now I was working on Wall Street. I was the lowest man on the totem pole, but I was there.”
He continues, “I was working in the research department, which wasn’t a lot of money, so when the opportunity to become a broker opened up, I took that. But the thing is, being a broker is 100% commission, so it was really scary. By the time I got my first check, my daughter had been wearing the same pair of pampers for over 24 hours and we had one can of food in the house. Honestly, if it wasn’t for my daughter, I probably would have given up.”
But this was just beginning, because being a broker means selling every day. Your leads typically came from old phone books that other brokers have cold-called hundreds of times over, so you face constant rejection. However, there was one particular call that changed Payne’s perspective on selling.
“There was one guy I prospected in my first or second week, who said, ‘OK, you can read well, but what do you want?’” Payne remembers. “So I threw away the script and just talked to these people. From there, I instantly had success. My first full month back in the business, I had the most new accounts in the office.”
Payne was on his way, but this wasn’t quite what he thought it would be. He had dreamed of being a broker and finding amazing stock opportunities, but despite bringing in more business than any other broker at the firm, he was making less money. That’s because he was selling the stocks he believed would be best for his clients while the other brokers were selling the house stocks — which they made more money on.
The entrepreneurial spirit comes calling
After a few years as a broker, he worked up the courage to start his own research firm, called Wall Street Strategies. Payne ran this company out of a one-bedroom apartment in Harlem, where he handled sales during the day and research at night.
It was tough getting started, but he got to the point where he could hire an employee, and not long after that, he was able to move the company to Wall Street. Pretty soon, Payne’s reputation began to spread and he received a call from CNBC wanting to have him on as a commentator. That led to additional opportunities at CNN, Bloomberg, and Fox.
“Along the way, I learned that the peaks and valleys — particularly in an industry like Wall Street — are acute,” he says, underscoring again how the more successful we become, the bigger the problems we face become. “When they’re great, they’re great, but when they’re bad, they’re really bad. I’ve seen both. I started my business by the bootstraps and ran into trouble when the market blew up during 2000–2001, so we were essentially working hand to mouth for about three years.”
At that point, Payne had built his business up to about 50 employees and now had to start laying people off. He recalls a particularly difficult instance where he had to fire a young woman who first came to his firm as a high school intern.
“Her teacher had given her an assignment to write about an American who had inspired her, and she wrote it about me,” he says wistfully. “That just moved the hell out of me. When I had to fire her, that was the only time I had cried because she was such an amazing young woman who had held me in such high regard.”
His firm was decimated from more than 50 employees to just seven. Throughout these ups and downs, he’s faced financial hardship and even declared bankruptcy. Payne says it’s easy to give up, although he never did, and he never felt like he was going to fail — even though he did fall pretty hard from time to time.
Payne credits his mother and father for that mindset. His mother, he says, because she never gave up and persevered through every bit of adversity life threw at her, and his father for the military discipline he instilled in him. And while he once modeled his mindset and actions on his parents, he now serves as an example for others in the path to success.
And Payne is no stranger to helping others become more successful. In addition to sharing his financial insight, as well as insight from other expert contributors, on Making Money, his most recent book, Unstoppable Prosperity, is helping people make the right investment decisions in their lives. Payne is also working on another book that he expects to have completed shortly.
Payne has committed himself to the mission of helping ordinary people take control of their financial independence, a mission that’s played a tremendous role in his being able to overcome the adversity he’s faced as an entrepreneur. And it only furthers the truism that when we focus on ourselves, it’s easy to give up when things get tough, but when we focus on serving others, we can overcome anything.