In this episode of “The Welcome Table with Sydney and Tatum,” literary journalism majors Sydney Charles and Tatum Larsen interview alumna Lynnette Khalfani-Cox (B.A. English ’91) about her career as a best-selling author, financial journalist, entrepreneur, and business owner.
Sydney Charles (0:10–0:14): Hi everyone! Welcome back to another episode of “The Welcome Table with Sydney —
Tatum Larsen (0:14–0:15): And Tatum.”
Charles (0:15–0:41): And today we’re going to be talking to Lynnette Khalfani-Cox. Lynnette is an an alumna of the School of Humanities, a former Wall Street reporter for CNBC, creator of the brand, The Money Coach, and owner of the publishing company, Advantage World Press. She is also the best-selling author and a famed journalist whose work has been featured in Essence, Health and Black Enterprise magazine, just to name a few. So with an introduction that, we’re so excited to be talking to you, Lynnette.
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox (0:41–0:45): Thank you so much for having me, appreciate it.
Larsen (0:46–1:33): Thank you for being here. Before we start out all of our interviews, we like to do a little show and tell so our audience can get to know us a little better and we will go first this week. So I brought one of my most recent bookstore finds. I like to go to bookstores and thrift stores and just peruse their record sections. I’m a great fan of jazz and I’m also a great fan of powerful women who pioneered within the field of jazz. So when I found this, I was like, “I need to have it because it has all my girls: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and also Sarah Vaughan.” When I saw this was $10.99, I was like, “That is a steal, so I’m gonna pick it up.” I’ve been enjoying this a lot and I consider this a treasure. So that’s why I wanted to bring this.
Khalfani-Cox (1:34–1:41): Wow. A treasure indeed. An affordable treasure, not to mention with four very iconic women, so great find there.
Larsen (1:41–1:42): Thank you!
Charles (1:42–1:44): What did you bring this week?
Khalfani-Cox (1:45–3:10): Well, I brought this lovely scarf and it’s so long I don’t even know how much you can see, but I’m going to open it up just to make it a little more visible. So it has a gourd on there, multiple gourds and it has bells. Honestly, I can’t even tell you where it was originally created, but I can tell you for whom it was created and how I got it. It was actually something that I inherited. It came from my husband’s grandmother and she passed away, unfortunately, in 2012. But this scarf was something that Nana had for many, many, many years. Then, of course, it got passed along to me and I use it. I tie my hair down with it, everything. Every time I see it, it makes me think of her, somebody who was instrumental certainly in my husband’s life and raising him. It just makes me think about legacy more or less. It’s something I’m going to pass along to my daughter, Alexis. I actually have two daughters but to Alexis, in particular, our youngest. I think we all need to remember the ties that bind us in a lot of different ways. This scarf is kind of symbolic of that to me.
Larsen (3:10–3:11): It’s beautiful.
Charles (3:11–3:30): Thank you for sharing that with the something amazing. Going right into our first question, speaking of your legacy, you’ve had such a rich and varied career. We wanted to know what brought you to the point that you’re at today? A more pointed question might be, what was life like after completing your undergrad at UCI?
Khalfani-Cox (3:30–5:06): Well, in a lot of ways, I kind of stumbled into my career. I certainly cannot say that I mapped it all out while I was in school. Not at all. You know, I think some people do have this plan. This idea that A is going to happen, then B and then C, how that goes down the road. And it’s nice if your life takes that trajectory. Mine certainly did not. I got into financial journalism after doing a stint in mainstream media in Los Angeles. I started as an intern for the Associated Press and then I became a reporter there. Then I went to two other organizations, the Philadelphia Inquirer, out on the East Coast in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and working for Fox, the 10 o’clock news. But from those positions, I kind of spring boarded into financial journalism. You could not have told me when I was in college that I would have been writing for The Wall Street Journal or reporting for CNBC because I certainly did not know a stock from a bond or have any kind of background in financial matters whatsoever. So I kind of stumbled into it. But I certainly looked at my education, my undergraduate education and my graduate school education as really fertile training ground that helped me to propel towards the career that I’ve built now these last couple of decades, one that’s been just immensely satisfying.
Charles (5:08–5:18): Right, of course. I guess we’re going to learn about how you got interested in finance because that was such a such a sharp career switch.
Khalfani-Cox (5:10–11:54): Well, I didn’t initially get interested in financial journalism itself. Again, as I say, I kind of stumbled into it because I was in the mainstream media as a general assignment reporter. I was working as a correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer when some of my friends there in Philadelphia said, “Oh, let’s go to a job conference at Newsday.” This was in New York City and, again, having moved from Southern California to the East Coast, I was thinking, “I live in Philadelphia. Why would I want to go to a job conference in New York where there’s New York based employers? I’m not going to be passing through two states every single day just to go to work.” So the thought of like traveling from Philadelphia to New York every day was just like preposterous to me.
But then my friends told me, “No this is the East Coast, everybody is really mobile here.” You can hop on a train for an hour and a half, zoom on up there, and you’ll be there. So I did, I went to this job conference and then I wound up getting a job with Dow Jones and Co., which was the parent company of the of The Wall Street Journal. I was working initially for Dow Jones Newswires. But, I should say honestly that it really did start at UC Irvine. I was raised in Los Angeles and at the time you could apply to two U.S. schools. So I applied to UC Berkeley and UC Irvine and I got into both. If I’m honest, I was like, “Yes, I’m going to Berkeley!” Then I had a mentor from high school and my mom, they were both like, “No, you should go to UC Irvine.” They really pushed for UC Irvine. My mom just kind of looked at me and said, “Why wouldn’t you want to go to UCI? They have a great Bio-Sci department.” I was like, “Biological Sciences. Mom, what are you talking about?” She said, “Don’t you want to be a doctor?” I said, “Mom, I told you that when I was like five years old. Weren’t you paying attention? Like what’s happened since then?” So we went around and around and I did decide on UC Irvine. The compromise was that I was absolutely not going to be a biology major, which is what she wanted me to do.
The compromise was that I would go in as an undeclared student and that I would kind of find my way and see what sparked my passions. So freshman year, I took a varieties of humanities courses, I took my core course requirements, et cetera, and it was fine. I had a great year. Then in my sophomore year, I took a journalism class. Honestly, it was one of only two courses, I believe, at the time that were that were offered. I took one journalism class and I was like, “Oh my God, this is it. This is what I’m supposed to do. This is absolutely it.” So I was like, “Sign me up. I want to be a journalism major.” Then I went to my advisor and I was like, “Okay, I want to declare my major. I want to be a journalism major.” They were like, “No, we actually don’t have a journalism degree that we offer here. We don’t have a school of journalism.” And I was like, “What?” They said, “The closest thing is an English major; you can certainly be an English major. You can do this and that.” So I did, I chose an English major. When I thought about it all, when I was in high school, I was an avid reader. Obviously, I was an excellent writer. I always got A’s in English. So it kind of lent itself towards my natural talents.
But after taking that journalism class, I was so stoked and wanting to do so much more that I was like, I should go right for the school newspaper. So I went to the New U and said, “I want to be a reporter here. I want to write.” They said, “Okay, show us your clips,” and I told them that I didn’t really have any clips. I’ll never forget. One of the editors there said, “Okay, well, I’ll tell you what, I want you to go out and go cover this student protest and write about it and come back here and give it to me today.” I was like, “Ok. I’ll do it!” Even though secretly I was like, “Oh, my God, what have I gotten myself into?” I was like, “Yes, I’m going to go out there and do it.” So I did. I just went out there and I covered this protest and I came back in and brought it to him. And he said, “This is really good.” So I started writing for the New U. That’s how I actually started there and it took me on the trajectory towards journalism.
So after UC Irvine, I went to USC and I did get a master’s degree in journalism and it was a tripartite curriculum. My emphasis was broadcast journalism, but I really studied broadcast print and public relations. So, again, I do give a lot of credit to my roots at UC Irvine and to the really quite wonderful experiences that I had as an undergraduate to write, to learn, to be a T.A., to not only get the opportunity to work for the New U, but to also work for Umoja, the African American Student Union’s magazine at the time. So it all started there at UC Irvine. Even though I, young and dumb as I was at the time, and I use that expression to talk about sometimes when you’re immature and you don’t quite know what to do or you don’t quite know what path would path would be best for you. I’m thinking like, “Oh yeah, UC Berkeley will definitely be it,” but actually UC Irvine turned out to be the perfect place for me.
Charles (11:54–11:55): Wow, I love that.
Larsen (11:55–12:39): Yeah, that’s amazing. That led you all throughout your career and led you to winning two awards from the Dow Jones Company, the Dow Jones International News Award, for your reporting for money fraud and Wall Street trends. That leads us to our next question. What inspired you to help people understand the intricacies and also the inequities within the financial industry? Obviously, you stumbled into financial reporting, but you took it really far. What made you want to do that for people, who are kind of just average everyday people, who might not know the intricacies of this industry?
Khalfani-Cox (12:40–16:33): Well, certainly a lot of my personal experiences have shaped my interests, but also understanding that there are a lot of commonalities in terms of what everyday, average folks go through from a financial standpoint. I was a person who, as I said, I grew up in Los Angeles in a low-income household. My parents divorced when I was about seven years old. My dad was a shoeshine man. My dad was originally from Harlem. So he and my mother married in New York and they came to Southern California when I was about two years old. I was born in New York but, again, my family relocated to to Southern California. So my mom was a cashier, she was a secretary and she struggled a lot, frankly, to raise us, to raise five kids, five daughters, if you can believe it, by herself. So it was a huge financial challenge for her. I remember my family being on public assistance. I remember us moving from one apartment to another. Early in my life, I remember some of those struggles, but I also remember having this sort of two-tiered world that I was living in because I grew up in an era of busing in Southern California, where I was bused from my predominantly African American and Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles, in the central part of Los Angeles, to very wealthy areas, to Brentwood, California, to Pacific Palisades. I went to Canyon Elementary, I went to Paul Revere Junior High School, I went to Pacific Palisades High School before I ultimately came back and graduated from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles.
So what I’m saying is that I had friends of all backgrounds and races, and in the era of busing, I wasn’t like my kids had been, frankly, up until very recently in an area that was predominantly white. I was in a school system that was initially predominantly white, affluent, but because of busing, so many students were brought in. I wasn’t the only one. So it was pretty much like twenty-five percent Black, twenty-five percent Asian, twenty-five percent Latino and twenty-five percent white. We all mixed and mingled. We all got along very well, etc.. And so seeing that and seeing my friends who were like, “Oh hey, you want to come to my pool party?” or “My dad’s a doctor, etc.” and knowing, wow, this is how the other half lives. It did inform my sense of knowing that people in my local neighborhoods were struggling and then there were other people who were doing quite well economically.
So I think some of my interest in financial journalism, which is really exploring people’s financial stories, giving them guidance and advice and insights into how to better manage their finances to live a better life, some of that is, in fact, rooted in my own history and what I’ve seen and now, of course, know that so many Americans face. There’s so much to be said and done to attack the problem of economic inequality. I like to think that my role as a money coach, really a financial educator, is helping to chip away bit by bit, bridge that gap, to help do my share. It’s a monumental task, of course, but to do my little small part in helping people to achieve financial freedom and to be able to close that wealth gap that disproportionately affects communities of color, women, et cetera.
Charles (16:33–16:46): That’s awesome, amazing. Do you feel as though there’s any gatekeeping within the financial industry? Is that why you decided to share this knowledge with everybody?
Khalfani-Cox (16:47–20:11): There’s definitely a huge amount of gatekeeping in the financial services industry. I remember being a reporter who wrote about Wall Street and about investing and covered the brokerage business. At so many levels, I would talk to thousands over my career. I talk to thousands of financial experts, traders, money managers, CFPs, financial advisors of all kinds, CEOs, et cetera. Part of my job was to translate what they were saying, was to take all of the financial jargon, all the legalese, all the Wall Street lingo out of it, so that the average person could understand it and could act on what in many cases was good advice.
Well, in many cases, though, it was in the favor of, it was to the advantage of those who had the knowledge, who had the resources, who had the access, who had certain skills that the average layperson didn’t have to obfuscate, to kind of keep things shrouded in mystery, because if it’s all so complicated and if it’s all so mysterious and so difficult, then of course, I need to be the person to do that for you. I need to be able to get paid a fee or a commission, to manage, to explain, to delegate, et cetera. I think that part of what we’ve seen in recent decades, certainly the last 10 plus years or so with this emerging trend toward do-it-yourself, financial controls, where people want to trade for themselves or people want to learn how to manage their own money, et cetera. It’s been a growing trend, but even more now with fin-tech, financial technology, and tools, apps and services, that people can feel empowered. So they don’t feel like they always need a middleman. I’m of the mindset and the belief that people actually do better when they have financial advisors, when they have trusted professional quality, reputable financial advisors. When you have a team basically and a lot of ways to help you, whether that’s with your taxes, with your personal finances, your investments, your estate planning, whatever that kind of needs you might have. I think in general, people do better. You know sort of two heads are better than one. At the same time, I do think there’s a need for a lot of us, especially women, especially people of color, to take the reins and to not abdicate financial responsibility or or to abdicate control completely to someone else. Part of what happens is that so many people think, that’s for them, that’s for the white males to handle or that’s for my father, my spouse, my my brother. A lot of women sometimes think that all that Wall Street and investing stuff, that’s for the guys to handle. No, no, no, that’s not true at all. I’m super excited to be representing in a lot of ways — to be representing women, to be representing African Americans, to be representing educated people who say, “Okay, I’m going to learn this money stuff as well. It’s not rocket science.” We all can learn how to do this and do it well.
Larsen (20:11–20:54): Well, that’s that’s great. That’s great advice. We can probably speak to a lot of college students experience in that money seems like a very scary, illusive thing. But the way that you explain makes it seems like so much more obtainable and manageable. Your work is very important. That leads us to our next question. You do a lot of things. You’re a money coach; you’re a business owner; you’re journalist; and you’re a radio personality, amongst many other things that you do on a daily basis. How do you manage all of those things? What does your daily schedule look like?
Khalfani-Cox (20:55–22:45): So I definitely do not do it alone. A lot of times people have this superhero myth, this myth of the powerful Black woman or the Superwoman Syndrome. That ain’t me, okay? I have an absolutely phenomenal husband. I have a partner and an equal in all regards. We jointly run our company together. My husband, Earl Cox, who is a book publisher and a business manager and an agent — he describes himself as having twenty-five roles because he does have twenty-five roles. He’s managing our website. He’s negotiating deals on my behalf. He’s running scheduling, he’s hiring contractors and vendors for us, et cetera. So people see me because I have a national brand as The Money Coach and I’m front and center in terms of being the kind of spokesperson for our company. But that’s just kind of the the the front end of things. As you know, there’s a whole bunch of back end stuff that has to get done, whether it’s technology or operations or staffing or distribution or legal work and whatnot. That’s where the amazing Earl Cox comes in and all of the vendors and partners and contractors that we hire. For our company itself, it is literally a two person company. We built it that way by design. It’s just him and I. However, yes, we do have support staff. I have an amazing assistant. I have a number of freelancers, contractors, tech folks and others that help us to to build and grow our business and to keep on top of things.
Larsen (22:46–23:03): It kind of goes back to the idea of your scarf, just having ties and keeping people within your orbit that can help run the ship, basically. Because that’s so important. Like, I couldn’t do this without Sydney and our team that we work with here at “The Welcome Table.” It helps to have help.
Khalfani-Cox (23:03–23:42): With my husband, Earl and I, that’s one of the things that, frankly, I’m most proud of. I have a lot of successes. I’m New York Times bestseller. I’ve had a lot of great experiences. I’ve had my company for 17 years. We’ve done some great things. People see me on pretty much every TV show out there, you know, “Dr. Oz,” “Oprah,” “Good Morning America,” all that good stuff. I have 15 books, but I’m most proud that I have a happy, healthy, successful marriage and partnership with somebody I love. We’ve been able to raise three wonderful children together. That’s my biggest success in life.
Larsen (23:42–23:45): Wow, that’s wonderful. That’s a huge success.
Charles (23:45–23:48): That is, that is such a huge success. Congratulations.
Khalfani-Cox (23:49–24:47): Thank you. Even in my own business, when I talk to people about personal finances, I don’t just say the good. I tell the good and the bad. So let me just tell very quickly the other side of it. I first got married right after grad school, far too young for me at the time. My first marriage did not work out and in a lot of ways, I chose wrong. Having had an experience that was not ideal and that didn’t work out and then having a husband, who it worked out beautifully with and who I love and adore and who’s my forever husband, I know the difference of course now and again, I encourage women in particular, especially as you’re coming out of college, because I met my first husband when I was a student, when I was an undergrad in college. Choose wisely. It can make a huge long term difference for you personally, professionally, financially and otherwise.
Larsen (24:47–24:51): Write notes, ya’ll. This is important.
Charles (24:51–24:54): We need to have a separate Zoom call just to talk relationships.
Larsen (24:55–25:19): This is something that we always talk about, work life balance, because we know that it’s a whole pie. It’s not just the piece of the pie. It’s hard to “have it all” but to have good members on your team, especially having a great partner and a great bond like you and your husband have, is so instrumental to general success.
Charles (25:20–25:38): And speaking more about your general successes, your journalism career, did you feel as though the field needed certain areas to be diversified or you swayed either to one side or the other at any point in your career?
Khalfani-Cox (25:39–26:32): Well, for me, certainly financial journalism, we definitely have a need, but really throughout all of journalism. If you look at organizations like NABJ where I’ve been a member for over 25 years, there are just critical shortages of people of color in newsrooms across America. That’s to all of our detriment. It means many stories are not getting told or the lens through which they’re being told are very, you know, sort of one sided or very limited. So, yes, I think that there’s a lot to be done based on science-based journalism, financial news journalism and other forms of media that are specialty areas where we need to have more diversity, more voices, more input. And the result, frankly, is better outcomes, better stories, more truth being told.
Larsen (26:34–26:51): Especially in a moment like we are in right now, it’s so, so imperative that journalists of color, Black journalists are out on the field reporting what is really going on, because it’s so easy to get things misconstrued when it’s told through a lens that doesn’t understand the true context of what’s going on.
Charles (26:54–27:08): That kind of reminds me of actually in your career, of how you were talking about that sort of middleman, especially in terms of the financial finance industry, you get stories straight from the root, it just breathes differently.
Khalfani-Cox (27:08–29:26): I went to USC, as I told you, for grad school. I interned at AP first before I got a job there at AP. Well, when I interned at AP, the riots broke out in Los Angeles. I don’t want to date myself too much, but go back to Rodney King, the beating of the videotaped beating of Rodney King, which prompted and the acquittal of the officers in that case with which prompted the riots. Long story short, I covered the aftermath of the riots for AP, for the Associated Press. Fast forward several months later, there was a symposium that was put on at University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And who did AP send? They sent me — little old Lynnette, who was twenty-something at the time — to go out to represent the organization and to speak about covering the riots and the aftermath of the riots because I covered Peter Ueberroth and the Rebuild L.A. campaign, etc. So as I think back about why they did that, it was because I was either the only one or the only Black journalist in that newsroom at the time. There might have been one other.
I remember a photographer who was Black, etc. But in terms of having full-time journalists covering the riots in Los Angeles at the time, slim pickings, you know. And so again, access mattered, being able to tell a story in a certain way mattered, et cetera. So here we are, more than 25 years later, and we see so much racial strife and civil unrest in the wake of the George Floyd murder and in the wake of killings like Breonna Taylor and on and on with all these names. We still don’t have adequate media representation and we still don’t have police accountability and we still have police brutality. So some of these things, again, obviously they’ve been happening for decades, for generations. But again, you need that persistent drumbeat. You need those voices to be able to tell those stories, to have access, to be able to speak truth to power in a way that otherwise probably wouldn’t get done.
Larsen (29:27–29:51): As we have discussed in this conversation, you’ve had a very rich and varied career and we wanted to know what has been your most memorable experience? Between you publishing innumerable articles, writing books, being on television, what moment within your career has been the moment where you said, “Wow, I’ve made it” in a sense?
Khalfani-Cox (29:52–31:55): I definitely have a number of very memorable achievements. Seeing my book Zero Debt hit The New York Times best sellers list, that was definitely a high point. I remember getting on “Oprah” and my husband, Earl, got me on “Oprah” and he wasn’t even my husband at the time yet, but we worked together in so many different capacities. Long story short, we were there and before I was about to go out, my sister Debbie said, “Oh, wait, we have to pray.” So we all kind of like stood in a circle. It was me, Earl, my sister Debbie, our publicist at the time. And then she started praying and she was like, “Dear God, please let” and then she just went *cry sound* and then the waterworks just started.
We were all like, we cannot believe we did it. I remember that moment very well. In general, you know, having a thriving business and having longevity, having a sustained impact that I think from a professional standpoint is certainly one of the highlights of my career. Then just kind of putting in the work, every time I have an opportunity to make a difference in somebody’s life. When I get feedback and somebody says, “You know what? I read your perfect credit book or I took your advice and your first home and now, you know, I became a homeowner” or “I learned how to invest” or something they tell me they transformed their life in some way. That’s always super meaningful to me and makes me feel good about the about the work that I do and gives me even more incentive to keep up the work and to keep spreading what I call kind of the the gospel of personal finances.
Charles (31:55–32:05): What other gospel or words of advice would you like to be preaching to other individuals who look up to you and who want to make it and have success in their careers?
Khalfani-Cox (32:05–33:49): I guess the main thing I would say is don’t let anybody kind of put you in a box and don’t let anybody impose on you their limitations, because so many people will tell you what can’t be done and how it won’t work and how it’s never been done, et cetera. And so there’s, I think there’s I’m not sure if it’s an African proverb, but it basically says, the people or the man who says that it can’t be done, shouldn’t stay in the way of the man who’s always who’s already doing it.
It’s like, you know, how are you going to tell somebody something can’t be done when they’re, like, proving through their life and through their work that it is attainable, that it is doable? And so, you know, sometimes we have a sense, especially when we’re younger or when we’re just not quite as confident in who we are and what our mission and our focus is, we have this sense that, I should listen to somebody that tells me that it’s only this way or there’s only one track or there’s only one path to do something. And then we internalize that and then we act on that. So all of these things what I’m saying is that don’t let somebody try to put you in one lane. I think the lane you should stay in is your enthusiasm lane. Where do you have a passion? Where do you most want to be represented? Where do you most want to work and pursue, you know, your life’s mission? And if it’s, multiple things, then then go for it. Too many times we just let other people limit us. And I’m a person who, dreams big and and who always wants to achieve more. So when somebody tells me, no, you can’t do something, my first thought is, okay, watch me.
Charles (33:50–33:52): I like that. I like that mentality, that attitude.
Larsen (33:52–33:55): I love that energy.
Charles (33:56–34:21): Thank you so much for coming on and speaking with us again. We both learned a lot. I know I definitely learned a lot about having more teamwork, having a good, solid team that you can fall back on and rely on relationships, which I wasn’t expecting to learn but I’m so glad. It really got me thinking about a lot of things — relationships, you know success, what that means to you, journeys. Thank you so much! This was a great, great interview.
Khalfani-Cox (34:21–34:34): You’re so very welcome and continued success to both of you and feel free to always reach out if you need anything, help, support, advice, mentoring, anything. Would love to be helpful to you.
Larsen (34:35–34:56): Thank you guys so much for watching this episode of “The Welcome Table” and a special thank you to Lynnette. We had such a blast talking to her and we learned so much about relationships, money, journalism, just an all encompassing interview. I feel very fulfilled right now. So I hope you guys enjoyed it, too. This has been Tatum.
Charles (34:56–34:57): And Sydney.
Charles and Larsen (34:57–34:58): And we’ll catch you guys next week.
Charles (34:58–34:58): Bye.
Watch all episodes of “The Welcome Table with Sydney and Tatum” here.