NEW YORK – (CNN) – “Hey man, how much money do you make?”
That’s one of the top questions actor Hill Harper gets asked.
Harper, an Ivy League grad who has starred on TV shows “CSI:NY” and “Covert Affairs” as well as the recent film “The Boy Next Door,” is touring America with NBA representatives in an effort to educate middle school students about money.
Instead of telling the youngsters how much he earns, Harper tells them this: CEOs make about 2.5 times what NBA players do.
“If you want to be wealthy, aspire to be a CEO or senior VP of a company, not bouncing a basketball.” Harper said. “The magnitude of [CEO] wealth dwarfs NBA players.”
The average CEO pay is about $12 million a year versus an average of just over $5 million for basketball pros.
The black-white divide: It’s shocking news to most young teenagers, especially in minority communities. But that’s exactly what the FutureSmart Challenge events – a joint venture between Harper, the NBA, MassMutual Insurance and Junior Achievement – are trying to do.
The program brings middle schoolers to NBA arenas, but instead of learning about the game, they are drilled on compound interest and how to aim for the C-suite.
It’s the latest effort to try to close the wealth gap between white and black families, organizers say. As a recent Urban Institute study pointed out, the average white family has 12 times the wealth of the average African-American family.
Harper has been speaking out about these issues for years. He’s authored several books, including “The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place” and bestsellers “Letters to a Young Brother” and “Letters to a Young Sister.”
“Compound interest is really the critical key of wealth building. The earlier you start – that’s why we start with middle schoolers – the stronger the compound interest effect can be,” Harper explains.
Harper said he opened his first bank account in 4th or 5th grade. Before that, he kept his spare change and small allowance money in a piggy bank. That proved to be a big mistake when his cousin Milton raided the fund one day.
“Don’t keep money in your closet or your mattress,” he advises young people. “You don’t have to be wealthy to save. Even if it’s 10 cents a week, just start and don’t touch it.”
Investing pays off: Consider that Michael Jordan – arguably the greatest basketball player of all time – only made the Forbes billionaire list this year, at age 52. Sports helped get him there, but it was his ability to market his image and make smart investments that really made him rich.
In America, nearly 10 million Americans still don’t have bank accounts. Another problem for many minority families is that they put a lot of their wealth into a house.
“African Americans have been taught to believe that generational wealth transfer is through your home,” Harper says. Many times those homes aren’t worth much because of the neighborhoods they are in or how run down they have become.
“If the grandparent would have taken that same amount of money and instead invested it in an annuity or insurance product, that wealth transfer would have been significantly more,” he believes.
While he’s trying to share wise money tips, Harper admits he’s made a lot of mistakes himself, especially as he climbed the Hollywood ladder and became a best-selling author.
His biggest flop? Opening a restaurant.
“Investing in a restaurant is almost like throwing your money out of the window,” he said with a laugh.