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In 2015 Charisse Conanan Johnson, ’10, started writing a book. She had just left Smarteys, a small business that provided financial planning tools for college graduates. She thought she could leverage her experience as vice president at J. P. Morgan Asset Management, where she made investment decisions for a $10 billion mid-cap equity portfolio, to give advice to women on investing in the US stock market. But when a literary agent fell through and she began a new job, she shelved her manuscript—only to return to the idea years later.

“When my daughter was born, I looked at her face and I was inspired in a different way,” said Conanan Johnson. By then, she was managing partner at mission-oriented firm Next Street, headquartered in New York City with an office in Chicago, and head of its strategy consulting practice, but she was also running a side-hustle through Charisse Says, an online platform giving advice to women on how to create and sustain wealth. Looking down at her infant daughter in her arms, she realized this was a different kind of wealth—and she began to think about how wealth is passed through the generations. It sparked something in her. “I started to jot down my thoughts on Post-it notes and put them up on the wall. The creative juices just starting flowing.” 
Those Post-its became A Wealthy Girl: 7 Steps to Prosperity, Peace, and Personal Power (Networlding Publishing, February 2021). While the past year has been a stressful time for a debut author, Conanan Johnson thinks it’s a good time to send her book out into the world.

“People are doing some soul-searching, thinking about what it means to live a life, be alive, and try to have it the way that we want to have it,” said Conanan Johnson. She recently spoke to Chicago Booth about how she defines wealth, what she hopes her book will inspire in women, and how networks, faith, and accessibility are crucial to any woman’s wealth-building journey.

Booth: How do you define wealth?

Conanan Johnson: Wealth includes the tangible assets you have—financial assets, real estate, stocks, bonds, private businesses—minus your debts, such as credit card balances, a mortgage, or student loan debt. But it’s also your intangible assets. These include the people in your life who are important to you, your intellectual capabilities, your cultural capital, your confidence, your faith and the specific attributes that make you you. Those intangible assets are important, because while wealth is about financial prosperity, it’s also about the peace of mind and personal power that come as a result of your intangible wealth. 

Booth: How are accessibility and financial literacy crucial to the empowerment of women in the wealth-making space?

Conanan Johnson: We all want the desires of our heart, and we all want to be able to pass on the wealth we acquire to the next generation. But the reality in this country is that wealth has not been equally accessible to all. We all know the statistics around the gender pay gap and the racial wealth gap, and so it’s urgent and important for us to be able to close those gaps and have strategies and tools that subvert the system. 

But we also need to know how to work within the system, because systemic change takes time. One of the first steps I discuss in the book is building an environment for wealth creation—getting the support we need around us to complement where we might have gaps. I talk about seeking out financial advisers, therapy, career coaches, and informal peer groups. These are things that successful folks, and particularly people from white communities, do in order to get the assistance and environment that they need to access prosperity. 

In addition, one of the key drivers of wealth creation is entrepreneurship and small business. Using that as a lever is important: women of color are the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs in this country, and so we need to talk about that and do more to support it. 

Finally, I spent a lot of time writing about investor mindset—how you execute on being the CEO of your wealth. I provide a proprietary framework around allocating money. Budgets can feel boring and restrictive, but allocation is important. My strategy is called “SIPPin’ & Livin’”: how you’re going to hack the system, and how you’re going to train yourself to think about investing by way of investing in yourself, nourishing your wealth, and creating a space for the assets that will create this tangible equity.

Booth:
How do mentorship and community factor into your recommended path?

Conanan Johnson: I pay specific attention to the importance of investing in mentors and sponsors, and I draw a distinction between the two. Mentors are there to give you advice and provide guidance on your career—what you might want to do, how you might want to achieve it. Mentors might show up in your life at different points for different seasons.

Sponsors are people in your day-to-day work circle, or in positions of authority and power, who have the ability to change the trajectory of your career. They have personal reputation and credibility at stake, and they’re willing to take that brand equity and ascribe it to you.
They really take you and allow you to make that next step. While you can seek mentors, sponsors tend to find you.

Booth: How do you hope that women will utilize your book?

Conanan Johnson: In every chapter, I provide takeaways and probing questions that women can answer and ultimately act on. This isn’t something that’s meant to be static or passive. It’s not enough to just read the book and do you. We need to do better for and with each other. It’s what we do best: so why not do so in building wealth for ourselves, our communities, and the next generation?

My ideal is that women will pass this book along as a guide to life and wealth building, and form circles—I call them “wealth circles” in my book—where they are committed to and invested in each other’s success and wealth goals. 

Booth: What do you hope that women can take away from your own journey?

Conanan Johnson: One, that it’s OK to fail. I talk openly and honestly about how my own failures have helped lead me to a full life. Two, I want people to understand the details of what it took for me to build wealth for myself, and what it took for my family to do so, so that they can apply it to their own lives. I hope that they see themselves in my multifaceted role as mother, friend, and sister.

Some people who have read the book early have said, “I now want to have a conversation with my grandmother and my mom about some of these concepts.” So I hope it’s not just my story but the stories of other women in the book that inspire people to know that anyone can pursue wealth. 

Because wealth-building books can sometimes feel impersonal or even condescending, I was as authentic as I could be—I’m a girl from Long Island, working class, with a public-school education. I want readers to understand and relate to the universal elements and commonalities between my life and theirs. 

Most of all, I wanted to bring all my knowledge of wealth building and the financial field, and couple that with a desire to shine a light on the systemic forces at play for women, particularly women of color. This book, at its core, is about owning who you are.

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