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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Harold Doley by Armstrong Williams

Last week marked the 30th anniversary of financier Harold Doley becoming the first black American to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. The watershed event was commemorated with a few interviews, though little more. Perhaps an appropriate way to celebrate an occurrence that so subtly and almost imperceptibly changed the sense of future possibilities for a generation of American-black children.

Let's recap: Doley is one of those rare few to stumble on his life's calling at a young age. He was thirteen when a family vacation took him to Wall Street. Immediately, the child attached wonder to what he saw: the ambitious hustle of the brokers wading through the waves of people, young messenger boys wheeling boxes crammed with securities zigzagging around wall street. "It was amazing" recalls Doley. "I set my sights on becoming a member of the stock exchange."

Thirteen years later the ambitious child purchased a seat on the exchange for $90,000. Thus emerged Doley, the business visionary, who later founded Doley Securities Inc., the oldest American-black owned investment-banking firm in the nation. Along the way, Doley Securities Inc. has served as the sole placement agent for over one hundred million dollars in negotiated transactions with African institutions and garnered enough prestige that President Regan accorded Doley ambassadorial rank while he was serving as United States Representative to the African Development Bank (AfDB) from 1983 to 1985.

Despite the business accolades, Doley the person seems surprisingly humble. One is immediately struck by his casual ease, his graciousness, the hearty laughter that draws you into his confidence. With most businessmen, the highly personalized style serves to camouflage one's true motives. And to be sure, beneath Doley's confidential gazes lurks a relentless energy that hauls along an almost preternatural ambition. Still, one is drawn in by his humble charm.

The embryo of that charm was formed in the modest grocery store where Doley spent much of his young life working. "When you grow up in a grocery store," explains Doley, "you learn what it is to work hard, but you also learn what it is to interact with others... you meet and interact with different personalities all the time. So it's kind of a microcosm of society. And you learn people at an early age. It's always amazing to me how many politicians grew up in grocery stores."

Armed with the classic charmer's style and a born to be absorption with business, Doley sincerely embarked on his life's ambition in 1968, when he first became a broker. Within three years the novice was established; his efforts formally recognized when the shareholders management company selected Doley as one of the outstanding stockbrokers of the year. He was 24 years old. Soon thereafter, the owner of the company arranged an interview with his exceptional pupil. During the course of that conversation Doley expressed his ambition to become a floor broker. A battery of tests later, it was decided that Doley "would find the floor too confining." Being told no was all the motivation he needed. Doley promptly ducked his head and burrowed forward ("because I felt a seat gave access to power and wealth.") Eighteen months later had put together a deal that allowed him to purchase a seat. Thusly did he become the first - and to date only - American black to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

Breaking the Stock exchange color barrier did not inspire marches or cause civil rights activists to pump their fists in the air. But Doley's accomplishment did have the profound effect of presenting a model of economic achievement to a generation of black children. At the time, it was very easy for society to label black children inherently inferior. They had few mainstream models of success from which to identify with and learn from. In such a manner, American blacks were conditioned from a young age to commit murder on their sense of future possibilities. Doley presented an alternative. And to this day, he still finds it striking how many people seem to be attracted by the mere fact of his owning a seat on the stock exchange. "I was on an elevator not long ago," recalls Doley, "and a gentleman said, 'you don't know who I am...but I'm a stockbroker today because of you.'...and I've had people come up and say, 'I'm a banker' because you influenced me. That's very rewarding."

In the thirty years since Doley came to Wall Street a lot has changed. "When I first visited the stock exchange in 1968...there were no African Americans that cleaned up the floor...their were no black shoe shine men. Now today, 35 years later, the head of American express is an African Americans, the head of Merrill lynch is an African American." Despite the progress, Doley admits that "it's not a level playing field," and insists that "...something is wrong in our country when three quarters of the people in prison are black or when the average black sat score is 857. These are problems that have to be addressed."

Ah, But how to address these problems? Perhaps a good place to start would be focusing on a common humanity, rather than which tribe you belong to (as defined by skin pigmentation). Doley believes that Proposition 54, a California initiative that prohibits the state from making racial classifications, could help eliminate race from the equation and move us closer to equality.

It is not surprising that Doley would support the proposition. The consummate insider, Doley's life is a testament to the fact that social change comes not from standing outside the power structure and pumping your fists in anger, but by altering stereotypes from within. When you stand on the outside and denounce the dominant ruling sphere, you can be easily discarded as fanatical and marginalized. No, changing stereotypes on Wall Street from the inside has been Doley's life work, and his gift to ours.

Armstrong Williams can be contacted via e-mail at:

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

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