Trigger warning: This story contains a mention of depression and attempted suicide.
When K. Kenneth Davis’s deeply religious mother disowned him due to his then-identity as a queer woman, he had two options: college or the streets. He chose the former, where he could at least get food, shelter, and an education. While still at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2010, he began the process of transitioning to align his body with his gender identity. Although he hated his civil engineering major, it landed him a cushy, six-figure job when he graduated.
“But behind those six figures, I was broke as hell,” he says.
He recalls living paycheck to paycheck – and showing off. “I was that person who would always pay for everybody because I wanted to prove that being trans, I’m no different,” he says. Shiny facade aside, though, he’d just left a toxic relationship, his car was about to be repossessed, and he faced eviction. Transitioning – which included gender-affirming medical care and a legal name change – without his family’s support, financial or otherwise, also drained his wallet. That his family was tight-lipped about finances when he was growing up didn’t help, either.
One day, he broke down crying in the shower, buried in credit card debt, with no clue how he’d pay next month’s bills. When he stepped out, he spotted a book a friend had given him on his desk, Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter’s personal finance bible, Rich Dad Poor Dad. He devoured it, then signed up for a library card and read any other personal finance book he could find. Applying what he learned allowed him to pull himself out of debt, boost his credit score, and rent an apartment. Meanwhile, he wondered: Why hadn’t anyone shared this knowledge with him or other members of his LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were struggling financially?
In 2016, Kenneth started a business, The Trans Capitalist, to do just that. Through workshops, keynotes, panels, and more, he teaches financial literacy to young people, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+. By personalizing his content to their life experiences, he hopes to empower LGBTQ+ folks to be financially independent and end systemic poverty in their communities.
Kenneth acknowledges that the term “capitalist” might rankle some LGBTQ+ people, who often see capitalism as oppressive. But in the absence of another viable system, “the best thing you can do is arm yourself, defend yourself against capitalism,” he says. How? By learning the rules and principles of money, “so you can stand up on your own two feet and be independent.”
Beyond the recent rise in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, LGBTQ+ people have long encountered individual and systemic discrimination, which, in turn, has left them at a financial disadvantage. Trans employees are more than four times as likely as the general population to have a household income below $10,0000, according to the National LGBTQ Task Force, and twice as likely to report unemployment. LGBTQ+ youth are also more likely to be unhoused than their non-LGBTQ+ peers, often due to family rejection, not unlike what Kenneth experienced.
Having one or more other marginalized identities can pose additional setbacks. The racial wealth gap, stemming from systemic racism, can limit BIPOC’s economic opportunities, for example. Indeed, the National LGBTQ Task Force found that Black trans people have an unemployment rate twice that of the trans sample surveyed, and four times that of the general population.
Cis folks often don’t fully appreciate how their trans peers’ struggle to survive in a world that seeks to erase them leaves them little bandwidth to learn financial literacy, says Kenneth, who spoke to Invoice2go, a Bill.com company from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, which he shares with his wife (a dean at the university) and their black Lab. He wears a crewneck emblazoned with the letter “P” in the trans flag colors, for Princeton’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center.
“We don’t have retirement because we don’t look further than where we are right now,” he says. “We’re just trying to survive, to be safe. I want to give people that hope that you can [be financially literate], that it’s possible.”
Breaking the cycle
As a kid in Yonkers, New York, Kenneth avoided asking about his family’s finances, which was seen as disrespectful. Plus, his single mother had managed to raise him and his brother comfortably middle-class, so he didn’t worry about money – until the 2008 recession. Because she’d been using credit cards to stay afloat, “she went under,” he explains.
As a result, Kenneth had to navigate his transition with little knowledge of budgeting or other basic financial concepts. Not only did he struggle to afford it (gender-affirming surgeries, for those who opt for them, can range in the tens of thousands of dollars), but he spent hours researching the process while working a full-time job. Until he and his mom reconciled, his family didn’t lend any support, and social media hadn’t evolved to the point where he could easily reach out to a stranger for guidance. “I felt like I was doing it in the dark,” he says.
When he asked a bank teller about investments, they told him he didn’t have enough money to invest and handed him a credit card instead. Because he’d seen his mom using credit cards, and no one had taught him how to properly handle them, he racked up piles of debt. His stress weighed so heavily on him that he sank into depression and even attempted suicide.
Besides allowing him to gain control of his finances, the DIY financial literacy boot camp he put himself through lit a fire. The more he learned about personal finance, the more passionate he became about it. He vowed to become wealthy so he could break the cycle of generational poverty common in the trans and Black communities, as well as other marginalized communities.
“I wanted to learn what white cisgender men on Wall Street knew that I didn’t know,” Kenneth says. That resolve spurred him to pursue a master’s in finance at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business.
Studying finance sharpened his ability to decode financial jargon and deepened his understanding of entrepreneurship. In fact, a business owner friend who he’d helped understand profit margins found his explanations so helpful, they encouraged him to provide financial education services professionally. Meanwhile, whenever he read a personal finance book or learned a new financial principle, he’d post it on Instagram to inform other trans people. Over time, his follower count grew, as did the DMs seeking his help.
Kenneth realized he was onto something. His sickle cell anemia, which made working rigid hours challenging, seemed to further seal the deal. After graduating from his master’s program, he decided to quit his engineering job to start his own financial education business, The Trans Capitalist.
Trial and error
Many entrepreneurs turn to mentors for guidance as they build their businesses. But finding mentors is easier said than done – and that’s especially true for trans people like Kenneth. The reality is, cis entrpreneurs outnumber trans entrpreneurs, and it can be hard to identify cis entrepreneurs who are accepting of trans people. LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs face other challenges, too. They’re less likely to have savings they can use to get their businesses off the ground, The Establishment points out, and loan officers may be hesitant to grant them approval.
“I literally had to start from the bottom and had to learn everything,” Kenneth says. Living off his savings, he taught himself how to create a curriculum, market his business, and much more. With no one else’s mistakes to learn from, he had to learn from his own.
The process was slow-going, but Kenneth built his business. “It was definitely trial and error,” he says. Initially, he dressed in a suit and tie, which he thought would lend him an aura of credibility – instead it alienated people. So did packaging his explanations in financial jargon. The friend he’d explained profit margins to encouraged him to switch it up. “I felt them shut down,” he recalls. “They were like, ‘Just be you.’” He’s since adopted a more casual, conversational style.
Kenneth continued to research his audience and tweak his content based on his findings. He consumed the same content they did, posted surveys asking them what they wanted to learn about, and analyzed his social media metrics to identify which posts resonated with them. (His off-the-cuff breakdowns of financial terms tended to perform well.) Meanwhile, clients started reaching out to him on social media, many learning about him through word-of-mouth.
He credits much of The Trans Capitalist’s growth to his flexibility. “I had to learn that it’s not about me. It’s about the client,” he says. “How can I help them and not make them… turn into me? How can I take pieces of them and make them better?” He recalls slowing his pace for one client who seemed overwhelmed by all the information he was delivering. Once he started breaking down concepts into bite-sized nuggets for clients based on what they knew, he began attracting even more. “More people were spreading the word,” he says.
Kenneth is also flexible when it comes to clients’ personal situations, including their mental and emotional state, which mainstream financial experts often overlook. Over time, he realized they wouldn’t take the steps needed to manage their finances until they had the right mindset.
That’s why he starts by asking questions that help him understand his clients’ relationship with money, then tailors his approach accordingly. Crucially, he doesn’t shame them – unlike the financial advisors some of them have consulted, who turned them away because they had too much debt or because they assumed they couldn’t afford a financial product.
Financial literacy is essential for LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs to protect themselves from being taken advantage of, to learn the skills to overcome the inevitable financial challenges, and break the cycle of poverty, he says. Kenneth’s number one advice for those who want to improve their financial literacy? “Always ask for help.” Acknowledging you need help begins the healing process and frees you to enter a mindset where you’re ready to handle your finances.
Empowering the LGBTQ+ community to get their money right
The Trans Capitalist offers one-on-one coaching, couples financial counseling, a workshop on the fundamentals of financial literacy, and an online course on investments and passive incomes. To account for the financial hardship the LGBTQ+ community often experiences, Kenneth also offers a $25 e-workbook, plus a ton of free content on social media on concepts like rainbow capitalism and buying power.
He warns LGBTQ+ people against following traditional financial advice, which typically doesn’t account for their unique challenges and needs. Many personal finance experts, for instance, urge people to pay off their debts as soon as they have access to the funds to do so. But Kenneth suggests LGBTQ+ folks save instead. “We don’t have savings,” he explains. “It’s hard in the [trans] community to even get hired, especially if you’re not stealth or passing.” Those who do get hired might quit due to bullying. (Federal law didn’t protect employees from being fired or discriminated due to their gender identity or sexual orientation until 2020.)
As a queer or trans person, “there are so many ways you’re just one step away from destruction,” Kenneth says. Funneling money into debt rather than saving it can prevent LGBTQ+ people from covering the emergencies and expenses their straight, cis counterparts don’t have to consider, like the costs associated with gender-affirming surgery or family planning.
A major part of Kenneth’s appeal is his relatability. His clients trust him because unlike many mainstream financial experts, he’s walked in their shoes – and he doesn’t recommend anything he hasn’t personally found effective. Many have told them that because they can see themselves in him, they believe financial freedom is possible for them, too.
On stressful days, client successes – like the single mother who stopped living paycheck to paycheck after just three sessions, or the trans friend who finally had money left over after paying his bills – sustain Kenneth. He especially loves it when clients apply what they’ve learned to make their own financial plans, their faces aglow with hope.
For now, The Trans Capitalist remains a solo venture, but Kenneth has considered hiring employees and setting up chapters across the US and beyond. Much as he hates to turn people down, he’s already had to cap his client roster. (His wife has suggested starting a waiting list.)
Ultimately, Kenneth wants to get his e-book, The Money Talk, in the hands of every trans person, so they can all set their sights on gaining financial independence. “I want to reach as many trans people as I can in the world,” he says. He’s the first trans person some of his followers have ever seen. That he’s thriving sends a powerful message. “One, knowing you can actually transition, and two, knowing you can be financially stable after that – that blows their minds,” he says.
If you or someone you know is in distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for free, confidential, 24/7 support at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 711, then 1-800-799-4889).