John Hope Bryant, an advocate of economic empowerment through Operation Hope, wants Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to know that he would not have been successful without capitalism.
"I think Bernie and Elizabeth mean well," Bryant said on CNBC on Monday, regarding their criticism of how capitalism has led to wealth inequality. However, he said, "We got to stop with the prosperity-or-pitchforks conversation."
Looking to put himself to the left of the bank-bashing and wealth-taxing Warren, Sanders told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, "Elizabeth, I think, as you know, has said that she is a capitalist through her bones. I'm not." Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist.
In capitalist economies, such as in the U.S., free markets fuel growth. Socialist models, and stricter communist societies, rely on government planning to drive the economy.
By telling his personal story in a "Squawk Box" interview, Bryant sought to illustrate how capitalism and the free enterprise system can work for everyone. Modeling Operation Hope around that premise, his organization aims to give low-income and moderate-income Americans a sense of "financial dignity and inclusion" though coaching and education.
Bryant said, "I grew up in Compton in South Central" — a Los Angeles community with longstanding problems with gangs. Homicides there increased in 2018, a year that saw overall violent crime decline in the city.
"Without capitalism and a banker teaching me financial literacy at 9 years old," he said, "I wouldn't be who I am."
"I said, 'How did you get rich legally?' Bryant recalled, saying the banker "who was Caucasian by the way" and "didn't want to be there — but the law, the CRA, forced him to be there, Community Reinvestment Act."
"When he came and taught me financial literacy, my life fundamentally changed," Bryant said. "I wouldn't be who I am" under the communist systems in China or Russia.
"Capitalism is like democracy, it's a 'horrible' system except for every other system," said Bryant, adding he does not want to say who he voted for in 2016 or who he likes in 2020. Operation Hope is a "big tent" for everyone in need, he said, adding he speaks out on "issues but not on a particular person."
Bryant, also a best-selling author and philanthropist, has served as an advisor to the last three presidents. He's also a founding member of Clinton Global Initiative. The nonprofit Operation Hope, which Bryant started in 1992 after the Los Angeles riots, is headquartered in Atlanta.
— CNBC's Anjali Sundaram contributed to this report.