As the noonday sun burns off a Thursday morning haze, dads from all over the city gather at the airport Sheraton Gateway for a master class in fatherhood. The master: Robert Kiyosaki, who has attained demigod status among his devotees and is the best-selling author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not. You see, when the master was a young boy, he had two fathers: one rich and one poor. Kiyosaki's two fathers were not so much gay lovers as fictionalized (or so his detractors insist) analogues for his own dad and the dad of his childhood friend. Poor Dad was a brilliant scholar, yet struggled with money his whole life and died leaving behind a legacy of debt. Rich Dad never finished school, yet built up a treasure-trove of untold wealth and died leaving bundles of money for his family and friends. Rich Dad, the master says, had much to teach Poor Dad. Of course, this secret knowledge can be passed on to other poor dads — if the poor dads are willing to pay $16.95 for the master's book, $195 for his board game, $995 for his class, or $219 for his 12-disc set of CD/DVDs. Amid the vague, contrarian and vaguely contrarian financial advice dispensed in Rich Dad, Poor Dad are the adages “The rich don't work for money — the rich invent money” and “The trained mind is a rich mind.”
At the Sheraton seminar, this advice is not shared by Kiyosaki himself, but by a delegate, or “trainer,” David Shamy, who has been dispatched by Kiyosaki to invoke the master's spirit. Shamy is a preternaturally good speaker. He is warm, funny, engaging, authoritative and clever in the way most great salesmen are. He wears an impeccably pressed collared shirt in the same royal purple as the Rich Dad, Poor Dad brochures, a colorful tie andasharkskin silver suit jacket, which he removes at the beginning of the program, as if to say, “Hey, I'm one of you guys — only richer.”
Before he became a multimillionaire, when Shamy was asked what his number-one fear was, he said, “Running out of money for retirement.” The fears of the dads waiting in the convention-hall foyer are just as basic.
“There's something wrong with the way I'm handling my business,” says dad Jackie, who has a 3-year-old son. “There are people with less than I have who enjoy a better lifestyle than me. I want my boy's question to be 'Where can I go to college,' not if he can go to college.” Jackie has long dreadlocked black hair, soulful brown eyes and a melancholy expression. Like most of the people attending, he seems filled with both hopelessness and hope.
“I would consider myself an in-between dad. Not rich or poor,” says dad Alan. “I have two grown daughters. They both live at home. They should have given me grandchildren by now, but I don't think they ever will.” Alan feels that the real estate market will crash and lead to a great and lasting depression (minimum 2 years).
Chairs in the Laguna ballroom at the Sheraton are roped off with masking tape and the dads are herded in by row. Many of the dads are minorities. There are also moms. When I ask my seatmate Ngozi (whose name in Nigerian Ebo tribal dialect means “blessing”) to save my seat while I go for water, she lifts her eyes from a copy of the Watts Times and says, “Sure, for five dollars.”
“You could find this program for $200 on the Internet,” scoffs one elderly dad while scoping out CDs for sale. “And I bet you could find any book online if you press enough buttons.”
For the next two hours, Shamy asks us to imagine what it would look like if we could have our dreams. He advises us to clip out photos of the things we want — helicopters, beach houses, cars, beautiful wives and children — and paste them on our wall. Beside me, Ngozi writes in careful script: “What are your dreams.”
Shamy's spiel is a tour de force of selling. Every doubt is allayed. Every avenue of escape headed off at the pass. What with the testimonials (Shamy's daughter made $25,000 by fixing up and flipping a house she purchased with a hard-money loan), the PowerPoint diagrams, the loudspeaker broadcasting chiming cash-register sounds, you come away with the feeling that you need to enroll in Kiyosaki's $995 three-day Rich Dad Academy to learn how to find real estate bargains, negotiate with banks, and buy a small house with your credit card and rent it out. The crowd shouts out slogans en masse like Amens at church. “There is a solution to every problem!”
“I see some of you said nothing,” says Shamy, shaking his head ruefully as the seminar winds down. “You will attract nothing. You were too cool to say anything. You can be hip or you can be rich, but you can't be both. Unless you're a rapper. If you've made the decision not to go to Robert's Rich Dad Academy, I have a saying for you: 'Would you like fries with that?' Or 'Welcome to Wal-Mart.'” His diamond cuff links flash. When Shamy sees “a silver hair” at Wal-Mart, it scares him. Especially because he knows that silver hair is ambitious — the old man's at Wal-Mart, after all, and isn't living off welfare.
In response, members of the audience who are sold beyond sold scramble to the back of the room to buy three days' worth of insider secrets and carry away Kiyosaki swag. Big promises in a small purple bag.