Economics Arkansas will honor Warren Stephens at the Leadership in Free Enterprise (LIFE) Award Luncheon for his contributions to free enterprise in his role as longtime CEO, chairman and president of Stephens Inc., and as the visionary architect of This is Capitalism, a multimedia campaign about extraordinary individuals whose economic achievements would have been impossible in any other country.
By Chris Price
“In sharing these stories, we hope to renew people’s understanding of capitalism, redefine it in the context of a dynamic economy, and restore people’s faith in its power to change lives,” Stephens says.
Economics Arkansas is a private, non-profit, non-partisan, educational organization founded in 1962 by Arkansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Arch Ford to promote economic literacy in Arkansas. The organization trains PreK-12th grade teachers how to incorporate principles of economics and personal finance into the classroom curriculum. The LIFE Award honors those who promote success in the free market, says Kathleen Lawson, Economics Arkansas’ executive director.
“We’re really excited to recognize Warren Stephens with the LIFE Award this year,” Lawson says. “He’s a big champion for capitalism and definitely deserving of receiving this award.”
Headquartered in Little Rock, Stephens Inc., is one of the largest, privately-held investment firms in the country. Founded by his uncle, Witt, and run by his father, Jackson, Warren Stephens joined the family business in 1981, after completing his M.B.A. at Wake Forest University. By 1983, he was named head of corporate finance. Three short years later, on February 18, 1986 – his 29th birthday – he was named CEO of Stephens Inc.
“That was way too young,” Stephens says with a laugh. “But, really, I was very humbled. I looked around the room when Dad made the announcement, and there were people in that room much older and much more experienced than I was. They’d helped get the company to where it was at that point. I basically asked them to continue their support of the organization, and I never really felt pressure.”
Thirty-three years later, he leads one of the nation’s biggest off-Wall Street investment banks.
Stephens is quick to credit to the country’s economic and political structure for the successes of his family business. Capitalism, he says, made it all possible. It was how his uncle, who never finished the 8th grade, went from selling Bibles and belt buckles during the Great Depression to selling highway bonds and laying the foundation for one of the country’s most successful investment banks.
In This is Capitalism, which he launched in 2017, Stephens shares the virtues of capitalism by celebrating the accomplishments of hardworking Americans and the extraordinary businessmen and businesswomen whose independent spirits and hard work exemplifies the system.
Lawson says Economics Arkansas has used Stephens’ videos to create lesson plans to help teach about free enterprise and entrepreneurship.
Stephens says Bernie Sanders’ rise in the 2016 presidential campaign was his inspiration to start the series.
“He carried 22 states in the Democratic primaries as an avowed socialist, appealing mainly to young people,” Stephens says. “They just don’t understand.”
He cites the stark differences he saw between East and West Berlin during a visit in the 1980s. “People were risking their lives and getting killed to try to get out of East Berlin into West Berlin,” he says. “Just the difference between West Berlin and East Berlin was just startling. You couldn’t really make an argument as to which one was better for the citizens; it’s not even close.”
Stephens was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in February.
To learn more about This is Capitalism and the successful entrepreneurs Stephens features, log on to thisiscapitalism.com.
Economics Arkansas awarded Charles Murphy the first LIFE Award, for capitalists in Central Arkansas, in 2014. It has given the Excellence in Free Enterprise Award to business leaders in Northwest Arkansas, including Sam Walton, J.B. and Johnelle Hunt, and John Tyson, since 2012.
The LIFE Award Luncheon will take place at the Little Rock Marriott on Tuesday, March 26, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. For ticket or sponsorship information, please contact Kathleen Lawson at Economics Arkansas at [email protected] or (501) 682-4230.