It’s a perennial issue, one that yet again came to a head a couple of months ago in reaction to the thousands of undocumented immigrant minors crossing the Southern U.S. border.

In July, 17% of the American population stated that immigration was the nation’s top problem. That’s the highest since 2006, according to a Gallup poll, but to all the naysayers and those that are particularly against illegal immigration, Louis Barajas, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Wealth Management LAB, Business Management LAB and Financial Literacy LAB, has this to say: “Just remember that most immigrants coming into this country don’t want a handout, they want a hand up.”

He should know.

Barajas, who once served the financial needs of ultra-high net worth individuals from a plush office in Newport Beach, California, was born and raised in East Los Angeles. The Barrio isn’t an easy place by any stretch of the imagination, he says, and when it comes to financial planning, there’s a particular mindset that has as much to do with cultural traits as it does with poverty. Together with the lack of financial knowledge, this particular way of thinking holds people back from building wealth.  

Barajas quit his high-profile job at Kenneth Leventhal & Co. in order to bring his knowledge back to the Barrio. In September, he received the Financial Planning Association’s Heart of Financial Planning Award for his work.

He believes strongly that imparting financial knowledge and education to hardworking, entrepreneurial people can help them rise above the odds and move up in the world. His goal is to break through the “mindset” and to help others have an easier time than he had to grasp, in a first instance, the basics of financial planning, and from there, move on to exploiting that knowledge to make the most of their talents, abilities and experience.

Barajas himself moved up the ladder the hard way.

The eldest son of Mexican immigrants who spoke no English, he was obliged at the age of 13 to help his entrepreneurial father, who had a welding business, with tax returns, accounts and all other aspects of bookkeeping for a small business.

He learned everything himself — but tough though this was, the trial by fire also inspired in Barajas a great desire to read and learn. He excelled in school and made it to UCLA, and after earning an MBA from Claremont State Graduate School, entered the financial planning profession. A couple of plum jobs later, though, he decided to go back to his roots, partly because “many in my generation have a desire to go back to where they came from and help out in the community, but also because I really wanted to educate people about the process of financial planning. I wanted to come back and help immigrants like my parents.”

It wasn’t easy getting a practice off the ground, though. Barajas had to walk the streets handing out fliers, and even though he was one of them, he had nevertheless to gain the community’s trust in a number of different ways.

He chose to go the no-fee route, which was perhaps the hardest route to go but essential, Barajas says, because “I wanted to be clear that there was no conflict, that I wasn’t in this to sell products to people.”  

He also began hosting financial planning seminars and workshops that in due course, became extremely popular. Today, several of his initial clients are millionaires, Barajas says. Although most of them worked and still do work simple jobs, they’ve achieved financial success because they wanted “a hand up,” he says, and because they were able to benefit from the type of education that in the Barrio is not easy to come by.

“We live in a world of information and there’s plenty of financial information out there for everyone,” he says. “But what our communities really need is people who have the knowledge and tools, who are willing to come and teach others and help them achieve financial dignity. I believe strongly in helping hardworking people who want to make their lives better.”

Barajas continues to dedicate much of his time to outreach and education and in addition to his financial literacy efforts and wealth management practice, he also runs a business management company that provides comprehensive chief financial officer (CFO) services for high-profile entertainers — many of whom are Latino — entrepreneurs and high-net-worth families.