February 21, 2014 By: Mark Glennon*
Financial illiteracy, it’s pretty safe to say, is at the root of many of our problems: over-leveraged homeowners, voter ignorance about government fiscal problems, the retirement planning crisis, susceptibility to predatory lending…the list is long. Ted Gonder, a Chicago social entrepreneur, is taking on the challenge at the high school level. A not-for-profit venture that he co-founded, Moneythink, runs financial literacy programs for urban youth.
I saw Ted do his thing recently in front of a few hundred kids during a half-day school session before the start of a holiday break. That’s the kind of day when kids are wild — already mentally checked out from school — when few mortals can focus kids on things like college expense planning, compound savings rates and managing debt. But Ted pulled it off and the kids sponged it in. He has a remarkable ability to speak in young people’s language. “He talks like us,” one young man told me afterwards. (Being just 24 and looking like one of them doesn’t hurt, either.)
Moneythink recruits and trains volunteers to serve as near-peer role models and financial coaches to low-income, urban teens, mostly in high schools. In partnership with schools and community organizations, their volunteers run 21-week programs focused on the real world skills and financial decisions young people face, like networking, budgeting, banking, investing, saving, and managing debt and government benefits.
They work with small groups and relate their lessons to pop culture to drive home the importance of smart financial management. Working with major universities, they partner with local high schools. Having landed a number of grants, Moneythink is off and running with 30 chapters in ten states.
Moneythink has a scandalously big and important gap to fill. Most states have no required financial literacy requirement for primary and secondary eduction. Only four require at least a semester course devoted to personal finance.
Gonder, himself, has a compelling story. He struggled in grade school but was able to turn it around, largely though the help of a tutor — the kind of tutor he admires. He ended up excelling in math and won a full scholarship to the University of Chicago.
But Ted rushed me through his own story when I asked him about it over lunch. Instead, he wanted know about my kids and their learning. Many people ask about your kids over lunch, and most are sincere. But Ted wanted to know everything about them that might relate to his work: “What are they good at? Why? What are they struggling with? What are you doing about that? Is it working? What else have you tried? Please get back to me and tell me how that works.”
He wanted to know because he cared — and because he has a wealth of ideas to share. He and the rest of the Moneythink team care about lots of kids and they indeed have lots to share. Let’s hope he gets on the screens of Mayor Emanuel, other decision makers and principals across the state. Moneythink is still expanding and looking for more schools to partner with, and what an important mission they’re on!
*Mark Glennon is Managing Director of Ninth Street Advisors and Founder of WirePoints.