Capital Ideas: Moneythink ventures to bring financial literacy to South Side students

At 8:20am on a beautiful spring morning, sunlight is streaming through the chipped windows of a third floor classroom of Woodlawn Charter High School at 64th Street and Woodlawn Avenue, onto the sleepy faces of a group of high school seniors, their heads resting on their hands. On the walls of the classroom are two posters of Muhammad Ali (“I am the greatest”) and one of Che Guevara (“The people liberate themselves”). The two University of Chicago freshmen standing in the circle of tables, themselves barely out of senior year, are trying to bring the students a different kind of inspiration.

“What do you guys think made Barack Obama president?” Dustin Popiel asks the class. No response. It’s the Monday after spring break, and his audience is unenthusiastic. “Obama’s a great communicator. Communication is important for success.” Today’s class is a break from the usual curriculum; the students are participating in Moneythink, a nonprofit mentorship organization that works to bring college students into high school classrooms to promote financial literacy and entrepreneurship in some of the poorest neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side.

At the front of the class, Popiel and fellow mentor Jordan Green begin with a short lecture on the merits of teamwork, collaboration, and dedication, using business examples like the Chicago Bulls and Apple, Inc. “All of you are natural born leaders,” Popiel concludes. “A group of people committed to a common cause is always necessary for a great business.” The students break into groups to work on their own start-up business projects, the energy changes, and they start to wake up. Using business models that include a cross-genre record label, a custom stitched clothing line, and a fashion magazine, the students take on the roles of CEOs, salespeople, and product developers. They come up with logos, marketing materials, and budget plans. Popiel and Green drift from venture to venture, offering advice and answering questions. Now the students are listening. Says a student at the back of the class, “They show us how a business develops,” he thinks for a moment, “from the inside.”

Moneythink, launched in September of 2008, is the brainchild of five current University of Chicago students: Greg Nance, Morgan Hartley, Shashin Choski, Ted Gonder, and David Chen. Nance, a third-year political science major, originally envisioned the program as an investing club for local high school students, but quickly expanded it into a more comprehensive program, specifically tailoring a teaching curriculum of financial responsibility and enterprise to address the particular economic problems of the South Side. Nance describes the economic conditions of many of these mostly African American communities—massive unemployment rates, limited access to banks and credit for small businesses, widespread predatory lending, and sub-prime mortgages—all of them made worse by the current economic recession.

Moneythink aims to remedy these problems by, as Nance puts it, “fostering money management among high school students and promoting discussions and habits that will lead to a lifetime of financial independence.”

But Moneythink is designed to change more than spending habits. “Beyond the real economic problems in these communities, there’s what I call a ‘hope-deficit’. People are used to these problems, and that makes it harder to change them. [Moneythink] is as much about changing the outlook and opportunities available to students and creating a culture of responsibility as it is about teaching simple finance and budgeting.” The group points to a government survey conducted as part of the Financial Literacy Act of 2003 which found that 76 percent of parents reported that their high school students did not have a budget, and that credit card debt had more than doubled for the 18-24 year old demographic since 1982. Nance believes that Moneythink’s work can extend beyond the students themselves. “The tools we can give these students could go home with them, and effect their families as well. They might say, ‘look Mom, if we save this much every month, we can get out of this situation.’”

The group has met resistance from principals and education experts over the efficacy of inexperienced college students teaching in classrooms. Popiel, a first-year, recalls that “when I started, I didn’t know anything about stocks and bonds. Greg [Nance] taught me all that thirty minutes before I presented it for the first time.” But Nance emphasizes that the Moneythink approach makes mentors’ age an asset in helping them relate to students. “My ability to relate to these kids will diminish as I get older. The mentoring part of this, just being there and making connections, that’s as important as the financial literacy.”

Most of the attention Moneythink has received has been positive. The program has won major awards, including being a finalist for the Sparkseed Social Innovation Competition, and a Harry S. Truman Scholarship for Nance, largely because of his work with Moneythink. The project has been expanding rapidly; by the end of this spring there will be over 850 Moneythink graduates.

On the Sunday night before the Moneythink class, thirty-some University of Chicago students pack into a classroom in the UofC’s massive Harper Memorial Library for a Moneythink mentor workshop. They sit at large square tables around a digital projector and listen over their laptops to a PowerPoint presentation by second-year founder Morgan Hartley on the importance of teamwork—it’s a basic outline of the lesson that will be delivered by Popiel, Green, and many other mentors across the South Side the next morning.

The meeting is efficient and professional; Moneythink’s founders practice the lifestyle they preach to their students. They are sharp dressers, polished speakers, and they present everything with an infectious energy. The personal leadership skills of its founders are largely responsible for the project’s success.

Moneythink relies completely on undergraduate volunteers and currently has over forty UofC students participating regularly as mentors. These volunteer mentors work in classrooms in six different Chicago public high schools and present weekly lessons to students during their economics or business classes. As new mentors join and those with more experience begin to graduate, Moneythink is working hard to find and retain quality mentors. A group of mentor captains oversee and guide new volunteers and run a mentor-shadowing program and weekly workshops. While Nance and Hartley emphasize the program’s internal organization for finding new leaders and training mentors, strong convictions are harder to cultivate. As Moneythink continues to grow up from its foundations, college students may turn to it to satisfy their resumes rather than their consciences.

Outside of Chicago, the founders have helped five other colleges start Moneythink on their own campuses, including groups at the University of Florida and Washington University in St. Louis. Beyond the classroom, Moneythink is working to establish high school internships and job shadow programs with CEOs and CFOs of Fortune 500 companies; Nance expects to have between 20 and 50 students in such programs this summer. Moneythink is organizing an entrepreneurship summit at the UofC on May 12th, where students will be invited to present their ideas and will have the chance to win funding from real venture capitalists. Moneythink mentors are also teaming with students from their classes to organize a combination financial literacy class/basketball camp. “Chicago Got Game” will give some of the South Side’s most talented athletes a financial primer to protect them from the exploitation that college athletes often face. Says Nance, “We want these guys to succeed on and off the court. We want to see these kids become the next CEOs.”

The group strives to make their ten-week curricula, of which there are four, flexible and relatable to students. By frequently invoking pop culture and focusing on inspirational figures, mentors are able to find common ground with students. In a written endorsement, Principal Arthur Reliford of Hales Franciscan says the approach works. “The students are able to share their personal financial experiences with the [Moneythink] team in a way that they seldom do with the teachers; they are more open and comfortable with the Moneythink team, and as a result, the feedback that they get in the class makes them more anxious to learn.”

But working lessons of personal responsibility into pop culture narratives isn’t easy, especially when working across cultural and socioeconomic divisions. Hartley suggests to the crowd of mentors, “You could use Kobe Bryant as an example of a bad teammate. He’s the guard, so he’s supposed to… you know…” He stops, and admits, “I don’t know anything about basketball.” The crowd laughs. It’s not always clear whether the cultural icons that Moneythink mentors use as examples are meant to be emulated or rejected. Nance has used rapper Lil Wayne as both a model for a strong work ethic and as a cautionary tale about the dangers of drug use.

The more success Moneythink finds, the more important the question becomes: what is success? The line between promoting financial literacy and reinforcing a culture in which success is defined by economic status can get blurry. Hartley recalls one of his most rewarding moments as a mentor: “A student stopped me in the hall. He high-fived me, and he said ‘I finally got those shoes.’ It was just this little thing, some new Air Force Ones, but he did it. He saved his money, and he got those new shoes. That was huge for me.”

In the sunny classroom at Woodlawn Charter, Popiel and Green are trying to bridge the wide gap that has long separated the UofC from the communities around it, but even in the positive atmosphere the mentors have created, reminders of this divide remain. Popiel stumbles when making an analogy between teamwork and the power of gangs. He asks the students to imagine themselves walking through one of Chicago’s “bad neighborhoods.” A girl at the back of the class says quietly, “You mean our neighborhood?”

In a classroom like this, there are complicated questions and no easy answers, but Popeil and the leaders of Moneythink mean what they say. Moneythink mentors are in classrooms across the South Side, and their presence is making a difference. Says Nance, “This is a total testament to the power of ideas.”