Ted Gonder, Moneythink

Co-founder and CEO: Ted Gonder
Organization description: Recognized by President Obama as one of the best new ideas for social innovation, Moneythink expands economic opportunity in the United States by equipping low-income youth to navigate the financial decisions of adulthood. By combining high-touch financial mentorship with a pop-culture curriculum and mobile technology, Moneythink mentors teach students to save, spend mindfully, and use financial products safely.
Organization site: http://moneythink.org/; @moneythink
Date of interview: October 2015

Ted Gonder, Moneythink

Ted Gonder, Moneythink
Art by Brad Lacke

Ted Gonder is a social entrepreneur, a mentor, an optimist for change, and the founder of Moneythink – an organization that is restoring the economic health of the United States through preventative, transformative, and evidence-driven youth financial education. Moneythink is headquartered in Chicago because “if you’re going to solve an education problem anywhere in the US, Chicago is the place to do it.”

On the power of mentorship:

“When I was 14, I had a math tutor who really helped set me straight and aspire to greater heights. From him and other mentors, I learned to think about my life like an entrepreneurial venture and my decisions like each was an investment in my future.”

“Being a mentor has been a core part of who I am because I think the way to pay it forward is to do for others for what was done for you.”

On blending approaches and tactics to bring change:

Ted believes that Moneythink’s approach is unique because it is taking the best of various methods to build a more complete and impactful financial literacy approach that has never existed before.

“Moneythink is tackling the issue of youth financial capability unlike anybody else. Financial education is nearly a billion dollar industry, but the industry as a whole has very little to show for it. What we’ve done is premise our entire approach on high-touch, high-tech, blended-learning interventions. We are taking the age-old proven method of mentorship to transform youth trajectories, and infusing it with cutting edge technology to get better data, to reach students outside of the classroom, and to deepen the relationship between the mentor and pupil. Nobody else is doing that.  Everyone is either doing volunteer programs or relying entirely on technology as a way to reach students. No one else is saying that maybe the right solution is blending the old and the new.”

“Financial education is nearly a billion dollar industry, but the industry as a whole has very little to show for it.”

“Most people say that education technology helps you reach more kids. We know many of our kids are not self-directed learners yet. Rather than just expecting them to engage with an app, we weave technology into an existing mentor program.”

On building financial literacy into education curriculum:

Ted sat on the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans where he had a front row seat into the federal discussion, and an opportunity to represent the needs of younger generations.

“The unfortunate reality is that financial capability is not viewed as a critical component of a young person’s education in terms of what makes our nation more competitive. This is partially because financial literacy programs to date have been too fragmented in their approach so there is not substantive data that says financial skill-building interventions have hard economic implications on a student’s upward mobility, debt levels, and anything else that a government ultimately cares about. When you try to make the education argument for financial literacy you’re competing with math and science standards, and without adequate proof it’s hard to justify even slight reductions in time spent on those standards. That’s another reason that we see our role as so completely necessary – this industry needs some serious upending.”

“This industry needs some serious upending.”

On the topic of actually making financial literacy more engaging to youth, Ted says that the program tries to weave otherwise boring financial topics into examples that youth can relate to, such as celebrities. For example, talking about Wesley Snipes evading taxes or the Kardashians’ credit card habits. “It completely changed the student experience. If you meet people where they are and then bring finance into something that relates to what they’re interested in,  and the way they think and perceive the world; then you can make a big impact into somebody’s thinking.”

On winning the White House Champions of Change award and social media:

In 2012, Moneythink was called by the White House as one of the finalists for the White House Champions of Change. “That was the moment where it really become clear that this was a national movement.”

In order to win, the Moneythink team had one week to get the most votes. “If you study people who have successfully built loyal online followings, they say social media is just a tool but what really matters are the relationships you build to help you get your message out. What helped us win the White House competition and rally so many votes wasn’t that we had a ton of Facebook likes or Twitter followers to begin with, but that we had built a massive allegiance of enthusiastic, college-aged, hyper-connected leaders and we leaned on all of them to drive traffic to this voting page. We’d built a network and kept them updated personally – not just through social media. That’s what gave us something to tap into that was real. I think it’s easy to mistake social media for something that is inherently substantive, but it’s not. The relationships that you build in real life matter so much more.”

“I think it’s easy to mistake social media for something that is inherently substantive, but it’s not. The relationships that you build in real life matter so much more.”

On measuring change:

“Our three core metrics are: 1) Are our students saving more regularly? 2) Are our students spending more mindfully? 3) Are our students making wiser safer financial product choices as they enter adulthood?”

“We are in the midst of a three year longitudinal study funded by American Express in Clarksdale, Mississippi. We are tracking 11th and 12th graders through the program and after the program ends. The first year’s results were just released and are very encouraging. We hope that we can begin creating benchmarks that we can hold the rest of the industry to.”

To condense it all into one Tweet, @tedgonder offers, “Dream big. Start small. Save today. Spend mindfully. Watch where you step. Most of all, find a mentor and stick to your guns.” You can read more on Ted’s philosophies on his blog.

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