When most guys under 30 scrawl temporary tattoos on their limbs, they usually choose the name of their favorite sports team, beer or a significant other they want to impress. But when Ted Gonder did it, he choose two curious slogans that might make you think he harbored heroic ambitions: “ABANDON MEDIOCRITY” and “SEIZE OPPORTUNITY.”
And the truth is, Gonder deserves the hero tag as much as anyone in the under-30 age pocket. At 24, the former University of Chicago student has co-founded something revolutionary and 100 percent positive: a mechanism that teaches money management to urban teens.
It’s called Moneythink, and if you think this CEO’s startup smacks of a pipe dream, then consider this: The leaders of the MassChallenge startup program gave him $100,000 to fund his idea. And no less a world leader than President Obama has said Moneythink is one of the best new social innovations anywhere. (You can see the elevator pitch video for Moneythink here.)
Money Under 30 sat down with Gonder to get some background on how the former self-described “knucklehead” teen skateboarder turned into a financial whiz who’s earned the admiration of a president. (By the way, Gonder is an appointee for the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans.)
Money Under 30: Tell us a bit about your background. You didn’t seem to have much of a future or interest in helping teenagers with money, or the subject of money management. What turned you around?
Ted Gonder: I grew up in L.A. In my teenage years, a few mentors stepped into my life and taught me to think of my life like an entrepreneurial venture and my decisions like investments in my future. Then, in my senior year of high school, I had an economics teacher who taught us personal finance and investing. He convinced me to start a tutoring business and save money to travel the world. That’s when it clicked that in my head that money is a tool we use to express our values, and that I could earn and save for the things I cared about as a young person
MU30: You worked for awhile at ShoreBank, a community development bank that had lofty goals for helping its neighbors until it went insolvent in 2010. How did your time there influence what you’re doing now?
Gonder: More than working at ShoreBank itself, I’d say the public transit journeys back and forth from the ivy-decked University of Chicago were the real impetus. Looking out the window, I’d wonder how it could be that such a resource disparity could exist between our campus and the local urban communities, which had endured some of the most severe effects of the economic collapse. My co-founders and I would see the boarded-up businesses, foreclosed homes and abandoned cars, and wonder, “What can we do to make a tangible local impact on this seemingly intractable global financial crisis?”
MU30: And what was the answer you came up with?
Gonder: We put our heads together and thought, “What if we created a tutoring program but instead of focusing on academics, let’s focus on money?” It just made sense to us. That was the start of Moneythink.
MU30: Tell us about some of the grants your program has been awarded and some of the recognition you’ve received.
Gonder: We’ve been fortunate to receive generous support from folks like the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, PIMCO, the Charles Schwab Foundation and BMO Harris Bank, as well as the incredible Center for Financial Services Innovation. We’ve also had the chance to compete and win in several startup accelerators and social entrepreneurship competitions, such as the world’s largest startup accelerator MassChallenge—where we were the only nonprofit to win—and the Hitachi Foundation’s Yoshiyama Social Entrepreneurship prize. We were also named a Champion of Change by the White House.
MU30: What’s at the core of what you’re trying to teach these kids? Give us a taste of how long the program lasts and whether kids have to regularly attend classes.
Gonder: Our volunteer mentors visit our local urban high school partners once a week for an entire school year, leading students through lessons ranging from basic goal setting and applying for jobs, to budgeting and financing post-secondary education. We keep the student-to-mentor ratio small (5:1) to build trust from week to week. To date, we’ve trained more than 1,000 college leaders to serve as financial mentors and positive role models to more than 7500 urban teenagers across 30 communities in 10 states.
MU30: Can you share some success stories with us?
Gonder: We’ve seen dramatic statistical increases in the number of students improving their financial literacy knowledge, speaking with their parents and friends about things like getting banked or financing college, and creating financial goal plans for themselves. The coolest thing for us, though, is that we now have a few former students who graduated from our program who are now volunteering as Moneythink leaders in college—where they’re on full-ride scholarships.
MU30: If our readers what to get involved in Moneythink, what are some things they can do to help out your cause?
Gonder: If you or a friend is in the world of finance or investing, we love partnering with companies to expand our impact. If you or a friend is a high school teacher or principal, we’d love to explore bringing our service to your school. And if you or a friend is in college, we’d love to have you apply to volunteer: Reach out here. And of course, as a non-profit that depends on amazing donors in order to serve its students, we’d be so grateful for any folks who can contribute. Just $100 funds a student to go through an entire year of life-changing financial mentoring. Go here to give.
It’s easy to be skeptical of charitable causes, but in this case, I’m blown away by what Gonder’s doing. And since he’s in my hometown of Chicago (with plans to expand to many major urban areas soon), my hope is to check out what he’s doing first hand.