Money does grow on trees

Money does grow on trees

Financial literacy, empowerment and wealth building are all big topics for any girl and woman to master. In the following interview, we’ll be talking about the financial education of girls, and specifically of girls and women of color, and why there’s such a difference between what we are all being taught. I came across Chloe McKenzie quite randomly, and I was so excited to see what she’s doing, and how she’s doing it. Yes, she’s a #FemaleFounder. Yes, she’s a #WomaninFinance. She is also young, highly educated, and highly interested in bettering the financial future of little girls and women. Check out our interview below to see how she’s doing it all.

TBM4W: Who is Chloe McKenzie?
Hi. I’m Chloe McKenzie. I grew up in Maryland, which is an unique space and I think it helps me figure out why I ended up going into finance. The demographic that I grew around, it was black people that actually had the wealth and most of the power in the community. Then, I went to Amherst College where I studied Law and German, and after I graduated college, I become a Securitized Products Trader. Most people know securitized product traders, because these people blew up our economy in 2008, trading mortgages. So that was a very interesting experience trading mortgages post-crisis. After that, I pursued an education fellowship where I worked in an inner-city charter school in NYC. Kinda throughout the process, I had seeds planted in my mind on how I can start bridging, or marrying the financial and the education world. That how I came up with the idea for Black Fem Inc., and things have blossomed since. I’ve taken the things that I’ve learned from the financial world and the education world, and put them together.

TBM4W: How did Black Fem Inc come about? And what is it?
We’re a 501-C3 non-profit, that has a mission to provide permanent access and opportunity to women and girls of color to build and sustain wealth. When I was at JPMorgan as a trader, I also became a financial counselor for a few homeless families, and that was very profound to me. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, and that was the greatest thing that ever happen to me. I really got to understand why doing service was so important to me. Doing service is something that I did in college, and wanted to do once I entered the workforce. Recognizing that for some people, being a financial counselor at JPMorgan was a way to get promoted, to be honest with you. So I watched these other people [the homeless people] interact with some wealthy people [financial counselors] that would come in with their tailored suits, and really not be able to make financial planning and principles accessible to these people, not even on a social level. I think that that’s where I started to think of the idea that, Wow, I feel like I could do this better. I could make accessibility to wealth building and financial planning something that people want, not feel afraid of, but build confidence through empowerment.

In poor communities of color, accessibility to curriculum is actually one of the biggest obstacles that teachers face. Understanding that we have to make curriculum accessible not just for the kid, but for the family at home too. So I found it really profound to be able to work on how I can refine myself. Yes, I can teach all these great things, but am I making them accessible enough so that it resonates with the person that I’m teaching? Really understanding who you are as a vehicle when teaching, or consulting with somebody. BlackFem Inc, came about when I kinda just had an inkling to myself. You know what? You’re ready! [laugh] I was trading student loans, I was trading mortgages, trading credit card receivables, and I said to myself, It’s very weird to me that JPMorgan can make millions of dollars off of someone’s inability to pay, say a $700 mortgage, in the middle of Nowheresville, Iowa. And I said to myself, I wonder if this person actually knew what we were doing with their loan agreements and the securities interest that they have in this property. So from there, when I started to develop curriculum, because I started generating curriculum for teaching, I then said to myself, you’re ready! So, on a whim, I decided to look at what incorporating would look like, I talked with some colleagues of mine, and it kinda just happened in a way. But I do think that, like I said, there were seeds planted the last few years that allowed me to feel empowered enough to start saying, you know what, our communities need this, and they need this right now!

TBM4W: It seems like you’ve been primed for this your entire life. Can you please delve a little deeper into why you have chosen to focus on teaching financial terms and knowledge? And can we touch upon the lack of education for girls in finances?
When I started Black Fem Inc., the way that I like to operate my business is coming up with a bunch of different hypothesis about what the community needs. I will let my workshops and my interactions with families in these communities be the definitive conclusions that I need to know if it’s working or not. So I wanted to know cold hard statistics about what wealth outlooks were like in communities of color. And I think we can all just guess what it was. Of course, white men at the top. In terms of median wealth, surprisingly enough, black men fall next. When you’re dealing with the intersectionality between race and gender, gender is going to win often times.

So then, white women, and then women of color. Of course, the US Government didn’t do any statistics on the Asian demographic at all, but I’m sure we can kinda think of where they would fall. So, I know we’re going to target women and girls of color, because we all know that at the end of the day, they’re at the bottom of the totem pole of every aspect of our society, socially, economically, politically, we’re always at the bottom. The truth in that is that we’re undereducated, even though we’re going to college more often, but that actually means that we’re having more student loans, so that burden and enslavement that you have with debt, is holding us back from actually being able to enter into this financial system, which frankly, was not built for us.

Knowing that, we started to develop [a] curriculum that wasn’t just about money management. The issues that I have with other financial literacy firms or organizations, don’t get me wrong, they’re great, but their focus is on getting rich. For me is about rich versus wealth distinction. Being wealthy is where we get our freedom. Being wealthy is where we have opportunities, and we can provide opportunities and privilege to generations that come after us. And that’s something that women of color systematically don’t have access to, not even build it. Our point is we want them to build it. We want them to sustain it. And that’s where our curriculum comes in. Being rich can go away if you lose your job, if some of your assets go away. Wealth is how long can you sustain your lifestyle without having to go work. And that’s what we want to provide to these women and girls of color, because that’s true freedom, that’s opportunity.

Again, we are different, not only because we focused on being wealthy instead of being rich, but also because we focus on making sure that our curriculum is accessible. A good example of that is we worked with a cheerleading squad here in Harlem, for a lot of lower-income girls, and we taught them how to trade stocks through cheerleading! So instead of going in with this financial jargon that they wouldn’t understand, we used their terms. Your IPO, you’re just going to do a cheer, but you’re not allowed to use your arms, your legs. It’s about how eloquently you can say this cheer, and then we let somebody invest in you. Maybe they will think about how cute you are, “I know that that girl is a tumbler”, so they’ll invest in you. So that’s your IPO. At that point, they’ll use that money that they got from their IPO to make their product better. So really one of the big market movers for stock prices, is your profit. Really, we gotta make them have a profit. Then they got to buy leg motions, and music, and pompoms, and listen to market sentiment about what is going to be something that people want in the market. Ok, so maybe they’ll invest more money in getting the top level pompoms. After that, they [the girls] had another performance, which was analogous to how the stock would perform in the market, and they saw the lessons there. I see the risk here, but I’m going to do all of this, not knowing if this is going to make me build me a profit, and then calculating their profit and loss from there. So this really resonated with them. These girls love to cheer. So why not teach them some financial literacy through cheering?

TBM4W: You’re going to teach them financial literacy based on concepts that they already know and understand.
Exactly.

What I say to my girls is that, finance is personal. If you know who you are, then you actually know who you are as an investor.

And that actually brings a lot of comfort and confidence to these girls and their moms as well, because if you understand that, ok I’ll always go to buy the newest iPhone, but maybe instead of spending that $600 on the new phone, I can take that $600 and invest in Apple itself. I know all my friends are going to get the Apple iPhone, so it’s likely that [Apple’s] profits are going to go up. If their profits are going to go up, then their stock prices are going to go up. So that’s how I think about it. Follow your own money.

You are intuitively smart enough to be a great investor.

And again is about creating a curriculum and the opportunity to start creating wealth.

TBM4W: Financial literacy, if it’s taught how you just taught the cheerleaders, can become accessible. But you’ve done an even better job at creating curriculum and teaching the even younger girls.
We have a program called Money Does Grow on Trees, which is our pre-k to 2nd-grade program. I was asked by a non-profit in D.C. called ArtworksNow, to do a financial literacy workshop. So I asked about who are the people that we’ll serve, and they replied with one caveat: the audience will be as young as 4 years old. We hadn’t generated curriculum at that point that could target a 4-year-old. The big thing about our curriculum is not only that it’s accessible, but I refuse to write curriculum that is dumbed down! So, I’m going to allow my 4-year-olds to work with $100,000. I’m going to allow my 6-year-olds to work with rent that is $2,000, and keep on using the same financial terms. So, what do you learn in kindergarten and pre-k? Not to oversimplify, but you learn about gardening. So let’s take this analogy of how an apple would grow on a tree and equate that to how money grows in your savings account through compound interest. So we ended up creating a workshop where kids would get to pluck real dollar bills out of trees, so long as they plant their seed, which is their initial deposit. Their initial investment is where they dig into the tree, and put a real $10 bill, and each tree represented a different bank, and every bank has a different interest formula. The kids would pluck $1, and if they chose to reinvest that, they would bury it back into the tree, and then next year, they got to pluck $2, and then $4. Understanding that it multiplies, without knowing what multiplication really is.

We needed to ground this into something real, so my co-teacher Sarah Vistocco and I, wrote a children’s book called Money Does Grow on Trees. The book follows this brilliant protagonist, Kira, who really wants all of these material things, which her mom can’t afford. And her mom tells her: what if we can explore some of these financial tools that will allow your money to grow without you having to do anything?

That’s where our very youngest programs have come from. It’s been incredibly successful because we have this engaging curriculum, but then we also make it look like what they would learn in kindergarten.

TBM4W: What I really like about the program is that you’ve taken a saying that is wrong on so many levels “money does not grow on trees” and you’re reattaching that the proper way! For that alone, brava! Yes, there’s a really good lesson in that saying: work hard! Absolutely. But to tell a child that money doesn’t grow on trees and it’s hard to get by, it’s not really the best financial advice you can give to a kid. Tell them that hard work is important, that’s how you’re going to get anywhere, but don’t tell them that it’s impossible. Don’t destroy all the good seeds in there.
Exactly! You can empower them to think about how these things work. And by starting with compound interest at such a young level, by the way, compound interest is also one of the most compelling reasons why people invest in the market, so by starting them with the concept that their money could grow while they sleep. That’s what a lot of financial planners say. You want to develop something so that money will grow while you’re asleep. So thinking about that idea can carry us through all of our programs.

When we teach some of our older kids how to start investing, they’re already aware that compound interest is one of those super compelling mathematical and financial tools that gets them the money that they need and from there, helps them build and sustain the wealth.

TBM4W: I cannot wait to see this book. So we talked about pre-k to 2nd grade. What is the next step up?
The next step is our Time is Money program. That is for 3rd through 8th graders. This is where things really get fun. We started off this summer with piloting this program where we had a number of 3rd-8th graders come in, and they’re learning for 3 hours a day for 5 days a week. In reality, it’s just 15 hours to bring all these new financial concepts to them. But it ranges between understanding the difference between a credit card and a debit card, what’s on your credit report, to how do you look at a financial aid package and start planning for your education right now. So if I’m 10 years old, I have 8 years before I may need to pay the expected family contribution. So how can I start girls actually found out is: If I save $20 a month from here until when I’m 18, I would be able to cover a couple of thousand dollars worth of an expected family contribution, if I don’t get all the loans, grants and scholarships that I need. So that was again, another empowering moment. Yes, college is expensive, but if you plan correctly, you can get there.

We ended up finishing with a performance assessment, which is our way to quantify if they’re actually getting financially literate. The girls loved this because they got to be the bankers. So I came in as this disheveled woman who needed a $10,000 loan. They looked at my credit report, they looked at my assets. They looked at the delinquencies, they looked at my FICO score, which in this case was 580, that is below average, and then they would tell me if I’d got the full loan amount, they would set my interest rate and tell me why. One girl even went as far as giving me variable interest rate because I was one of her least trustworthy borrowers. [laugh].

Again, it was absolutely incredible to watch these girls! The empowerment! Those were some of those moments when you saw in their eyes: “look at how much power I have, because of all this knowledge I can bring to the table.“ It was fun. And we don’t need 5 month long programs. If you teach it the right way and it’s accessible enough, these girls were in the program for 15 hours and were able to walk out of there speaking more eloquently than some bankers that you can go to some branch to.

TBM4W: And also the fact that they’re that age, and that you can have that kind of an impact at that age, is phenomenal! 15 hours, with a performance assessment at the end that helps them solidify what they’ve learned, is again, phenomenal. Is this the final stage? Or do you have a platform for high school or college kids?
Absolutely not. We’re building and sustaining. We have high school programs which we integrate ourselves with the college readiness programs at different educational institutions. We have something called meetups which is a huge hit among the high school girls, because they love to kind of, meet up. Pick up to seven of your best friends, we order food, we sit down with you and we just talk finance. It’s very casual, outside of the classroom setting, so girls feel like they’re kicking it with their friends, but they’re still getting the education that they need to feel like they can be wealthy.

From there, we have college programs, which continue to make our curriculum more and more sophisticated, but then really prepare them for the somewhat daunting task for  “my loans are about to hit”, “my deferment period is about to be over”. How can I build wealth but simultaneously be in an incredible amount of debt, what do I do with that? Thinking about insurance options, and again, kicking it up a notch, thinking about retirement planning, and other financial planning needs, starting investment accounts, where to allocate some things from my 401K.

We require that parents come to all of our programs so we even call those adult programs because we noticed the underwhelming resources that we have for the adults in these communities. I noticed that it’s even worse than I anticipated. So I had a number of parents that they didn’t even know that they had a credit score until their daughter went through our program and they read some of our curricula. It’s bittersweet to hear that. It is shocking to me that somehow our system has failed so many people for so long that these women had no idea that they actually had a credit report. Imagine what that makes them feel like! Ok, so, how do I get out of this hole so I can build credit, and then be able to leverage having good credit and what that means in terms of building wealth.

We require that parents come to our programs as well, because that deals with the intergenerational piece, to make sure that, again, wealth is attainable for everybody that comes to us.

TBM4W: What I like about what you do the most is that you’re so heavy on education. Without it, we’re never going to balance the scales out. What are you most proud of? Which program do you like the most?
I think, for me, what I’m most proud of, is when I see the kids that we teach, or the people that we serve, are those AHA moments! You can see when somebody feels confident. By the end of our program, they’re like: “Yeah! I actually feel that I can do this!”. That makes me feel that what we have here is magical. Again, it’s incredibly unfortunate that we haven’t gotten there sooner. However, knowing that we’re doing this now, and we’re doing this right, makes me feel like something magical is happening, and I’m so excited for the future.

But I would say that, our impact numbers, is what I’m most proud of. Despite the fact that we have girls coming from failing schools, we have to accommodate that and make sure our program is even more accessible. I’m incredibly proud that our curriculum is even accessible to student who have special needs. We’re not going to turn anybody away.

And for me, to know that we have a 98% successful financial literacy rate, is honestly, huge! The 1 or 2 % that don’t make it there, they’re put into a bucket called financial competence. They know what’s going on, butthey’ve maybe made couple of mistakes. What we do then, is provide them with one on one sessions to make sure that we can get them there. I’m very proud of that, and the team that’s helped me put together this curriculum.


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TBM4W: How many girls have been through your program so far?
This summer alone we helped 250 girls, and because we require a parent or guardian present, those numbers would double. So it’s almost 500 people that we helped from a June to August timeline. Our impact is really important to us, and the fact that we can help such large number of people in such a short period of time is not only a testament that these communities want this, but also [that they] need this.

TBM4W: What are the demographics of the people that you’re helping?
98% of the families we help fall below low-income socio-economic status according to the Federal standard. 60% of the families that we have helped, fall below the poverty line. Again, knowing that we are serving a demographic that absolutely needs this, is really important to us.

TBM4W: Why are you doing this? Why is this so important to you?
I don’t want to say that I was destined to do this, even though I feel that way, but I feel like a big part of Black Fem is just who I am. And serving is something that I know I’ve always wanted to do. So what drives me is knowing that I get to go to work, it’s funny that this is work even, and know that I am making an impact. One of my mentors said something incredibly profound to me. What he said was:

“If I’m doing what I love, I’m approaching it in a way that makes me feel full.”

And that was so profound to me! And that’s what drives me. Knowing that I’m full, I feel so full of joy, I feel so full of support even from the families that are thanking me for coming up with an idea like this. But I mutually am thankful for them for knowing that they can trust in us as kind of a financial institution because that’s hard for people and communities of color.

4 weeks prior to the Wall Street Journal article, one of our moms came to us and we found out that she was part of the Well Fargo scandal. So it’s a big deal that our curriculum allowed her to kind of figure that out, because we have a section on banking fees and how to budget for those, and she found that out. This drives me, and I get to feel full every day.

TBM4W: How do we bring more women in finance, and business?
Education is really important. But the one thing that I want people to understand is that you don’t have to be this finance major to feel like you’re able to break into the business world. If you have enough confidence and know that there’s a problem, you’ve done enough research to say, you know what, there is a need for this, I’m just going to go for it.

I think that knowing that we need resources and institutions to empower us is actually the bigger problem other than education.
Education is really important, but having the forthright to understand that we need to empower people to get into these businesses [is also important].

At JPMorgan, I got to help with the recruiting process while I was an analyst, and to be honest with you, I put women’s resumes at the top. I think that getting people to break in requires that other people believe that they need to break in. So I interviewed those people first, because I felt as though, if you already are a minority statistic, then you should have more support to get in where you want to get in.

Understanding, too, that missions need to be a big foundation of how we act. The mission being we need to break more women into these businesses, because we do! We’re [women] incredibly smart people, we’re half the planet. We need people to understand that when we bring women into a place [of business] that they aren’t there, things are going to get better. They’re never going to fall apart. That’s our job. We run shit! [laugh]

TBM4W: We, women, change the corporate culture. We improve it. Companies that have women in leadership are better viewed by their consumers and customers. The corporate mission and philosophy changes to a more inclusionary philosophy. It’s more team-based, it’s more teamwork, it’s more “we’re all in it together” mentality. What’s coming up for Black Fem inc? What’s next?
Our Money Does Grow on Trees eBook is coming out in November, and the hard copy will be out beginning 2017. It’ll be a great book to give to kids, nephews, nieces, grandchildren. Equally, we’re looking to scale. November 1st, we’re expanding out to California. That would make us a part of the scene in Massachusetts, New York, D.C., Maryland, and now California. Our big hope is that by the end of next year we would have served 5,000 new girls. In addition to those that we have 100% retention of our current graduates, so when we ask families to come back for a new program, 100% have come back. So we’re hoping to help 5,000 new girls and women.

TBM4W: Awesome. How about funding? You guys are a non-profit.
What I decided real early, is that I was going to run this like a for-profit. We actually get a lot of our funding from private donors. We call those angel investments, except we don’t have to pay them back, which is fantastic. Is getting your rich colleagues, friends, people that you know, to buy into your mission, and then institutions that we partner with, they pay for our programs. The funds that we raise from those partnerships, will fund the in-house programs. For example, we have an Intro to Investing workshop for 3rd to 8th graders, and some of our partnerships where we’ve had institutions like Amherst College or Smith College who’ve wanted us to bring our program to their campuses, so the money that we raise there will be going to fund our other programs.

And then, we kind of adopted Bernie Sanders’ fundraising platform, where we also ask that friends and other family members and even those families that have come through our program, to donate $20 a month. What we’ve done is ask them to be recurring donors. So in a way, we’re teaching them financial literacy again, because as you donate $20 a month over a 12 month period, you can then get a huge tax write off at the end of the year. This money will actually pay for one girl’s 529 College Savings Plan. Each girl that graduates from our Time is Money program, receives one of these 529 College Savings Accounts. So having a recurring donor, they pay for this account, every time they make a donation each month.

TBM4W: Is there something that I haven’t asked that we need to know about?
Where our name came from. When I started this organization, I wanted it to sound very hedgefundy! Ok, so there’s Black Rock, and Black Stone, so Black Fem, boom! [laugh] So that’s kind of the joke part. Black Fem obviously comes from black feminists.

Black feminist tradition tells us that if you liberate those at the very bottom, then you’ve actually liberated everybody else.

So that’s why we say we target women and girls of color because, clearly, the numbers don’t lie, but also just the experiences don’t lie, but women of color are situated at the bottom, like I said, of every single thing that exists in our society. So if we liberate these people, then we’ve liberated everybody. So that’s black feminist tradition, and I wanted to make sure that people were aware what that meant!

Sometimes I get questions like: why don’t you have programs for black boys? A lot of our programs are actually open to everybody. We don’t turn people away, but our in-house programs are for the bottom of the bottom. So I actually got to teach people who ask those questions about the black feminist tradition, and it almost changes their mindset. Wow, we actually should be doing this because if we liberated them, we liberate everybody.

TBM4W: Wow. That’s pretty powerful. So who’s your inspiration for all of this?
I have really gotten inspired by Ella Baker. She’s the unsung hero of the civil rights movement. And she did so deliberately. It bothers me that a lot of people don’t know who she is. Ella Baker helped make SNICK* a thing during the civil rights movement. Yes, Rosa Parks was fantastic, to think that we have an unsung hero who is a black woman is DOPE! Shirley Chisholm, love Shirley Chisholm. Everybody that is for Hillary Clinton, should be thanking Shirley Chisholm for being the first woman to run for President, but let alone the first black woman to run for President, and all the things that she had to face.

I really just want to pay homage to those women of color, who have been such beacon of hope for people like me to think: Wow, she was a badass in the 60s. I have no excuses to be a badass now.

 

To connect with Chloe McKenzie, you can reach out to her via:
Instagram: @blackfeminc
Twitter: @Black_Fem
Facebook: FB/BlackFemInc
Website: www.BlackFem.org

*SNICK: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”)

*This interview was first published in The Business Magazine for Women’s Issue No. 1, out 11/11/2016. To purchase the magazine, click on this link.