No one ever said being 18 was easy, especially when it comes to very adult things like money. That’s where tech entrepreneur Jason Young is stepping in — and stepping up.
Young is the co-founder and CEO of Oakland-based Mindblown Labs. The technology company makes the financial education gaming app Thrive ‘n’ Shine, which is targeted at high school students. The game’s goal: Help to establish good financial behaviors early to enable a lifetime of financial success.
But when it comes to financial education, the 33-year-old is not only reaching the youngest minds, he is also mentoring those at the highest levels of government.
Last year, President Obama tapped Young to sit on a hand-picked council of experts responsible for laying out national guidelines for young people’s financial lives. Financial decision-making, particularly around student loans, is an issue which affects more young people than ever as an increasing number of people are entering higher education.
After a year of research, the council delivered its recommendations in June 2015. Chief among them: Use more technology to educate.
Young is setting the pace. A year after the debut of Thrive ‘n’ Shine, Mindblown launched a major update to the app and says he plans to reach 100,000 students in the first half of 2016 with a new in-classroom curriculum.
He is also tackling the issue of financial empowerment with technology from another angle. As a board member of the Hidden Genius Project, Young is helping teen boys in Oakland learn the essentials of coding so they have a chance as the better-paying job prospects in technology.
Jason’s Money Tips
1. Have a growth mindset and be open to new information. When you know you don’t know something, don’t be afraid to ask experts who do know.
2. Knowledge isn’t enough to get ahead financially — it’s also about establishing the right behaviors. For instance, saving, bargaining, and investing should all be things that you start to do automatically.
For Young, his work doesn’t just hit the national agenda, but also a personal one.
Growing up, he watched as his mother and brother struggled with credit card debt and his family was evicted from their home on the day after Christmas — the result of uninformed mortgage decisions.
Young was committed to not making those same mistakes. He studied money, he learned how it worked, and he made it work for him. By age 18, he made his first investments and negotiated for financial aid in order to graduate debt-free from Harvard.
We recently spoke with Young about the role of technology in financial education and core money lessons that are important to him .
Right now in the tech community, there’s a huge effort to use technology to improve financial outcomes, whether through automation, apps, or, in your case, games. What’s the hardest thing for technology to accomplish or communicate around money in your experience?
I don’t think there are things that are hard to communicate. There is knowledge, attitude, and skills. But what we are trying to get at with Thrive ‘n Shine is behavior change and that’s the hardest to change, by far.
How do you measure something like that? How do you ensure that someone plays your game and then does something in real life in a few years? It takes time.
That’s where we are focusing our efforts. There is no single, easy way to change behaviors when you consider all the environmental factors that high school students face today — poverty, parental knowledge, school environment. We can teach you all day long but if you don’t make better decisions, it’s pointless. That’s our focus and challenge with Thrive ‘n’ Shine.
You say financial literacy isn’t enough and it’s about teaching ‘financial capability’ — what does that mean?
Financial literacy is just knowledge. And what we really care about is behavior and making life decisions and that requires knowledge, the right attitude, skills — and also the opportunity.
You can be smart, have the right attitude and know how to apply knowledge. But you also must have access to opportunity (in the form of safe and affordable financial products and services). For example, you go to the bank to get a loan and the banker only wants to give you a subprime mortgage, even though you have a prime, decent credit score. Even if you have the knowledge and the willingness to make excellent decisions, if can be difficult to do so if you can’t access the right services.
All of that is what financial capability encompasses. It’s a fuller measure — you can be responsible but that doesn’t account for an opportunity.
What IS the right attitude toward money?
“It’s important to not be scared of financial decisions. You make them every day and should embrace them.”
It’s important to not be scared of financial decisions. You make them every day and should embrace them. When you need to get something done (e.g., buy a new car, refinance your home, pay for college, invest in your 401(k)) you have to be willing to seek out the information you need and not get stuck thinking it’s too complicated … you can’t sabotage yourself. You need to have a growth mindset and be open to new information.
Tell us more about the segment in Thrive ‘n’ Shine on student loans. What’s the lesson here?
Right now it’s very basic and the goal is to help students understand a few basic things: 1) pursuing education can increase earning potential 2) if you don’t finish your education, your earning potential will likely be less 3) you can finance education in several ways including loans and it can be very positive or negative, depending on what you do. For example, if you take out loans and successfully finish your education, you get a boost in income in the game.
We are developing a curriculum around student loans now. It’s an area where we would like to do more.
Did you have student loans when you graduated? How did you deal with them?
My middle brother had a lot of credit card and student loan debt so I was very adamant about not following his example and getting a full ride. I applied to 30 schools and I examined all the financial aid and scholarships available. I called up the financial aid offices and I was aggressive about getting information and at times negotiating a better package. I was operating from a place of fear. I didn’t want to end up like my middle brother — and the result is that I was able to graduate without any student loan debt.
After working in the financial education space for so long, how has your own relationship with money changed?
Ironically, working in the financial space has not had a huge impact on my own views on money. I had formed money behaviors early in my life as a result of my background. I saw people struggle with money and didn’t want that for myself.
But working in the tech space has had an impact. Building a tech startup is analogous to managing your finances, whether it’s hiring someone or even figuring out sales.
For example, at Mindblown, we seek out people that have the information we want and get their advice and their help so we can make complex decisions. That same logic applies if I am going to buy a house in Bay Area or I am looking at a 529 Plan or even trying to do my own taxes. You want to get unbiased information — and get it from more than one person.
What I have learned is that there are things I don’t know so I talk to people who do know … there is a lot of stuff to know but what I need to be good at is asking the right questions.