When Jason Young and Ty Moore, then undergrads at Harvard University, met some 12 years ago at a convening of Ronald Brown scholars, both young men knew that the chance encounter would blossom into a fruitful partnership. “We’ve been talking about doing stuff together that would help other people for a long time,” says Young.
Today that “stuff” manifests itself in the form of MindBlown Labs, a mobile app shop that recently released the beta version of its K-12 financial literacy app, Thrive ‘n’ Shine. The native app —available on iOS and Android— is intended to supplement classroom instruction. Think "flipped classroom" but with a mobile game instead of video. So far, it’s been a hit: a handful of community banks and credit unions from California, Virginia, Connecticut, and Missouri have signed on to subsidize the app in schools.
The media loves Harvard students (and dropouts) who build game-changing companies. Typically those students are scratching their own itch--from Bill Gates intrigued by building software to Mark Zuckerberg expanding his circle of “friends.” Entrepreneurs Young and Moore are following a similar path--it’s just that the problem they’re tackling has tremendous social implications, something that reflects their personal commitment to service and to community empowerment. And yeah, they graduated, too.
Young, the first in his family to graduate from college, has always had a knack for tracking assets and liabilities. Starting as a one-man candy stop for his friends and schoolmates at age 9, he quickly graduated to selling travel agency services at age 13, and running a vitamin e-commerce business by the time he was 17.
It wasn’t until winter break during his sophomore year at Harvard University that Young identified financial literacy as his personal and professional mission. The day after Christmas, his family was evicted from their home —a result of some uninformed mortgage decisions.
After Harvard, Young headed where many crimson-draped Economics majors go: Wall Street. The handsome pay put him on a sound financial footing, he says, but suffocated his entrepreneurial spirit. For the many in’s and out’s of managing private wealth, Young found it difficult to pinpoint where he could impact the communities he cared about the most. So Young left Merrill Lynch to join Wikinvest, a community-supported website aimed at helping people understand personal finance and make better investment decisions.
Meanwhile Moore, having returned to Cincinnati, was busy using his Harvard pedigree (Classics major) and hometown connections as founding executive director of Leadership Scholars, a non-profit venture dedicated to helping inner-city students develop grit, determination and persistence. The multifaceted organization focuses on mentoring, college and career-readiness support, and scholarship opportunities to students. It also offers training to parents and teachers of students in its programs to bolster wrap-around support.
With Moore at the helm, the organization expanded to reach six high schools and nine elementary schools in the Greater Cincinnati area, but for all of the program’s merits, Moore struggled with the muted impact when students had to move or switch schools because of family finances. For all the students, parents, and teachers building new skill sets and developing new attitudes toward learning, Moore still worried about those students who fell through the cracks.
He understood the problems intimately: Some of the same family members who cheered his progress at Harvard had once attended college only to return with no degree and a mound of debt. Moore was dealing with that special case of anxiety that too many social change agents encounter: the revelation that most highly effective education interventions are not very scalable.
And then he got a phone call from Young… two, actually.
The first was a fundraising call. Having left Wikinvest, Young was working on a company that that would offer web-based financial literacy tools for families, and was seeking startup capital from friends and family. His work on the venture would lead to acceptance into the Kauffman Education Ventures Program where the idea for MindBlown Labs was born.
The second was a call for human capital. So with another phone call (and an existing financial investment), Moore began winding down his directorship at Leadership Scholar and joined Young officially as a co-founder of MindBlown Labs.
Interestingly enough, Young had experienced a top-down version of Moore’s professional anxiety: the notion that the most scalable education interventions just aren’t very effective. It’s this tension —the inverse relationship between effectiveness and scalability— that Thrive ‘n’ Shine is hoping to resolve within the realm of financial literacy.
The goal is to maintain student engagement with the right balance between financial concepts and fun. Users navigate a 2D world, stopping to work and make money (simple spatial logic games), incur costs for food, shelter, and fun, and interact with embedded avatars. In the works, say the Thrive ‘n’ Shine developers, are plans to release interactions that mimic increasingly complex financial concepts--but the purpose of the game isn’t to strictly simulate finances in the real world. Instead, says Young, the intent is to provide a “mental framework where students can associate concepts from the classroom.”
Now two years into the effort, the eight-person MindBlown team understands that to truly flip the classroom with a game requires supporting teachers with high quality, easily accessible curriculum. To that end, they’ve begun working with The Economic Center at the University of Cincinnati to create experiential curriculum that can be paired with Thrive ‘n’ Shine.
Others are taking note of MindBlown’s work, too: Young was recently appointed to President Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans, where he hopes to shape the national conversation around the quality of financial literacy K-12 curriculum.
Young and Moore have set a goal of 20 million financially-literate students by 2020. To this end, they’ve been partnering with credit unions —organizations with a longstanding dedication to financial education— to make the full version of Thrive ‘n’ Shine freely available to schools and non-profits (the current beta version is free). They’re also seeking additional educator and school partners to develop new game features and further develop their plans for a curriculum.
At least one educator is already on-board. Says a 9th grade math teacher from the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School on her students playing Thrive 'n' Shine: “They are sooooo hooked to the game right now and are comparing their income with other students and trying to earn more money. I have students that are doing really well with the game and I have students that were in such a debt that they had to start the game over.”
Ed. Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly described MindBlown as a "six-person team". There are eight members currently employed at the startup.