A crowd of third-graders swarm behind the counter of the wooden lemonade stand, tumbling over each other to count change for customers, pour more drinks, and keep the cookie trays piled high. Set up in the hallway outside their classroom and festooned with bright balloons, the youngsters’ stand is besieged with customers, schoolmates from other grades who have come to patronize this refreshment stand with their piggy bank coins. The hubbub makes for a party atmosphere, and the pint-sized entrepreneurs are bursting with excitement.
Somewhere in the backs of their minds, these eight-year-olds may realize they’re learning new things, though they certainly couldn’t put words to those concepts, particularly not boring, grown-up words like “business,” and “accounting,” and “marketing.” For now, all they realize is that they’re having a blast.
“The kids really, really got into it,” says Wellesley, Massachusetts planner Jane King, jovially remembering the scene she helped create. “They had a great time–and you could’ve just eaten them up, they were so cute!”
The whole thing started when King’s daughter Caroline came home from school griping about the banker who had come to speak to her class. Munching on her after-school snack, Caroline pronounced him “booorr-rring”–much to the chagrin of her mother, a planner and president of Fairfield Financial Advisors. King decided that her daughter’s class needed to see another side of the financial world. She began meeting with the class for one period a week.
Since then, the children had spent months working out the details of their entrepreneurial endeavor. They’d started off talking about concepts like needs versus wants (say, non-brand-name shoes versus the latest Nikes), and then decided to launch their own business. They chose a product, calculated the cost of raw materials, and figured out what price their “market”–their schoolmates and teachers–would bear. They even divided their class up into marketing and operations departments, nominated a treasurer, and determined what duties needed to be outsourced (translation: some of the mothers made cookies). “I let them make the decisions, and once you got them thinking about what was needed, it was so neat to see what they came up with,” says King. “‘What if we get the lemons at BJ’s or Costco instead of the supermarket?’ ‘What will we make change with to start? Where will we get the money?’ ‘Who’s going to be the treasurer?’ ‘Gee, Mrs. King, what if it’s a cold day? Won’t people buy more on a hot day?’” She laughs. “‘How can we make them more thirsty?’”
Take It to the Bank
In subsequent years, King introduced her daughter’s class to money concepts in other ways, too, teaching them how to follow stocks like Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, Nike, and McDonald’s. And once her daughter got to middle school, she helped the students charter a bank that catered only to kids. “I said, ‘What do you want to do this year?’ A lot of them had been given money for confirmations or bar mitzvahs, and when their parents took them down to the bank to deposit it, they said the banker was rude, dismissive of a little kid and his $15–or his $1,500, for that matter. So they said, ‘Mrs. King, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a bank that was just for kids?’ And I said, ‘Why, sure, we can do that.’” She laughs. “I was clueless, of course; I had no idea how to do it. But I started investigating.”
And sure enough–after a lot of research, paperwork, and presentations to everyone from the school board to the state Commissioner of Banks–the students opened their own bank outside the school cafeteria, complete with checkbooks, ledgers, loans, and a real bank teller window donated by a local bank. The bank was open Mondays and Fridays at lunch and staffed completely by students. “The kids were absolutely strutting,” says King with a chuckle. “This was what they wanted, so they went and made presentations, explaining everything to these bankers and some pasty-faced bureaucrat in Boston. And they got it. And you just loved seeing them do it.” Although the bank did close eventually, it outlasted her daughter’s tenure at the school by a number of years.
King admits she had ulterior motives when she started crashing classrooms with money-minded lessons. While she did want to teach schoolchildren about money, she particularly wanted to teach her daughter’s class. Not being the sort to bake brownies or teach crafts, it seemed like a good alternative way to get involved with her daughter’s schooling. Now that her daughter Caroline is in college, she hopes to teach college students at local Wellesley College (as well as her daughter’s college, Johns Hopkins) about credit cards, investing, and homeowner’s insurance.
Teaching Caroline’s classes about money has had some unexpected rewards. “I never worked so hard as to prepare for these things. These kids are used to MTV and ‘bang, flash’ stuff; you can’t just stand up there are read from an index card,” says King, her distinctive New England accent making the word “can’t” rhyme with “wont” and “card” sound like “cod.” “You really have to get them involved, and think about visuals that will grab their attention.” And while she didn’t cart posterboard pictures into client meetings, she did find she could use segments of her presentations with adult clients. Having been forced to think about how to explain financial concepts in their simplest terms for children, she found herself better able to explain them to grown-ups. “I learned so much from my involvement with the kids,” she says. “They would ask questions, because they’re so totally ingenuous, that I knew my clients wanted to ask, but didn’t. My clients were 50 years old and thinking, ‘My God, I probably should know this,’ but some little fourth-grader would raise his hand and say, ‘What does that mean?’”
And presentation skills aside, prospective clients seemed drawn by the mere fact that King had taught children about finance. “That was a surprise, and I don’t want to say it was a ‘marketing plus’ or anything,” she says, “but it did seem to be a comfort to people. They’d say, ‘Once I heard that you explained this stuff to third graders, I knew you could explain it to me!’” King says she doesn’t understand why some advisors talk in investmentspeak to clients, and suspects they’re just trying to foster a sense of dependency. “We can all explain this stuff, and if the client doesn’t understand it, it’s my fault, not his! I can’t stand it when people try to rule by intimidation,”–she puts on a mock stentorian voice–”‘My God, you haven’t come a moment too soon! I, and only I, can help you.’ Wouldn’t you hate to get to the point where you can’t explain to people what you do?”
King’s younger self would probably be surprised that she’s been so often in the classroom over the years. When she graduated from college in 1965, there were “three career options for women: you could be a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher,” says King, 56. With majors in French and Russian, teaching seemed the natural choice, but a year of it nearly drove her nuts. “I feel sort of bad saying this now, but at the time, I hated it–it was just so constraining, all those silly little rules,” she says.
She switched gears and decided to send her resume to financial services companies. (“And sometimes I even got answers!” she laughs.) Her first financial job interview was with an interviewer who “wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to be asking. Which was a good thing; if they’d asked me about my investment knowledge, it would have been a very short answer!” But she and the interviewer–who, as an African-American, was another anomaly in the investment business at the time–hit it off tremendously, and pretty soon she had herself a job.
She was, as she puts it, “dumped in” to her assignment; her first task as an International Liaison Officer for Shareholders Management in California was to take a group of European brokers on a tour of the New York Stock Exchange and tell them how it worked. Granted, she didn’t know how it worked, either, but she had three days to find out. And she did. “[This job] was the most fun I ever had,” she says. “Somebody would say, ‘Gee, Jane, today you’re going to be doing this,’ and you’d say, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t do that, I’ve only been here two weeks!’ But the guy in back of you had only been there five days, so you did it!” With the market cranking merrily along in the mid-to-late ’60s and clients falling over themselves to invest, the flurry of activity was intoxicating.”If I had started out at a bank, where for the first six months you can’t sign your own letters, I would have been bored to death. But this, this was exciting!” The fact that King could travel on the company dime to the corporation’s two European offices in London and Munich, with frequent side jaunts into Italy and France, was icing on the cake. This, she decided, was the way to live.