The Money Hub wants to make financial literacy cool
by Benjamin Fang
May 09, 2018 | 3573 views | 0 0 comments | 139 139 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Growing up in Astoria, Mohammed Faisal moved around a lot.

Originally from Bangladesh, his family arrived in Queens when he was three. Landlords kept raising the rent, and with a big family of six, Faisal said his family couldn’t afford to stay in the neighborhood.

“At some point, we got priced out of Astoria,” he said.

What made matters worse was that his father had bad credit. According to Faisal, his father either used credit cards and couldn’t pay for them, or he couldn’t pay the bills on time.

Faisal said that hurt his family’s chances of finding a stable home. But there was a silver lining – it taught his mother about the importance of credit scores.

Working as a cashier at Duane Reade, Faisal’s mother saved money, built up her credit score and eventually secured enough for a down payment on a house in South Jamaica.

Faisal recalled going through the closet when he was in the sixth grade and finding a stack of money. He asked his mother what that was for.

“She was like, 'this is going to be our way out of renting.’ I remember that vividly,” Faisal said. “Moving from place to place, having to make new friends, having to move to a new school, it’s really challenging. Then having that stability was a very big deal.”

He kept those life lessons in mind, particularly about savings and credit, as he went through school. Faisal attended Brooklyn Technical High School and then City College of New York.

After graduating in the summer of 2016, he decided to start a new nonprofit dedicated to teaching financial literacy to immigrant and working class kids. Along with his professor and mentor Glen Patterson, Faisal created The Money Hub.

Faisal envisioned an organization that uses technology to teach financial literacy in a fun, interactive way. But he started small, with pens, paper and a PowerPoint presentation about personal finance, savings, budgeting and credit scores.

He tested his workshop model earlier that spring at the Harlem-based organization Brotherhood/Sister Sol, not too far from his alma mater. He credited the group for believing in his vision and giving him a shot to speak to their kids.

“After graduating, it felt like it was my life calling. I need to do this, and I put everything on hold to do it,” Faisal said, referencing other possible careers in finance, banking or consulting. “When it’s something bigger than you, you’ve got to do whatever you can.”

His next step was starting a team that was just as passionate about community change as he was. In the next year, he added members who handled communications, operations and programming. They began creating whiteboard animated videos to help simplify financial literacy concepts.

Over the last two years, The Money Hub has expanded its reach beyond the immediate area. Faisal reached out to many youth-serving organizations, many of which didn’t reply to him, which he described as one of his biggest challenges.

But some groups gave them a shot, and came away with positive results. Places like Central Park East High School and Variety Boys and Girls Club in Astoria, where Faisal grew up, provided him with more opportunities to work with students.

Faisal said the workshops evolved after the first iteration. They decided to split the workshop into four one-hour sessions. The first and second day, respectively, teach interpersonal finance and credit card and banking.

The third day delves into professional development and entrepreneurship, including a Shark Tank-style activity where students come up with an idea, a problem to fix and a pitch.

The last session spends half the time focusing on core aspects of investments. To wrap up the entire workshop series, they play financial literacy Jeopardy. Winners receive Amazon gift cards.

Last year, they wanted to incorporate technology into the workshops, so Faisal brought on a developer to develop a website. This year, they created an app.

“We were thinking, how can we meet them where they are, which is on their phones, on social media and in the apps?” Faisal said. “That’s when we developed the idea of gamifying financial literacy.”

Joshua Varghese, the organization’s chief technology officer, joined the team late last year. He spearheaded the creation of the app, which started out as just a multiple-choice game. Varghese said the idea was the kids could pull out their phones on the train to play the game while absorbing the concepts.

This year, they want to take it step further and use the app during the workshop. Varghese, who is developing the new version for both Androids and iPhones, eventually wants to run all of the workshops on the app.

Students playing on the app can create a profile and garner points, all while learning about checks, credit scores and entrepreneurship.

“It’s like Instagram for financial literacy,” Faisal said. “That’s really our goal, making financial literacy cool.”

The co-founder of The Money Hub believes finance is designed to seem difficult, complicated and convoluted, making people fearful of it.

The fear is worsened for immigrant families, many of whom face significant language barriers, and low-income families, who often don’t have the opportunity to think about investing or building credit.

Not only did Faisal experience this firsthand, but he saw people around him, friends he played basketball with in the park, who lacked financial literacy skills.

“They were working full-time, but being a homeowner or understanding what investing is, stocks and bonds, all those things were not something they knew about,” he said. “Home-owning or having bigger assets were just a distant dream to them.”

That’s why he wanted to reach kids at an early age, to instill in them concepts about financial literacy from facilitators who “can relate to you and have walked in your shoes.”

Whether it’s the style of communicating, the informality of the workshops or being able to relate to the students personally, Faisal believes the workshops can really impact immigrant and low-income families.

They can measure the gains as well. Faisal said they’ve developed an algorithm through the app to see how much each student has learned from the workshops. On average, he said The Money Hub has seen a 30 percent increase in what students have learned.

They’ve seen the biggest increases in understanding of budgeting, credit cards and credit scores.

“It’s important because with that, we can provide that [data] to the organizations we’re going to,” Faisal said. “They can look at it and see how much the students learn.”

Despite growing rapidly in the last few years, Faisal said The Money Hub still faces some hurdles, including not hearing back from organizations. His explanation is that many nonprofits are looking for “big players who already have a foot in the game.”

“But we don’t let that discourage us,” he said. “We really believe once an organization sees our work, they’re going to want us back. A lot of times, we do it for them pro bono, then allow them to judge us based on our work.”

Another challenge that they have since overcome was finding affordable space to work. They landed at The Impact Hub, a co-working space in Lower Manhattan that has provided them with mentorship, connections and other networks to help new companies grow.

“The thing about entrepreneurship is, the company will go only as far as its founders and its members,” he said. “For the team to develop and have support along the way, that’s one of the biggest things to become sustainable and achieve a goal.”

The challenges can often be personal as well. Faisal said coming from an immigrant family, entrepreneurship can be seen a risky enterprise, rather than a stable career. For many people, it’s not a risk they can afford to take.

Fortunately, Faisal said his older brother, who is financially successful, has provided for his large family, allowing him to go on his own venture.

Looking into the future, Faisal laid out both short-term and long-term goals for The Money Hub to achieve. In the short-term, he said they’re focused on developing the second version of the app this summer.

In the long-term, he wants the organization to develop “big partnerships” with schools and organizations, where they can not only provide the software, but also the personnel for workshops.

If all goes according to plan, The Money Hub could even go nationwide, Faisal said.

By spreading the tools and understanding of financial literacy, Faisal said he wants to show young people, especially ones from immigrant and low-income backgrounds, that they don’t have to be a doctor or a lawyer to be successful.

They can pursue their dreams while knowing how to keep a roof over their heads and food on the dinner table.

While reflecting on the organization he has created from an idea he had in his mind, Faisal said one of the best compliments he ever received was from an old high school friend, someone he played football with on the gridiron.

“He said, 'I wasn’t an outsider coming in as a savior, trying to save the hood or immigrants,’” Faisal said. “I’m from these neighborhoods, I grew up with it.’

Faisal said he believes these communities are hard-working, and simply need the right tools and an even playing ground as someone who grew up wealthy or connected.

“That’s what The Money Hub is,” Faisal said, “to bring that gap, where we can provide you with the tools to live your dream and be financially well-off.”
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