Money Camp Gives Kids Itch to Get Rich
Gayle Skiera bears absolutely no resemblance to Donald Trump. Her eager-beaver entrepreneurs don't have BlackBerrys, tattoos, entourages or egos the size of Cleveland.
But Skiera accomplishes what "The Celebrity Apprentice" can only dream of: She makes learning about money fun for kids.
Each summer, the founder of The Money Academy and her merry band of counselors oversee more than a dozen weeklong camps at merchant locations in the Austin, Texas, area. Camps serve kids ages 8 to 18.
Call it "The Apprentice: Summer Camp Edition."
The counselors help the kids form a basic business structure, complete with chief executive officer, chief financial officer, marketing director and sales manager. Then, they set them loose to develop a product or service and seek their fortune. The kids rotate positions so each can feel the heat.
"Monday, they're out doing market research to determine what their customers would want to buy," Skiera says. "By Tuesday, they're prototyping. By Wednesday, they're selling, doing financial statements every day, looking at profit and loss.
"They're getting hands-on experience with money and how it works in the real world."
Any money they make, the campers get to keep -- after expenses, of course.
"I've never had a camp not make money because we let them learn from their experience," Skiera says. "We let them fail. We don't go in and tell them, 'Make this product.' We don't even give them very much feedback. We don't want to take away any of the opportunities for them to make a mistake."
Snap, crackle and pop
Forget lemonade stands; these kids want a real piece of the action. They've hit the bricks with everything from hand-painted, earth-friendly canvas shopping bags to lavender bath products to organic potted herbs.
One group of teenage boys even gave lunch-hour massages to the downtown cubicle crowd at $10 a snap, crackle and pop.
"They had people come in and show them how to do foot, hand and neck massages," Skiera says. "They had twinkle lights and Enya playing in the background and towels and warm tea. High school boys! And they made a lot of money."
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What would success be without a few hard knocks? One of Skiera's favorites involved selling live ladybugs at an organic nursery.
"They researched and found out they could buy like 50,000 ladybugs for cheap," she says. "The nurseryman said if you keep them cold, they don't fly. Well, they don't fly, but they'll crawl! So we've got these little boys running around screaming with ladybugs crawling up their sleeves and pant legs. Hysterical!"
Accidental money guru
Skiera, a single mom who worked in publishing, hardly set out to become a money guru. She admits she couldn't even manage her own finances until she joined an investment club in the mid-1990s.
But when her daughter Evan, then a second-grader, asked to start a pint-size investment club with her friends, Skiera figured she would teach them all about it. Instead, she spent a year and a half listening to and learning from them.
The more she heard, the more she realized that kids have a natural curiosity about money. Unfortunately, money is still not a topic for discussion in most homes, and schools have failed so far to crack the code on financial education, much less figure out how to make it fun.
"Kids don't need the kind of information that is available through most curriculums. It's adult versions of things that have been 'dumbed down' to kids, and it's not what kids need to know," she says. "It isn't useful to them."
To help address the problem, Skiera formed The Money Academy in 2004. With the help of seasoned educators, the academy has sponsored popular after-school clubs for five years. This fall, it plans to go national with a personal finance curriculum for grades two through six.
Skiera has seen the benefit of financial education in her own daughter. At 15, Evan manages her own career as a budding singer-songwriter but keeps it real by collecting income at the candy machine she installed years ago at Austin's legendary Shady Grove restaurant and music venue.
"She has to put 10 percent of any money she earns into an investment account. She's got three of them," Skiera says.
True to the entrepreneurial spirit of its summer camps, The Money Academy's curriculum stands apart from the crowd because it started with the kids.
"So many companies in the marketplace are trying to generate curriculum, but they're so far behind the curve," Skiera says. "We've got five years of development on them. We're in a really good space to put in something that works phenomenally well. Not only that, it goes home and the kids teach their parents."
That sure beats coming home from camp with a case of poison ivy.
Veteran Bankrate contributing editor Jay MacDonald lives in Austin, Texas. If you have a comment or suggestion about this column, write to Bank Shots.