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From Woman to Girl, an Introduction to Finance

Westover School
Source: Westoverschool.org
Westover School

A few weeks before the school year ended, I visited Westover School in western Connecticut to sit in on a class aimed at encouraging teenage girls to consider careers in finance.

The class was run by a nonprofit group called Invest in Girls, which is using three private schools — Westover, which is all girls, and Milton Academy and Middlesex School, which serve both boys and girls — to test its program. The goal is to be more than another “kids and money” program, said its founder and chairwoman, Dune Thorne, who is also a partner at Brown Advisory in Boston.

“There are a lot of financial literacy programs out there, all doing important work,” Ms. Thorne said. “What we saw was missing is that when you have finance as a core tool in your toolbox, it opens up the world in a different way. You think about decisions differently.”

This intrigued me. After all, getting teenagers interested in finance — and teaching the subject in a way that links it to the moral complexity taught in, say, English class — is certainly a good idea. But why just focus on girls? Are they any more or less adept at understanding finance than boys their age?

To their credit, the organizers did not try to explain this away. The reason, they said, was that their program emphasizes learning techniques that work better with girls.

My other question was why the class should be only for private school students. (One year for a boarding student at Westover tops $47,000 a year.) Do they need this type of education?

“When we say we’re at Milton, Middlesex and Westover, some people say you’re helping rich white girls learn about the financial services industry,” Ms. Thorne said. “This is really about girls who are emerging as leaders and how to help those girls have the finance and investing knowledge they will need.”

The program, she said, will be expanded to other schools if the pilot works.

The class I sat in on was actually had a mix of students, some whose parents paid full tuition, some on financial aid and some from abroad. Here is some of what I learned.

THE APPROACH The curriculum is a mix of classroom learning, field trips and mentoring. Each part is meant to advance a particular goal in making the students better prepared for future careers.

All the classes are taught by a woman who works in finance. The four classes in the first year consist of an overview of the program’s objectives, and discussions of spending, savings and investments.

“All the girls want to talk about is stocks,” Ms. Thorne said. “We can’t talk about investing before we talk about budgeting and saving. We’re about how to build a strong understanding of finance.”

While all three schools are following the same curriculum, they have different businesswomen teaching the classes.

Twice a year, Invest in Girls arranges for field trips to see women at work and also to learn how to network with students from other schools, said Emilie Liebhoff, chief executive of the group. This year, they went to Windhaven Investment Management in Boston and the Hanover Insurance Group in Worcester, Mass.

But the mentoring part is where they get to ask how to apply their learning. Ultimately, students will be taught not just about their own money, but about roles they can play in a business.

THE CLASSROOM What I saw in the classroom was messier and less polished than I had expected.

The night I was there, Connie Everson, a managing director at Capital Markets Outlook Group, a research firm in Boston, was trying to explain how capital markets work. Watching her, I felt sympathy. It is hard for many of us to remember when we did not understand all the financial jargon that is regularly used on television and online. But it was also refreshing to hear a group of 15-year-olds ask why a stock goes up or down.

Toward the end of her talk, we were all asked to look at the bags of Starbust candies Ms. Everson had distributed at the start of the class. Each one had a different combination of red, orange and yellow candies that represented stocks, bonds and cash.

Since no bag had the same number of colors, every student was forced to consider concepts like asset diversification, risk assessment and liquidity in a simple but effective way.

Invest in Girls uses little tricks like this to explain complicated concepts to high school sophomores. (At another point, Ms. Everson compared a portfolio to a closet, with its various types of attire for different occasions.)

And those methods appealed to the schools.

“This is what we’ve been thinking about all along for girls — what are the nontraditional fields we want girls to have access to,” Ann Pollina, Westover’s head of school, told me. “We wanted to help them understand what women do in business. We wanted to help them get a picture of what women in those fields really do.”

Afterward, students told me the program had spurred them to want to learn more.

THE MENTOR RELATIONSHIP Each girl was paired with a woman who works in finance to learn about what they do.

Cailee Tallon, a student at Westover, said she was initially interested in the program because she would like to become a doctor and knew that business skills would be essential for her future.

“I know you need to be able to handle your finances,” she said. “I don’t want to be in a position when I graduate from college that I don’t know how to handle my money.”

But her mentor, Lia Eddy, who works as an analyst in the loan department at Admirals Bank in Boston, said she found Cailee was equally interested in the nuts and bolts of paying for medical education.

“She was more interested in how do I get a loan in college,” Ms. Eddy said. “It helped me in a way, because I had to explain to her what I was going through with my own loans.”

In other cases, students were able to see their mentors in the workplace.

That was what Jennifer DiMario Sabatini, a vice president at Loomis Sayles in Boston, did for her mentee, Gabby DeBartolomeo. Gabby said she was more interested in going into business now than before the program.

“I learned the most about when you have an income and you’re earning money, what to do with that money,” Gabby said. “All the money I make baby-sitting goes into a low-interest savings account. I.I.G. has made me more interested in investing that money and watching it grow.”

Ms. Sabatini said Gabby’s straightforward questions — what is liquidity? — got her thinking about the importance of teaching teenagers about finance.

“For me, I don’t think twice about the word,” Ms. Sabatini said. “But you hear all these stats about kids being courted by credit cards on campus and coming out with debt. You see the need to educate them earlier on about financial issues.”

That may be the biggest factor in determining the careers they will have.