Leading the financial literacy push

If Angel Rich has her way, learning how to build a solid credit score and save for retirement would be as easy as posting a selfie or 

sending a tweet.Almost five years after leaving an analyst job at Prudential Financial, Rich is making waves and wooing investors with Credit Stacker, a smartphone game that teaches financial literacy through a simulated life of important decisions and investments.

Rich’s goal combines lessons she learned from her historically black middle-class neighborhood in Northeast Washington, D.C., her early success in finance and a desire to show others a path to sustained financial health.

“It’s important for us to be able to teach these underserved communities the importance of home ownership, credit, financial literacy, investments and all of those things because the wealth gap between the black community and the rest of the population is so exorbitant,” Rich said during a phone interview.

“There has to be an expedited and serious approach to financial literacy and financial empowerment right now for us to catch up.”

Rich grew up in Kingman Park, one of Washington’s first neighborhoods designed for black homeowners. As rapid gentrification pushed out the area’s residents, Rich said few were equipped with the knowledge to weather the 2008 financial crisis and stand up to the changing community dynamics.

Rich would go on to graduate from Hampton University and intern at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA. 

She started full-time at Prudential in July 2009 as a market research analyst and spent four years at the firm, where she says she thrived. She received a major bonus, was tracked for substantial promotions and contemplated attending the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

She said she first realized on an October 2012 mission trip the disconnect between a world of resources and the information needed to reap their benefits. While in Salawa, Kenya, Rich spotted a boy wearing a Wharton shirt drinking from a dirty stream. She said that she realized that “no matter how smart he got, he’d never really have the opportunity to go” to the prestigious school. 

Rich decided to quit her job at Prudential when she returned and skip the chance to go to Wharton to focus on “equal access to financial literacy across the world.”

Enter Credit Stacker, a smartphone app Rich developed through her company, the Wealth Factory, that tests players on types of debt, how to manage them, how to build a strong credit score and how to manage different financial assets and liabilities.

The game lets a player “live out their financial life without the risk of losing their money,” Rich said. “Let them see the choice that they’ve made and the choices that they could have made … before they get themselves in a world of debt.”

Rich said the game is meant for those who’ve lacked a proper financial education. She said teenagers and young adults are the ideal targets, since they are the most impressionable, but that retirees have found it helpful, too.

Rich’s game was recognized by the White House in 2009, and the Wealth Factory won the Black Enterprise investment pitch competition in Houston last week. Rich says she’s been meeting with investors and drumming up more funding for the game to spread it worldwide.

Rich’s push comes as banks and lawmakers are looking to smartphone technology to reach “underbanked” populations. 

Roughly 20 percent of U.S. households in 2015 were underbanked, according to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) survey last year. That means while at least one family member had an insured bank account, others had to rely on risky, short-term financial products such as payday or auto title loans to get by.

Another 9 percent of homes lacked a single person with a bank account, and more than half of all underbanked survey respondents said they didn’t believe banks were interested in serving them. 

Black Americans are the most under- and unbanked demographic in the U.S., according to the FDIC. Just 45.5 percent of the population is sufficiently banked, while 31.1 percent depend on some form of outside financial product and 18.2 percent lack a bank account entirely. 

New financial technology has exploded in recent years and is developing quickly, including applications that let users manage their bank accounts on smartphones, send and receive money as one sends a text or email, and pay for products by holding their smartphones up to cash registers.

In October, the American Bankers Association released its financial technology playbook, standards for banks to follow as they adopt new technologies to expand their services.

“There is tremendous opportunity for banks in the current wave of digital innovation,” reads the playbook. “[Financial technology] can be disruptive, but it can also help banks meet changing customer needs, deliver innovative products, reduce costs and deliver exceptional customer service.”

Rich is also reaching out through her new book, “History of the Black Dollar,” a survey of significant American economic moments covering slavery, sharecropping and convict leasing, up through more modern events including the Great Recession and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The book “aims to help older generations remember, while enlightening younger generations on the progression of America and its direct correlation to the support of Black Americans that will inspire both groups to continuing uplifting economic social justice,” wrote Rich. 

“At the very least we could start teaching kids financial literacy so that the future generations will be different,” Rich said. “Everybody should have the same information and be able to digest it in the same way. We’re on a mission to end the vernacular secrecy.”

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