The Paradigm for Parity® coalition Spotlight Series showcases member companies who are transforming their corporate culture to be one that advances women of all races, cultures, and backgrounds.
This month, in honor of National Financial Literacy Month, Paradigm for Parity (P4) speaks with Braeden Mayrisch, Vice President of Stakeholder Equity and Impact at Voya Financial, a P4P coalition member, and Nan J. Morrison, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Council for Economic Education (CEE).
Lack of financial literacy is an increasingly large problem in the United States, a fact especially true for low-income and minority communities. This can affect everything from how much one saves — whether for emergencies or long-term goals like retirement — to managing debt and making informed investment decisions. Since 2015, Voya and CEE have partnered on the National Personal Finance Challenge and Invest in Girls to equip students of all ages and backgrounds with the tools and knowledge needed to make better money decisions for themselves, their families, and their communities.
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
P4P: Tell us a bit about your organization and the National Personal Finance Challenge.
Nan J. Morrison: The Council for Economic Education’s mission is to teach K-12 kids about personal finance and economics so that they can make better decisions for themselves, their families and their communities. We do that broadly by advocating for there to be requirements to teach personal finance in every state, training and providing outstanding resources for educators, and providing competition and career programs for students, high school students such as the National Personal Finance Challenge.
P4P: How did you get involved and why did this sponsorship appeal to you?
Braeden Mayrisch: Our strategy at Voya Foundation is what we call “financial resilience,” which means ensuring that kids are equipped with the STEM expertise necessary to be competitive in the 21st century workforce and achieve a stable lifelong income and the financial literacy skills necessary to manage that income through their lives to a secure retirement. We mainly focus on high school students from underserved communities in our financial literacy programming because when those kids graduate, there’s no safety net for them. We work with them when they’re on the cusp of that independence to teach them smart decision-making skills that will hopefully last a lifetime.
In 2015, we had just closed out a big financial literacy partnership called the “Voya Investment Challenge” where we paired leaders around Voya with teams of high-school-aged girls to teach them specifically about investing and managing stock portfolios over three-year terms. The partnership was driven by a data point that showed that women, regardless of their status as a breadwinner or head of household, tended to shoulder the burden of making the bulk of the financial decisions in a home. Yet historically, they were also much less likely to be taught about financial decision making by a parent or a teacher, whoever.
So for us when that program concluded, the question was how could we have a broader impact? It was awesome to teach those young women about investing, but that level of knowledge already assumed that they had the basics of financial literacy nailed down, which is wishful thinking. As a company that’s laser focused on financial wellness as a whole, we needed a program that could teach everything and have the potential to reach every kid who needed it. We were introduced to CEE and the Challenge, and the rest is history.
P4P: How has Voya’s involvement helped you further your goals?
Morrison: The partnership with Voya has been tremendously fruitful for us. It has allowed us to take the challenge truly national, provide the marketing support, and facilitate the in-person finals event which are so meaningful to the students. More importantly, they’ve also been a real thought partner in thinking about how to create that access for every child.
Since 2015, we’ve established an access zone program to ensure every student has access to financial education, especially in areas where kids are less likely to have the necessary resources to prepare for a challenge competition. With their help, we’ve been able to move the needle on diversity and gender equity — reaching 50/50 participation between boys and girls.
P4P: This has been a meaningful partnership that has definitely moved the needle in scope, demographics, reach, as well as impact. What’s next for Voya?
Mayrisch: At Voya, we’re fortunate to have this huge network of social capital that’s focused on financial wellness and CEE has really helped us capitalize on that to improve the financial literacy of program participants. As our employees have gotten more engaged and seen this work in action, they’ve loved it so much that they’re actually pushing us to do more in the future — creating many more opportunities for employees to get involved and share their knowledge with the communities who need it. That’s something that we can always keep improving as long as we’re involved with this amazing program.
It’s also noteworthy that everyone who’s volunteered with the National Personal Finance Challenge, Voya employees and myself included, has come away from it learning something new. We’ve had employees tell us that they’ve learned more about saving, credit, investments and more that will be useful for them and their families. It’s a really approachable roadmap to financial literacy and if it works for kids, it can also work well for adults too. So now, we’re also looking at ways that we can collaborate with CEE to bring these materials to adults, our own employees, and one day to clients who might benefit from learning the basics of how to manage their incomes and begin the road to a secure financial future.
P4P: Your Invest in Girls program has grown rapidly. Tell us about this initiative and why it’s important.
Morrison: The Invest in Girls program has two objectives: the first is to create a comfortable place for girls to learn about the basics of personal finance and money because as we’ve been discussing, it can sometimes be hard to ask. And I think for girls and teenagers in particular, it’s sometimes easier to talk about these sorts of things with your peers.
The second big objective of this program is to encourage more young women, especially young girls of color, to consider a job in finance or financial services as a path to financial stability and economic mobility. Anywhere you go, whether it’s Wall Street or Main Street, a small town or not-for-profit, if you have the right money skill set, there will always be an organization that needs you. We have a mentorship program where we pair students up with women who are already in a financial services career so they can spend time at these financial firms, talk to people and really see what it’s like pursuing these careers. This is not only an important pipeline for financial services firms, but it’s also just as important for these girls to feel like there’s wonderful opportunities out there available to them.
P4P: Why was it important to integrate Invest in Girls into the National Personal Finance Challenge?
Morrison: This was a really great opportunity to put all of the tools and knowledge the Invest in Girls participants learned into a competition setting. It’s not only putting the tools to work, but also doubling down on the career skills that one needs to be successful such as teamwork, communication, collaboration, analytical thinking, public speaking and presentation skills. So I love it because it just adds so much richness to the Invest in Girls program and some of those teams are doing really well right now.
Mayrisch: Volunteers nationally across the country tend to skew female as women are often more generous with their time so when you have teams of young girls, that’s going to encourage more women to step up and share their knowledge. It’s also a smart investment — when you have women executives teaching young girls about finance, it also resonates with the girls more and they pay more attention as well.
P4P: Voya has been sponsoring financial literacy programming for years. What are some specific findings you have around financial literacy for young women in particular?
Mayrisch: So a big finding is the one I mentioned before that women make the bulk of financial decisions for a home regardless of their income status or financial acumen. That’s a really important one to acknowledge as a company and as a foundation — we’re going to fight for everybody’s opportunity for a secure financial future. As a child, I witnessed my own single mother take on student debt in adulthood when she learned she needed to go back to school. I watched her finish her degree, buy her first home and start an investment portfolio when I was a young adult so this is something I really care about. There’s an outsized opportunity here for impact if we continue to focus on engaging women in all of our programs, the National Financial Literacy Challenge included.
We also love working with CEE to expand financial literacy curriculum into schools. At present, only 24 states require this education and if a parent wants their kids to learn about money in the other 26 states, they have to research extracurricular programs. Many of these participants tend to come from families that are a little more affluent and Caucasian, and they also tend to sign up their sons, while families that are living paycheck to paycheck often don’t have the ability, time or money to sign up their children for extracurricular financial literacy programs.
At Voya, we firmly believe that the most equitable way to teach kids about money is through a school curriculum. That’s when you’re going to reach the most young women and the most children of color, and really prepare them for their futures, whatever they might look like. We’re grateful that CEE shares that view with us.
P4P: Based on your experiences and expertise implementing financial literacy initiatives, would you have recommendations for other companies looking to help their employees, especially young women, achieve financial security and build wealth?
Morrison: The National Personal Finance Challenge has approximately 15,000 students this year and we hope to grow even more in the coming years. The other thing we have is a program called “Financial Fitness for Work” which can be done in less than a day to teach kids about the basics of their first paycheck. Companies can utilize this program as part of the onboarding process to walk new employees through their paycheck, explain what the deductions are and opt-in on 401k retirement plans. This is important because you never really know who’s had access to financial literacy education.
Companies can also get engaged with our advocacy efforts to have financial literacy education included as part of school curriculums. In states where there’s no requirement there’s actually a 16% access gap between wealthier communities and low to moderate income communities.
Mayrisch: As a proud employee of a female-driven company, we’ve got a bunch of recommendations on how to improve financial literacy and retirement wellness among women. One thing that we’ve learned from our philanthropic work is that people really do learn better from someone who mirrors their own background and shares their experiences. This of course places an emphasis on maintaining diverse backgrounds so that when you engage with underrepresented groups, you have an employee population that mirrors those groups and can educate them in a way that resonates better for them. This learning carries over to our employee population and we know that we also need to have diverse client facing financial experts, who can relate to and educate our diverse client groups as well.
We also recommend implementing auto-enrollment and auto-escalation for retirement and health savings plans. We’ve actually run the data on our own employees and seen how helpful it can be for underserved communities. These groups have historically been more concerned about immediate needs like food, rent, and student loans, and auto-enrollment and auto-escalation are the best strategies to help them also focus on their financial future, rather than just their immediate needs. We really take any opportunity to convince other employers to do the same.