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OppySpotlight: Roy Paul & Cents Ability

The Oppy’s Spotlight Series exposes Sternies to writers, artists, and causes outside of our typical professional networks. This month’s article highlights Roy Paul, Executive Director of Cents Ability, a financial literacy organization.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Roy and I sat down (virtually) in April and had a wide-ranging conversation about financial literacy: why it’s not taught in schools, what common misconceptions it has, and how Cents Ability is helping. Roy’s enthusiasm was palpable in his colorful storytelling. The Jackson Five house in Gary, Indiana makes an appearance. So sit down and learn more about this fascinating topic; at the end, we tell you how to get involved.

Hint: donate. It’s finals, you don’t have time for anything else. 

Let’s start off with an easy question, which is to introduce yourself and Cents Ability. 

My name is Roy Paul. I’m the Executive Director of Cents Ability, a financial literacy organization in New York and Chicago. Our focus is on making sure the next generation is economically prepared to lead productive lives.

Cents Ability was founded 17 years ago by Alexa DuPont and John Moore. Alexa came from a family of wealth and privilege. When the two of them were at Harvard Business School, they both struggled with personal finances. With access and resources at their disposal, they looked at each other one day and said, “Wait a second, if we’re having these issues, can you imagine people who don’t have half of what we do?” 

I love that story because a lot of people assume that people who struggle with personal finances are poor. “Of course, they would have issues with personal finance.” Then people assume that if you’re wealthy and come from a family of privilege, you certainly don’t have any problems either because you have all the money in the world. Both of those assumptions cannot be further from the truth. There are all these myths about financial literacy. But the bottom line is everyone is impacted by financial literacy. 

Given that financial literacy is such a wide-reaching issue, what is Cents Ability’s focus?

We focus on teens because that is when young adults are exposed to some of the most fundamental financial decisions of their entire lives. They will be solicited with credit cards in the mail; they will be considering loans for college; they might look directly into homeownership or getting a job. Teens also have myths about finance. They think that to invest in the stock market, you need millions of dollars. They hear concepts like Bitcoin and cryptocurrency and they think it’s all elusive. They have no clue how to do that.

We love talking about the fundamental basics, like creating a budget. The basic principles we teach them give them perspective on what they can do. They look at things differently once we give them that knowledge. 

When I talk to teenagers I love asking them to raise their hands if they’re going to college. So many hands go up, and I love that because I’m seeing all the resources that we’re putting into sending kids to college. It’s a wonderful thing, especially for low income communities. Then I say to them, “Keep your hand up if you’re taking out a loan”. And their hands are still out there. Then I say to them, “Keep your hand up if you know what your monthly payment is going to be when you graduate in four years.” Slowly, the hands come down. They have no clue. 

When else would you be able to get away with that? You can’t get a car loan or a mortgage without knowing what your monthly payments are going to be. You are scrutinized to the nth degree to ensure you can pay. If you’re a college student they encourage you to take loans but they never tell you what you’re going to pay when you graduate.

If you are a first generation college student, your parents don’t tell you, because they don’t know. Unless you are being guided and coached on what to do and what questions to ask, you’re likely to fall into the trap. We try to prevent young people from becoming statistics; we give them the knowledge to make better decisions. Maybe they reevaluate the decision to go to a school that’s $50,000 a year. That’s all financial literacy is: the knowledge to make better decisions.

Tell us more about you. What brought you to Cents Ability and how long have you been Executive Director?

I am coming up on my fourth year with Cents Ability. I was inspired by the organization because I grew up around a lot of financial dichotomies. The town where I grew up had one side with a lot of wealthy people and the other side with a lot of poor people. I was in the middle, and I was friends with everybody. I saw firsthand and heard conversations about very different experiences. Some people spoke about money in a very privileged way, but for others it was just struggle and frustration. I have always been fascinated by that divide. Whenever I travel somewhere, I like to see where the rich people live and I like to see where the poor people live. It’s fascinating that we live in such a wealthy society, with so much wealth and income inequality, yet it’s not always top of mind.

My family on my mother’s side in particular is composed of a lot of educators.  I was elected to my community’s Board of Education in the Hudson Valley when I was 19. From that experience, I know for a fact that anyone is capable of being educated – as long as you have the resources and the community in place to make it happen. Fast forward five years and I decided not to continue. Then I moved to ABC and was doing political commentary while also serving as a non-profit consultant. When Cents Ability came knocking at my door I was fascinated about the opportunity to build, mold and shape the organization. 

Given that opportunity to build, mold shape, what are you proud of? Or what are you planning for?

We have more than doubled the budget since I’ve been here. I’m very proud of that. And we have expanded all of our boards. We have a Board of Directors, two advisory committees and a junior board of approximately 30 people. We beefed up the meat of the organization and a lot of our fundraising sources. We also expanded into the city of Chicago this year.

Why isn’t financial literacy taught as part of the school curriculum?

I love that question, I get it all the time. The best way to answer is through a somewhat circuitous story. 

Pre-pandemic, I was visiting Gary, Indiana and I decided to go drive and see where the Jackson Five grew up. It’s in a poor area of the city. I arrived at their house and I immediately noticed that only the Jackson Five house and the house next to it had been renovated. Every other house in the entire subdivision was dilapidated, but as I was driving down the street, people were sitting on garbage cans they had flipped over. None of the houses had porches.

So they were sitting there laughing and talking, and I was fascinated by their form of entertainment. It’s another way of thinking, depending on how you live and where you grew up.  I continued on driving down Main Street. The theater was boarded up, convenience stores were boarded up, and I turned the corner and there was this big building with bright shining lights. I’m thinking to myself, Oh my god, what’s that? It was a payday loan center. 

I go inside the store and I explain the experience that I had driving: the dilapidated neighborhood and the boarded up downtown and then the bright and shining payday loan center.  He said, “Yeah, we do pretty well.” I imagine this was one of the few viable businesses there.I started thinking about all of the people who benefit from people who are financially illiterate. 

Back to your question: financial literacy is not taught because there are people who make money off of people who don’t know any better. You don’t have to take out $50,000 a year to go to a specific college. If you just knew any better, you might save yourself some headache (and money). Powerful interests don’t want you to know any better.

How can MBA students help or get involved with your cause? 

If you ask someone else in the organization they might give you a different answer. Someone else might say: “If you want to get involved with our organization, you can volunteer. You can serve on one of our boards. If you have a skill or talent, you can donate that skill or talent. If you’re an accountant, you can do pro bono work for us.”

Since you’re asking me that question, I’ll give you my honest answer: we need money. As a nonprofit organization in financial literacy, recently expanded into Chicago, we need money now. I wish we knew some sort of celebrity or someone who has a big following and they could just tweet about us and we can raise millions of dollars.

Any fellow Sternies meet that criteria?! Help Cents Ability out! What a better way to close out the school year than to do some good. It just makes “cents.” For real, donate here.
Thank you to Roy for taking the time to share this important cause. Inspired and want to learn more? Visit https://cents-ability.org/ or reach Roy and Cents Ability @RoyPaulReports and @CentsAbilityInc.

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