Few things in life are more important than keeping track of your finances—and few things are more boring to restless young minds. Kayla Harris, a sophomore at Sullivan Foundation partner school Mary Baldwin University, has an idea for teaching personal finance skills through a computer game that will engage students’ creativity and imagination. Her idea and pitching skills won the grand prize of $300 in a business pitch competition at the Sullivan Foundation’s Fall 2019 Ignite Retreat in Asheville, N.C. last month.

Harris, a native of North Chesterfield, Virginia, majors in business management and double-minors in human resources management and economics at MBU. She said she sees a need to “reconstruct the way personal finance and economics are taught in middle school, high schools and colleges.”

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“Many courses and classes that teach finances are very informative,” Harris says. “However, it’s a big challenge for students to remember what they’re learning because it’s not being applied to reality.” After all, most kids don’t have any money to manage yet. “As we mature, we face financial challenges that we don’t necessarily know how to solve due to the fact that that connection was never made in personal finance and economic classes,” Harris adds.

this photo shows an Ignite Retreat facilitator prepping students for a business pitch competition

Ignite Retreat facilitator Reagan Pugh walks students through the elements of a successful pitch.

To solve the problem, Harris plans to work with her high school’s STEM class to develop a prototype for a computer game “that allows students to play out these financial challenges in real-world situations and learn from it. Think something like ‘The Sims’ meets credit scores, taxes and budgeting.”

About a dozen student presenters participated in the business pitch competition, with the other Ignite Retreat student attendees casting votes to choose the winner. Students who judged the contest walked from booth to booth and listened to the pitches. “The goal was to encourage the presenters to go out of their way to recruit people to their project rather than expect everyone to passively listen to their short pitch,” said Ignite Retreat organizer Spud Marshall. “Part of the goal, in addition to pitching, is to get them to think about creative community building.”

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“We asked [the student judges] to prioritize projects that were going to make the best use of ‘prototype funds,’ meaning they could produce something tangible with just a few hundred dollars rather than requiring thousands,” Marshall added.

Winning the business pitch competition was just part of an important learning experience for Harris. “I absolutely loved the Ignite Retreat,” she said. “I came in very blind about what the event was about but was open-minded. Starting off, I knew there was an issue [with her business idea] that I wanted to fix, and I knew how I wanted to fix it but just didn’t know how to get started. The retreat definitely gave me the tools necessary to turn my thought into a reality. I was asked questions that I never thought to ask myself about my project. I was showed different angles on how to view the situation I wanted to solve and really was just welcomed and supported at a level I had never felt before.”

Above all, Harris says, she learned to “never give up” on a good idea. “There are thousands of people in the world who want to make an impact on the issue you want to change but feel like they don’t have the ability to. I’m so grateful that the Sullivan Foundation, through the Ignite Retreat, gave me the means necessary [to move forward with the project]. So, I have a lot of people counting on me and rooting for me.”

“My other takeaway,” she added, “was that change is going to be a challenge, but challenge is good. The retreat really helped me understand how to face these challenges and how to create the perfect team to overcome the challenges.”

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