As a child growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1970s, Richard Smith knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I wanted to go into business,” the DePaul Double Demon (BUS ’77, MBA ’83) says today, smiling. Smith wanted to be like the man who lived near him who wore a suit and tie every day, carried a briefcase and was university graduate who worked at a bank. Yet even as he confessed his dream to his guidance counselor at Dunbar High School, a blue-collar trade school, Smith was worlds away from the banking universe. He knew nothing of finance and, later at DePaul, he got a rude awakening as he sat in finance classes. He had no idea what his professors were talking about.
“I had to read my finance books over and over again, well into the morning because I just didn’t know the terminology,” said Smith, who now owns SRC Capital, a finance firm that manages pension assets for corporations and foundations. “I didn’t read to memorize but to understand. It was so frustrating.”
And even as Smith struggled with variables, formulas and the insider speak of finance, he also fought against past transgressions from others outside of DePaul who felt the poor son of a cafeteria worker just didn’t belong in this world.
“I know what it is to feel like I don’t belong,” Smith said. “It’s when a neighbor invites all the kids to go on a trip but actually disinvites you and your family because they looked down upon you. I didn’t want anyone else to feel like I did.”
Free Finance Program Introduces Investing to Kids
So seven years ago, after 20 years in the finance field, Smith created The Wall Street Program. The free program offers a finance curriculum specifically designed for middle schoolers. Students learn finance terminology, the ins and outs of investing and even how set up virtual investment accounts through Yahoo! Finance. The goal of the program is for students to track their stock investments, compare their results and learn more about the careers offered in finance.
The yearlong program culminates in a field trip to a local Chicago financial institution. This year, the children are visiting Loop Capital, one of the largest black-owned financial firms in the country. Smith currently teaches the once-a-month program to students enrolled in the south Chicago suburb of Matteson’s school district.
“Finance is generally not discussed around the dinner table in the communities where I grew up,” Smith said. “They don’t have direct exposure to it. Learning about investing is something that you don’t normally experience in the classroom and it is something that is badly needed in today’s society.”
Educators Love Finance Program in Their School
It’s difficult to imagine nine- and ten-year-olds understanding terms like annual reports, default risk and equity, yet Smith has a way of making the world of finance fun for kids. He uses the basic ingredients of gamification to hook the students, including peer competition, leaderboards and symbols.
Students create online investment accounts with Yahoo! Finance. They’re each given $10,000 virtual dollars and are asked to pick stocks based upon the following rules:
- Each student must invest $2,000 in five companies.
- Stock prices must be above $5 (no penny or speculative stocks).
- Students are encouraged to select stocks from various industries.
- Students must use a trade ticket each time they want to buy or sell.
The students then compete to see who has the best return. In the past, students conducted company research using The Wall Street Journal education edition. (This free newspaper has since been downsized.)
Twins Damola and Dimeji, sixth graders at Colin Powell
Middle School say they love the program. The twins are participating in the
program for a second year. Last year they had a 22 percent return on their
“It’s fun to research and investigate companies that you see
everyday,” Damola said. “Companies like Apple and Best Buy.”
Dan Thompson, director of student services for School District 159 in Matteson, says Smith’s program is desperately needed in schools. “We can’t afford to have finance education in our curriculum, but it’s sorely needed,” Thompson says. “Many of these kids just don’t get this knowledge at home. And it’s a field these students need to be exposed to. I wish we had it in all our schools.”
Nearly 1,000 students have gone through Smith’s Wall Street Program. Most of them were junior high schoolers when they started. Smith does know of one student whose parents set him up with a real brokerage account and $1,000.
“I was in Sam’s Club and I ran into him,” Smith said beaming. “He thanked me and said he had been investing since he left my program. Then he brought his parents over and they said how grateful they were.”
“I’m the type of person that if I learn something, I want to teach others,” says Smith who also teaches finance to college students. “I want the kids to know that despite having little knowledge of the finance world now, you can learn and make a good living in this area. I truly found that investing is a great way of building wealth and I want them to learn as much as possible.”