Abandoning Mediocrity and Seizing Opportunity

by Ted Gonder   •  

In November, I had the privilege of participating in the Opportunity Nation Summit as an Opportunity Scholar.  Over the course of the weekend at Opportunity Nation, my thinking was transformed.  I had often thought in terms of alleviating poverty rather than spreading opportunity.  I had conceived of social problems in terms of racial and class barriers rather than understanding them as challenges for humanity to overcome.  And in my own philanthropic initiatives, I had often felt closed off from other similar groups, lacking a platform for us to unite around – a common vision.

Toward the end of the Opportunity Nation summit, Justin Kang, our group leader, encouraged me to speak with Kevin Jennings, CEO of Be the Change, the parent organization behind the Opportunity Nation campaign, about the financial education initiative I had been working on in Chicago.  Seizing the opportunity to have Kevin’s ear for five minutes, I pitched him on our project.  He received the idea enthusiastically, and immediately encouraged me to apply to be a White House Champion of Change.  The White House was launching a Campus Challenge and Kevin thought we might have a fighting chance at taking our mission to the national stage.

As fate would have it, I had the honor last week of being recognized as one of the five Champions of Change in the White House Campus Challenge.  It’s surreal: three years ago, when Moneythink was just an idea, my friends and I dreamed of taking our passion—financial education through peer mentorship—to a national stage.  We didn’t realize just how much more relevant our mission would become in those short three years.

Financial illiteracy, economic immobility, and educational inequality are problems that continue to worsen in America’s urban centers as the global financial crisis unravels further.  But as with any challenge, the outcome is in the response: we as individuals can choose to join the doomsayers, passive bystanders, and despondent fatalists in the comfort of collective complaining, or we can choose to abandon mediocrity, see the silver lining, and act upon the opportunity to build a better future.

Until my mid-teens, I drifted through life passive, purposeless, and unhappy.  My parents had worked hard to seize opportunities in their lives, saving enough money to provide me with extracurricular opportunities and eventually hire me a tutor.  This tutor, a college student from Ghana and the first of many mentors who would enter my life, inspired and worked with me to raise my grades, set goals, and pursue higher education.  Over the course of the following two years, mentors and friends (or ‘friendtors’ as we like to call each other) helped me transform my life from a mediocre and aimless teenage existence into an overnight success story: I graduated in the top 5% of my class (after thinking I’d never get an ‘A’), launched climate change advocacy groups at 30+ high schools in California (after never starting an organization before in my life), and was admitted to the University of Chicago on a full-tuition merit scholarship (after thinking I’d never go to college).

In college, I was lucky to meet a group of amazing peers who thought we could mobilize campus resources to provide mentorship to local at-risk youth in a way that could also equip them to overcome financial difficulty.  A 2009 study showed that the average net worth of white people in the US is 20 times that of black people and 18 times that of Hispanic people; our university campus community was a microcosmic reflection of this wealth gap, and we wanted to do something about it.  We thought: why not take kids from the college investment club and Economics department and place them in local schools to serve as peer mentors teaching basic financial concepts?

We organized our friends and started giving workshops in local schools, weaving dry but important finance and business lessons into engaging, relatable pop-culture examples that our students enjoyed discussing.  The high school students loved it, the University of Chicago got behind it, and college leaders around the country began founding chapters at their universities (17 to date).  Before we knew it, Moneythink had become a movement.  This June, we’re setting up our first offices in Chicago to begin growing this project into a professional nonprofit organization.

The most important thing we’ve learned in the process of building Moneythink is what our students have taught us through their personal successes against all odds: attitude is everything.  Even in the most disadvantaged of circumstances, our students manage to stay optimistic, reframe their futures, create financial plans, and build businesses.  This isn’t about poverty; it’s about opportunity.  This isn’t about limitations; it’s about possibilities.  This isn’t about resources; it’s about resourcefulness.  This isn’t about race or class; it’s about humanity.

This century is going to be about us coming together across borders of race, class, and geography to seize, create, and share opportunity together.  Our nation faces the most complex economic challenges since the Great Depression: we must enable economic growth while promoting economic equity; enact regulations that protect consumers and the environment but without stifling innovation; invest in our future while living within our means.  Just as our grandparents’ generation pulled together to defeat dictatorship during WWII, our generation must collectively ask: “what can I do to ensure that every child has the same opportunities that I have had?”

If we want to build a better future and ignite a renaissance of abundance for the future of humanity, each of us must abandon our own mediocrity and soar past the limitations of what we perceive to be possible for ourselves.  In the words of Rumi, the 13th century poet, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.  Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” It’s in changing ourselves that we become empowered to help others change.

Mentor a child—rebuild America one dream at a time.

Ted Gonder is Co-founder and Executive Director of Moneythink, a non-profit student movement expanding economic opportunity for urban youth through peer-mentorship and financial education.  Ted is an Opportunity Scholar and learned of the White House Champions of Change competition when he met Kevin Jennings at the Opportunity Nation Summit in New York City in November of 2011.  Learn more about how Opportunity Nation transformed Ted’s thinking, and about his journey to the White House.

Ted Gonder

Opportunity Scholar, Opportunity Nation

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