It’s late afternoon in blustery February as parents file in and out of Comegys Elementary School. Upstairs, students in the business club are still working on their projects, some clustered around tables working on fractions, others hunched over a donated sewing machine, feeding vibrant red fabric across its base. During the pandemic shutdown, these students are unable to physically meet but still sign in to online meetings, collaborating in spite of social distancing, taking their design savvy, and shifting from designing costumes to making masks. Students are “adapting to the moment,” says Jill Bazelon, director of the financial literacy program Bridges 2 Wealth.
Bridges 2 Wealth provides intergenerational financial literacy and entrepreneurial education for Philadelphia communities by a team passionate about bridging the wealth gap. Now in its eighth year, the organization was founded by game theorist Keith Weigelt of the Wharton School, along with Jill Bazelon, now Bridges 2 Wealth director at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. The organization celebrated its first anniversary as part of the University of Pennsylvania in February, and is expanding into more schools and community centers. “We feel committed to bringing the program to as many Netter Center schools as possible,” Bazelon says. “What’s really exciting about the Comegys Elementary students is the potential length of time we’re spending with them.”
“Financial literacy is a crucial component of helping to improve the education of young people and the quality of life in the community,” says Ira Harkavy, associate vice president and founding director of the Netter Center. “It is also a necessary component of the Netter Center’s comprehensive approach of university-assisted community schools, which provides a range of academic resources and other supports to children and families. It is important to have Bridges 2 Wealth as part of this effort.”
Local investment firm FS Investments is the primary sponsor of Bridges 2 Wealth’s school-based work, hosting an annual “Shark Tank”-style business pitch competition for student entrepreneurs. The pitch competition’s winning teams receive $1,000 in seed money to launch their projects, but all will be eligible to participate in Bridges 2 Wealth’s summer institute, now online, where they will receive additional mentoring and financial literacy classes.
Together, Bridges and FS deliver services in 14 Philadelphia schools, teaching both students and families, and FS Investment employees and Penn students support the program as volunteers. “Jill, Keith, and our other partners at Penn and Bridges 2 Wealth do a phenomenal job working with our FS colleagues to reach Philadelphia students and their families with impactful financial literacy and entrepreneurship education,” says Mike Gerber, who is a Penn alum, parent, and trustee and a partner at FS Investments. “This program, which we call FS Financial Scholars, is our foremost community program and one of which we are extremely proud.”
As part of Management 353, an academically-based community service course taught by Weigelt, Penn students are trained in financial literacy curriculum and are prepared for teaching in urban high schools from Bazelon, who has a doctorate in educational policy from the Graduate School of Education. The students then work with middle and high school students across the city, including those at Comegys.
James Patterson and Kevin Gyimah, both sophomores, are two of the participating Penn students. Patterson, a sophomore from Teaneck, New Jersey, majoring in health care, grew up hearing family discussions on budgeting and investing. “We wanted to partake in that mission because we’re about community,” he says. “We’re taking the shift further to give these students good mentorship.”
Gyimah, a philosophy, politics, and economics major from Montclair, New Jersey, finished the course last semester but continues to volunteer. “For me, it was about the field challenge impact on schools around Penn,” Gyimah says.
These Penn students are supported by paid mentors from across the university, including seniors India Watson, a biological basics of behavior major, and Gregory Nesmith of the Wharton School, both from Philadelphia. Watson is from the Germantown neighborhood and went to Girard College for high school. “I share the background and experience with a lot of the students, she says. We connect on a different level.” Watson made her own prom dress in order to save her family money and started a small business in high school making prom dresses for other students, which makes her uniquely helpful for the Comegys students, who were originally interested in starting a custom costume business.
Comegys eighth graders Kayden Perren, Amadou Diallo, and Quinton Morrow are working on what they call the Comegys Design Center. The team is building prototypes for child- and adult-sized masks with differing levels of complexity, including masks with 3D printed animated characters mouths that bridge public health and cosplay, their original focus. They’re designing a logo for their business and putting together a Google poll so peers can vote on their favorite logo option. “A business can be about anything,” Perren says. “You can actually be successful at what you love.”
Add-on programs like this help, says Nesmith, who remembers his parents enrolling him in low-cost tennis and STEM programs as a child. “Representation matters, too, for them to see someone who looks like them. You can be from Philly and graduate from Wharton. This is all possible.”
This is the second year of the summer institute. At Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School, the last competition was won by juniors Sadir Douglass, Elijah Fulton, Nasir Holloway, and Kyree Keels form Teens Do Tech, a business that fixes electronics, concentrating on broken smart phone screens.
It’s harder to work on phones during the shutdown because the students aren’t together in the same building and some of their tools are still in the Dobbins building, Keels says. The team is adapting to new technologies, creating how-to videos for digital literacy, and working as a digital hotline.
Keels is “curious about working with a bigger team” and wants to learn how to invest. “It’s not all about college," he says. "Nowadays, there’s a million different ways you can make money.”
The Dobbins students explain financial terms and theory to their caregivers at home and Bridges 2 Wealth also offers free community meetings for continuing adult education. “My mom loves the business stuff,” Keels says. “I’m not just sitting around.”
Weigelt sees the stock market, which has an average return of 8% per year, as a viable way to leverage financial growth for minority households. The median household wealth for white families is $141,000, according to 2010 census data. For Latinx families, it’s $13,700 and for Black families, $11,000. This gap has been growing since the 1980s, says Weigelt. “Nothing we’ve done works.”
Financial education, Weigelt says, is “crazy because it’s so simple. But no one’s really done it.” Bazelon, who has been working in underserved communities for more than 20 years, says, “The Wharton/business approach is rare in the nonprofit world. We’re really efficient and cost-effective because of our business roots.”
The most rewarding thing, Weigelt says, is “having people come up and say you’ve given them hope and opportunity that they never saw.”
In the meantime, Keels doesn’t mind the shutdown. “Digital learning is way simpler for high school students because high school students don’t like getting up in the morning,” he says. The logistical barriers have been removed, and he doesn’t have to worry about all the other students in the hallways. “When it comes down to it, you do the work or you don’t do the work, now.”
“Teens Do Tech is still going to be rising,” Keels says. “We have a whole bunch of opportunities we just have to grab them all.”
Bridges 2 Wealth is hiring Penn students for their six-week summer accelerator program, where they will work with middle and high school students via online platforms to develop creative entrepreneurial projects. Interested students may email email@example.com.
Keith Weigelt is the Marks-Darivoff Family Professor and Professor of Management at the Wharton School.