Inside Track: Brown spreads passion for personal finance

Educator starts ventures to help youths, families build healthy financial behaviors.
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Dondreá Brown’s first exposure to financial literacy was in the foster care system; now he’s taught those concepts to more than 2,000 youth. Courtesy Doug Sims Photography

Dondreá Brown might never have journeyed down his current path if not for his lack of access to personal finance concepts in his early years.

Brown was one of six children raised by a single mother whom he said did “an amazing job” raising her family but did not have the knowledge to pass on about financial management or wealth-building. Money was tight as a kid, and Brown spent much of his time and energy trying to figure out how to access resources.

Around his first year of high school, Brown entered the foster care system, where he said he learned more about the “haves” and the “have-nots” of this world. His foster family gave him the opportunity to travel and attain scholarships, and he learned a little more about finances through them.

But it wasn’t until his junior year of college at Kent State University in Ohio, when his student loan debt was starting to pile up, that he started to receive a serious education in budgeting. It happened seemingly by chance, when he took a sociology class on poverty, and his professor, Richard Serpe, offered to mentor him.

“There were 100 students in our classroom, and he was talking about generational wealth and all these things, and he was like, ‘If you’re interested in building wealth, stay after class.’ He said, ‘I ask this every year, and only 1% usually engages with me.’ I was that 1%,” Brown said.

Serpe quickly became Brown’s supporter and mentor, teaching him how to better manage his money and helping him to set up an individual retirement account (IRA).

“He was, for me, a pivotal point in me becoming more empowered and aware of financial literacy and education,” Brown said. “Then from there, I started to learn, observe and create my own financial literacy models.”

DONDREÁ BROWN
Organization:
1428 Financial Wellness, Young Money Finances
Position: Founder and CEO, founder and executive director
Age: 33
Birthplace: Columbus, Ohio
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Seven children: Saniya Brown, Nadia Brown, Aniylah Rogers, Jaden Brown, Myah Brown, Jaliyah Brown and Carter Wallace
Business/Community Involvement: Finance Committee member for Camp Blodgett, Resident Engagement Committee member for Dwelling Place, Retention Committee member for To College Through College, director of student support services and the Center for Opportunities, Resources and Excellence at Aquinas College.
Biggest Career Break: When he decided to establish two organizations: the for-profit 1428 Financial Wellness and the nonprofit Young Money Finances.

Brown earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in education with an emphasis in curriculum instruction from Kent State, and he is currently working on a doctorate in cultural foundations.

He said he never lost his passion for helping people learn how to build generational wealth. He became a certified financial education instructor in 2013; moved to Grand Rapids in 2017 for a job at Aquinas College and started his business, 1428 Financial Wellness; and founded a nonprofit, Young Money Finances, also based in Grand Rapids, in 2019.

“I always had a drive and a need to really figure out, ‘How do I become the last generation that starts from scratch?’” he said.

“My background wasn’t in finances, but I had to become a teacher and a learner of the financial world to figure out how to teach finances in a non-numbers way, because we know many communities such as (my own) were afraid of numbers, but then when it came down to it, we started to realize that it was a lot of behavior and lack of access to resources and accountability that impacted our ability to have some type of financial control or management.”

The numeral 1428 in his business name refers to the biblical verse Luke 14:28, which talks about weighing the cost before starting a project. Brown said the more he studied biblical principles that apply to financial literacy, the more he wanted to share them with families and communities.

Although 1428 Financial Wellness has no religious affiliation or requirement, it is inspired by the Bible and other books like “The Richest Man in Babylon,” and it provides a “culturally responsive financial literacy system” Brown developed and which he uses in one-on-one coaching and workshops with individuals and families. Through 1428, Brown also partners with colleges, universities and organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) and the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC) to help them rewrite their financial literacy curricula and improve their class retention rates.

Two years into his business, Brown saw a growing need for a nonprofit that would remove the cost barriers for young people to access financial education. Through grants and partnerships, Young Money Finances offers virtual and in-person finance camps and workshops to youths 10 years of age and older to help them on their way to becoming financially independent adults.

The nonprofit started with just Brown but now has eight instructors and a few support staff members. Classes are taught from a financial standpoint, but also a psychological standpoint, helping kids understand the intersection between mental health and wellness and financial health. The curriculum is built to be fun and engaging, with catchy mnemonics like “plan, prioritize and pay” and “spend, save, share or give” and money manager kits that contain flash cards and games.

“They call me ‘The Finance Guy,’” Brown said. “We were giving a workshop last week, and the students stayed 30 minutes after to still play the game as they were learning about financial terms.”

One of Brown’s ultimate goals is to bring his financial literacy curriculum into school systems, as well as continuing to visit WMCAT and the Boys & Girls Club. He also hopes to open a brick-and-mortar location someday that would have a mock stock-exchange floor to give kids a taste of investing in the stock market, and/or a mock bank branch that would demonstrate how the banking system works.

Brown said Young Money Finances has so far impacted at least 2,000 individuals and counting, and the organization is working to expand that impact. He wants Young Money Finances to be a group of people who listen rather than assuming they know what the community needs.

In August, the nonprofit hosted a strategic planning event and invited its board of directors, past class participants, workshop instructors and the community to have conversations about where the needs are and how Young Money Finances can help meet them. Organizations such as STEM Greenhouse, Project GREEN (Grassroots Economic Empowerment Network), Bank of America and representatives from local juvenile detention centers were in attendance.

Young Money Finances also showed up as a vendor at multiple community events this year to spark conversations with attendees about building wealth. This led to the organization being nominated for a 2021 Innovation Award through Linc Up’s Community Spirit Awards program.

“I think the community really recognizes that we’re taking this realistic, authentic approach, but we’re also being innovative in our strategies of teaching financial literacy,” Brown said.

He said it’s important for financial educators to understand financial stressors aren’t always just about money. They could stem from mental health, employment or educational attainment issues, as well.

“We completely understand that there’s this two-way impact of financial education and these other areas,” he said. “One of the things we want to be able to do is to respond to the community’s specific need and not go in and teach something about, let’s say homeownership, where the individuals are not in a space where they even want to own homes.”

Brown said he is proud of being able to secure funding for Young Money Finances from organizations such as Heart of West Michigan United Way, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Huntington Bank.

“Receiving those funds is always a great accomplishment, but it’s even more meaningful to know that we are teaching a student who didn’t know where their money was going, they were just spending it, and now they’re actually sitting down and being intentional about where they want their money to go,” he said.

He cited other success stories such as a young person who signed up for a credit card and maxed it out being able to create a plan for paying down that debt, a student figuring out how to pay their parents back for tuition while still in school and making good grades, and a young girl who was struggling with depression but was able to experience relief from it after taking charge of her financial future.

Through 1428, Brown said he is working on a “train the trainer” approach that would equip teachers who feel out of their depth and leaders of other organizations in teaching financial literacy. He also would like to someday establish a charter school that covers general education concepts but also has an emphasis in financial education.

Brown also is working on a book, “G.O.A.L. Getter,” where “G.O.A.L.” stands for “getting over all limitations.”

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