Okay, bankers hate regulation. We get this. But the global economic crisis has given people some very real reasons to push for regulation, and, understandably, bankers and their advocates have pushed back. Regardless of which side you're aligned with, it seems both sides are missing a very important point.
Beyond greed and a few bad actors in the financial services sector, one of the causes of the global economic crisis was the entrenched financial illiteracy of the borrower. Borrowers who should have known better asked, "What's the monthly payment?" instead of, "What's the interest rate?" That's dangerous, especially when so much of the economy depends on responsible and sustainable consumer spending.
One prominent banker—a CEO of a major financial institution, no less—caught the point right away: In private conversation, he has suggested that the one thing the banking industry should be required to do is to sponsor mandatory financial literacy.
He says he would like to see every bank adopt one or more local schools and not only provide financial literacy training for every child (your future customers, we might add), but also select a banker as a role model for them, so these kids can see who they can be when they grow up. He even believes banks should fund kids' business plans, up to $500 each, so that budding entrepreneurs can start, build and grow companies in their communities.
We at Operation HOPE agree, and we've worked with Gallup to find a way to make it possible. We call it HOPE Business in a Box, and here's how it works:
1. Students in the fourth through 12th grades complete the Gallup-HOPE Index assessment to measure their attitudes about hope, dignity, entrepreneurship, financial literacy and wellbeing.
2. The participants attend HOPE's financial dignity program, Banking on Our Future, so they have the knowledge and the tools they need to take control of their financial futures.
3. They also complete our five-hour primer course on entrepreneurship, taught by local professionals and business owners, to learn about the process of turning a dream and a skill into a viable business idea—and then how to pitch it.
4. The kids then compete in a classroom pitch competition with their peers in front of adult judges. Finalists move on to a school-wide pitch competition.
5. Winners meet with a business role model, who works with them to develop and launch their business ideas.
6. The youth entrepreneurs, with the help of their business role models, apply to a bank for a HOPE Business in a Box grant of $50 to $500 for their start-up.
7. At the end of the six-week session, the new entrepreneurs launch their businesses, assisted by their role models.
8. All youth who take part in the initiative undergo a second Gallup-HOPE Index assessment to determine their level of financial literacy, wellbeing and economic energy upon completion of the entire financial and entrepreneur education series.
These steps show kids the way toward entrepreneurship, free enterprise and innovation. The program integrates banks into communities, and kids into banks.
Parents and bankers benefit, too, as moms and dads are going to pay a lot of attention to their kids' business plans and to the institutions that fund them.
Ultimately, this program promotes and guides the kind of entrepreneurship that makes our country economically strong and helps banks grow. And that's the whole point. Some money donated now to encourage entrepreneurship and free enterprise could mean a whole lot more money coming in later.
The fact is, bankers continue to have a tremendous amount of influence in their communities. If they take an active leadership role in promoting effective financial literacy efforts, they can create real change, real development and real profit, while strengthening the system for everyone.