How an actuary redirects corporate expertise into opportunities for student learning By Ankie Yip
Name: Deborah McMillan Company: Knowledge Makes Cents Title: Founder and CEO Year established: 2014 Locations: York Region, Greater Toronto Area Website: www.KnowledgeMakesCents.com
In this feature of The Education Executive, I had the pleasure of connecting with Deborah McMillan, Founder and CEO of Knowledge Makes Cents, for an interview about her company that teaches young students the importance of financial literacy.
Since the company’s founding in 2014, Knowledge Makes Cents is now one of the most recognized financial literacy programs in Ontario and was recently a Board of Trade awards finalist. The company has spearheaded collaborations with some of the region’s leading independent private schools, camps, and select educational organizations.
Deborah brings a great deal of insight to her business as a former pension plan actuary and retirement consultant in the corporate world for almost twenty-five years prior to becoming an entrepreneur and establishing Knowledge Makes Cents. She also brings experience in professional development having taught adults in groups and in one-on-one environments about retirement savings planning, investing, and the pension planning process.
Today, Knowledge Makes Cents is the financial success academy for kids where program content is designed to teach beyond the basic levels of financial literacy. It offers highly interactive, age-appropriate, relevant, comprehensive, and fun personal finance programs to children from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 12.
Q&A with Deborah McMillan, Founder and CEO, Knowledge Makes Cents
The Ed Exec: Thank you for joining us, Deborah. Before we launch into our conversation about the inspiration behind your business, please tell us about the programs you offer. In addition to teaching students concepts of earning and personal spending, how imperative is it to involve parents in your program initiatives?
Deborah McMillan: Our in-person programs run after school in selected schools as well as at summer camps. Because parents, whom we call, Chief Financial Parents, are the most influential and significant role models, we offer workshops for parents to help them teach their kids about money at home. Our most popular and very unique parent workshop is AllowanceMatters™.
“Because parents, whom we call Chief Financial Parents, are the most influential and significant role-models, we offer workshops for parents to help them teach their kids about money at home.”
TEE: What inspired you to become an entrepreneur midway through a rewarding corporate career?
DM: It wasn’t just one factor that inspired me to start Knowledge Makes Cents. It was the convergence of several factors in my life that lead me to KMCents. Around 2008, when my daughter was very young, I overheard her say to her friend, “Money grows in my mommy’s purse!”. I knew I had to take action to teach her about money, thus, began my research on financial literacy for kids.
Since I worked long hours as a pension actuary, I looked for programs I could send my daughter to, but I couldn’t find anything suitable for her in Ontario. So, the first thing I did was I read every book I could find on how to give allowance to kids and started putting together my own system, the birth of AllowanceMatters™, for my daughter.
Even though it was incredibly rewarding to be an actuary and earning a very comfortable salary, suddenly my heart was not in it anymore. I realized that I became an actuary to please my parents. They worked so hard and made so many sacrifices so that I can be the first in my family to attend university. I couldn’t let them down. All of my achievements at school and as an actuary were to make them happy. But with both of them gone, I had to find a path that pleased me. As I pulled myself out of depression, it became clear that the path, such as starting Knowledge Makes Cents and raising financially savvy kids, was right under my nose.
TEE: What was your experience like during the start-up phase of your business? DM: Good question because the start-up phase was quite the roller-coaster ride! During the first year, it was exciting and so much fun attending numerous networking events and meetings to spread the news of the launch of KMCents, building the program curricula, ordering promotional products, building the website, etcetera. Naively, I spent a lot of my self-funded money on advertising, marketing and entrepreneurial courses that didn’t work for me and wasn’t necessary.
Then, in the second year, I focused on increasing my client base which was very challenging because KMCents was a new concept. Schools and parents were used to after school programs for music, art, or sports but not financial literacy. Not only did we have very low enrollment rates at the beginning, but I kept missing the seasonal school deadlines. For example, when I approached schools in August to run our programs during the fall term, September to November, I learned that many schools made these decisions back in April or May! Also, for the summer camps, I learned too late that most summer camps opened registration in January or February! So, approaching them in April was too late. These missed opportunities caused me to wait for the next seasonal cycle which meant loss of potential revenue.
By third year, after learning from all of my mistakes, I became a smarter and more efficient entrepreneur. I dropped my involvement in activities that were time wasters and I dropped services or expenses that were money wasters. I had finished creating nine programs, and word of mouth about our programs were starting to spread. To this day, this is our best form of marketing: word of mouth from parent to parent. I am very careful, now, about where our marketing dollars are spent. But as our revenue and demand started growing, my biggest challenge was, and still is, to hire enough quality teachers.
TEE: What are some of the biggest challenges in terms of hiring and staffing in the field?
DM: Our greatest challenge during the growth phase is finding and hiring quality part-time teachers. Due to our business model, where our teachers travel to a school to teach a one-hour program per week after school, teachers who work full-time at a school do not have enough time to travel to our client-school. Even though we compensate our teachers well on an hourly basis, teaching for typically 2 to 3 hours per week does not provide enough income. With limited teachers, it hinders our ability to grow and expand. We are still working through this challenge.
Pictured above: Young students participating in a financial literacy class
TEE: If you could pinpoint one aspect that has made your business successful so far, what would that be?
DM: Our success story is that our students and their parents love our programs! More and more, we have returning students who are either enrolling in many of our programs or repeating some of our programs. For example, a pair of brothers in Thornhill has taken our FUNancial Freedom Game™ four times! Our program My Early Cents™ at one of our client-schools is so popular, it is sold out every term.
“More and more, we have returning students who are either enrolling in many of our programs or repeating some of our programs.”
TEE: What are your most memorable milestones so far?
DM: When I started out with KMCents, I kept hearing that 80% of new businesses fail in the first two years. Being a numbers person, this resonated with me. With persistence, I worked hard so that KMCents was part of the 20% that made it past the first two years. My previous boss who started his own company told me that around the 5-year mark, his company started profiting. With this in mind, I put my head down and focused on achieving this goal. We just got there until Covid-19 hit. In 2017, the Richmond Hill Board of Trade recognized Knowledge Makes Cents as a finalist for a business award. This was thrilling and provided us with unexpected but welcomed publicity.
“When I started out with KMCents, I kept hearing that 80% of new businesses fail in the first two years. Being a numbers person, this resonated with me. With persistence, I worked hard so that KMCents was part of the 20% that made it past the first two years.”
TEE: Throughout the pandemic, businesses and educational markets have been significantly impacted. How has the pandemic impacted your organization?
DM: Covid-19 has caused me to shelf KMCents temporarily. Since March 2020, our client-schools have cancelled all in-person after school programs. We did run a few summer camp classes in 2020 but at a financial loss due to the Covid-19 restrictions.
TEE: Due to the pandemic, hybrid schooling in the form of in-person and remote learning has also greatly impacted lesson delivery. What is your perspective on virtual learning?
DM: There has been great demand for our programs to be delivered virtually but I had much hesitation on converting our programs to online platform for several reasons. The number one reason is that from day one of the birth of KMCents, our commitment has been to deliver in-person programs that were interactive and fun with hands-on experience. Our intention was never to deliver virtually since we want children to step away from the devices and learn through social play. Another reason is that we feel children have virtual exhaustion. They need a break from online school and virtual classes. We didn’t want to contribute to this exhaustion.
However, Covid-19 has given me the gift of time to re-evaluate and push the reset button on KMCents. It appears that virtual programs are here to stay in the long-term so KMCents has to adapt and jump on board. Currently, we are in the process of converting some of our programs to an online platform while doing our best to maintain the core values of the programs - to be fun, relevant, and interactive. We are excited to be launching our virtual courses very soon!
Pictured above: A student learns about monetary transactions through the role of a cashier
“Currently, we are in the process of converting some of our programs to an online platform while doing our best to maintain the core values of the programs - to be fun, relevant, and interactive.”
TEE: The need for financial literacy skills at an earlier age has been emerging for quite some time. What are your thoughts about this educational market space?
DM: In the last three to four years, financial literacy has become a hot topic. More and more financial education companies and apps are springing up. The Ontario government introduced, a couple of years ago, financial literacy in high schools. Last year, during the pandemic, they introduced financial literacy in elementary schools. It is still a bit early to assess the effectiveness of these new financial literacy initiatives. KMCents is doing our part to help and impact our students to have not only good lifelong money habits but to define their own “financial success” and to achieve it.
TEE: What do you believe are some of the advantages of developing financial sense at a younger age?
DM: Good lifelong money habits, such as the habit of saving, must start at a very early age. We teach our kids good hygiene habits like brushing their teeth when they are very young because we, as parents, want them to maintain healthy habits once they leave our nest. It is no different with money habits. We provide the knowledge and the know-how to students and parents. But it is very important that parents provide the hands-on experience at home. Habits are formed and skills are honed only through action and practice. Children as young as age four are capable and very eager to learn about money.
“KMCents is doing our part to help and impact our students to have not only good lifelong money habits but to define their own “financial success” and to achieve it.”
TEE: After completing or experiencing your programs, what are some industries or sectors that your students have been inspired to enter as a career path?
DM: Since we’ve been teaching our programs for about five years to mostly young elementary students, it is still too early to assess our impact on our students’ professional or career journey. However, I do have one beautiful story. We’ve been teaching our My Own Cents™ course for free to young foster care adults who are “aging out”, or leaving the foster care system, at age eighteen. One of the lessons in our program is a hands-on budgeting exercise. I know there are various digital budgeting apps out there, but in our class, we take an old-school, touch-and-feel approach to teaching budgeting.
One of the students loved the budgeting exercise so much, she told me that she wants to create the same system when she gets home. So I gave her, to take home, one of the budgeting boards I created for this program. A couple of years later, she contacted me to tell me that she still uses the budgeting board and how much it has been helping her. She invited me to teach the course at her high school so that other young adults can benefit from it as much as she has.
TEE: In what ways is your program unique from other financial literacy programs?
DM: All of the KMCents programs and all materials used in these programs, with the exception of play money, were created from scratch by me and tested by our KMCents qualified teachers.
TEE: What are some upcoming projects that you would like to share with the audience?
DM: I have a brain full of ideas and I am constantly working on creating more programs! As previously mentioned, we are working on launching a virtual version of most of our programs. For the AllowanceMatters™, I am working on an e-book on how to transition this system when your child becomes a teen, such as how and when to introduce credit cards to your teens. Since financial literacy is now in the Ontario schools, KMCents will be launching financial literacy workbooks and teaching materials that teachers can use in their classrooms.
"All of the KMCents programs and all materials used in these programs, with the exception of play money, were created from scratch by me and tested by our KMCents qualified teachers."
TEE: Where do you see your organization two years into the future?
DM: With the Covid-19 situation, it feels like KMCents has had a re-birth. We will have to see how the launch of our virtual programs goes. As well, we’ll have to wait and see what the demand for after-school, in-person programs will look like post-pandemic. In the long term, my mission is to expand KMCents nationally and even into the United States. Wish us luck!
TEE: Thank you, Deborah, and all the best!