By Megan Brewster
Even as a little girl, Darlene Martin knew the power of successful money management. While her friends and
siblings enjoyed pursuits like art or sports, Martin couldn’t get enough of finance, even as an elementary school
student just learning her math basics. “At an early age, it clicked for me,” says Martin. “When we would get an
allowance or summer money, it just made logical sense to me not to spend all that I had.” Whether it was choosing the layaway option while shopping with her sisters or buying furniture on sale as a high-school student, Martin always had a keen interest in making her money stretch and build. Now, as the director of growing nonprofit Money Smarts School of Finance for Children, Martin is helping the next generation develop the passion for personal finance–and the resulting self-confidence– she's long had.
Although Money Smarts didn’t become an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit until 2009, Martin’s passion for educating youth about financial literacy has grown for decades. Her career in management and finance began at the young age of 14, when she landed her first jobs at McDonald’s and women’s clothing boutique Fashion Gal. After working her way up in management, Martin was recruited into banking and took off, eventually serving in capacities from financial advisor to academic training leader at Edward Jones to assistant vice president at Bank of America. On the education front, Martin holds a bachelor’s in business and administration from St. Louis University along with two securities licenses, four insurance licenses, and a master’s degree in process.
Martin’s diverse experience in the financial industry not only honed her skills in money management, but also exposed her to the need for financial education in St. Louis. Says Martin, “I would constantly see people of all age levels and all demographics and backgrounds who would…attempt to take advantage of wealth management services but did not really understand how the services worked.” Although St. Louis has recently made progress in financial education–for example, dropping from No. 1 to No. 3 in percentage of minorities who are unbanked or underbanked in the last few years–there are still bounds to be made. This persistent need, coupled with Martin’s love of working with children, pushed her to leave the corporate world and establish the Money Smarts organization, first with Money Smarts University focused on adults and now with the counterpart developed for youth.
As a teacher, Martin’s philosophy is rooted in practical application. Instead of taking the typical classroom approach of teaching equation first and application next, Martin teaches real-life relevancy first. “We apply everything to real life,” she says. “When I taught stocks, [the kids] learned an algebraic formula. I said later, do you realize I just introduced you to algebra?” Whether it’s through a scavenger hunt activity about comparing grocery-store prices or discussing insurance terminology, at Money Smarts, everything is taught for a practical reason. This practicality also extends to rewards for participants; during certain sessions about topics like college financing, students who do well are rewarded with a monetary deposit in their bank account towards that a specific goal like college funds.
Despite being a finance professional, Martin is adamant that Money Smarts and its programming are for anyone and everyone. “We are inclusive,” she says with a smile. “I believe in just mixing everybody in and you can’t tell one from the other because I’m very big on pushing each other’s learning.” While Money Smarts does recruit participants from certain St. Louis zip codes, Martin is quick to clarify that participants come from a variety of educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, including public and private schools and residences in and out of the city limits. She notes that the skills participants learn matter across age and cultural boundaries, one of the reasons Money Smarts also includes an active parents association.
If her students and their families take anything away from participating in Money Smarts, Martin hopes it is a change in behavior. She notes that success to her is improving quality of life, and this means seeing her students actually make a change. If this happens, it can create a ripple effect that improves the lives of generations. “In my family, one thing I did learn was that the next generation should have a stepping stool up from the previous generation,” says Martin, referencing transfer of wealth in families. For families in the St. Louis community, Money Smarts just might be the first rung up on that stepping stool.