After I graduated from college in 1977, I thought good things would happen. Automatically.

Forget that I never scored an internship or even made time for on-campus job interviews or recruiters. Let’s be honest, I didn’t even try. I didn’t know that I had to.

I thought opportunities would magically appear when I became serious. I would not have to learn to be an adult; it would just happen.

My memory of searching for the first rung on some ladder of success resurfaced as I spoke with Nomoya Tinch Malcolm, a program director at Junior Achievement of Greater Washington who matches mentors with schools and young people to prepare them for the real world.

She also helps young adults learn how to handle money, balance a checkbook and use a credit card responsibly. She helps them answer real-life questions, such as: What kind of car could they afford on a $40,000 annual salary? (Answer: not much of one.) What’s a mutual fund? How do you pay a utility bill? How much are your taxes? How do you become an entrepreneur? How much can you save, and where do you stash it?

Nomoya Tinch Malcolm is director of D.C. Programs for Junior Achievement of Greater Washington. (Photo by Sarah Shah)

Malcolm, 30, who’s married and has a young child, has come to appreciate the importance of money since leaving her teaching job at D.C. public charter schools five years ago to join Junior Achievement.

She understands compound interest and the value of owning assets — and that wealth creation starts by buying assets at a young age.

“Unfortunately, I learned a little too late that you spend your younger years working really hard so you can enjoy your later years,” said the Howard University graduate (English/­
political science), who grew up in Northeast Washington in a family of artists, educators and government employees.

“What I’ve discovered with Junior Achievement is that education is no longer the great equalizer.” Instead, she said, the key to success in a free-market society “is a solid understanding of this country’s economic system. If I knew it in my 20s, I think I would have done more. I . . . was taught the cream will rise to the top. But honestly, you have to go after the things you really want. And a foundation in business and economics makes you more aggressive and gives you an ability to make things happen tomorrow.”

I wish Malcolm was around when I was 16.

“You have to go after the things you really want.”

That is the whole point of Junior Achievement. The nonprofit organization, started in 1919 by Theodore Vail, the chief executive of AT&T, and a couple of other philanthropists, exposes kids to business and money. It’s three-pronged goal is to teach financial literacy, work readiness and entre­pre­neur­ship.

“Kids may be thinking about becoming a teacher, doctor, lawyer or sports star,” said Ed Grenier, president and chief executive of Junior Achievement of Greater Washington. “We want businessperson and entrepreneur to be in the mix as well.”

Finance Park

Junior Achievement runs a boot camp for students, Finance Park, at its Frost-Woodson campus in Fairfax County. Finance Park, which was built with a $2.5 million gift from McLean-based Capital One, looks like a school from the outside but is something closer to a mini-mall inside. It whets kids’ appetite for making money by teaching them something about it.

Each student starts the day with a salary to fund a make-believe life. The mall is divided into “storefronts.” There’s the Volkwagen store that teaches the economics of buying a car. There’s Capital One’s stop, which teaches you how to deal with a bank. Clark Construction’s stall is centered on buying a house. Verizon tells you how to afford those cellphone bills. Omega World Travel advises whether you can pay for a cruise or whether you need to settle for a “staycation.”

“For a lot of people, [financial success] is the luck of the draw,” Malcolm said. “For these kids, whether they get lucky or not, they are going to have the tools they need to be successful. And that is a strong foundation in financial literacy.”

Chamira Brooks, 14, an eighth-grade at Charles Carroll Middle School in Prince George’s, said she wants to be a doctor someday. She’ll need the salary: Brooks spent more than $900 on clothes, nearly busting her make-believe budget.

Brooks said she now has a better idea of what her parents go through.

Which is exactly how Junior Achievement wants you to think.

“Will this experience drive them to consider a career in business,” Malcolm asks. “Will it drive them to pursue a lucrative career? Absolutely. That’s the nature of money. You learn about money, you learn about how it works, you learn about what it can get you. You want to do what you love and learn what you love, but you don’t want to be poor.”

Malcolm said she grew up in a household where money was not discussed. Her parents experienced some financial hardships, so the discussion of finance was off the table.

Malcolm said she was teaching Junior Achievement’s financial literacy curriculum in D.C. charter schools and was intrigued by the subject of finance. She left teaching in August 2007 to join the organization. Her husband is a dean of students at a charter school in the District, and Malcolm said, “We both are very ambitious, and we are career-driven.”

Child’s needs

Her “aha moment” struck a couple of years ago when she was pregnant. She sat down and did some financial analysis of what she and her husband could afford for their child.

“I’m funny, intelligent and bright, but this kid needs money to take full advantage of life,” she recalls thinking. “And how do we make that happen? That’s when it really started clicking for me — that I need to build wealth for myself and my family.”

To do that, she has applied for a Junior Achievement scholarship to attend business school in hopes of earning a master’s degree in business administration. Malcolm hopes to start her own business.

“I wish I had heard about [Junior Achievement] in high school,” she said. “If I had, I probably would have majored in business and gotten an MBA a long time ago.”

Like it or not, she said, “money makes the world go round.”

I recall a high school teacher saying exactly the same thing. I should have listened.

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