Crisis often inspires change. For Nicole Simpson, 33, her brush with death during the Sept. 11th attacks on the World Trade Center prompted her to reassess her priorities. A certified financial planner with Morgan Stanley, Simpson was on the 44th floor of the South Tower when the building was struck by a hijacked airliner. Though she escaped alive, the experience made Simpson think about how her family would have fared had she not been so fortunate. “We’re the typical American family; we have two kids and my husband and I rely on each other financially,” she says. “I was struck by the realization that in general, as a culture, we’re not prepared for disaster.”
Simpson decided to use her expertise in financial management to help people prepare themselves for the uncertainties of life. “Many African Americans don’t know how to properly manage all aspects of their finances,” says Simpson. “No one is educating us, and there’s a lack of information out there, so people are left wondering ‘Where do I start?'”
Taking it upon herself to answer that question, Simpson figured the best place to start was high school, and she designed a curriculum to teach students about the importance of saving and investing. “They learn about stocks, bonds, and mutual funds,” says Simpson, “but we first concentrate on discipline — you have to be disciplined to save and you must understand how important it is to protect your credit.”
Simpson teaches the free course once a month for nine months at predominantly African American high schools in East Orange, Jersey City, Plainfield, and Newark, New Jersey. She targets teenagers because they are most in need of money management counseling before they go on to work or college. “College is a credit trap,” Simpson maintains. “There are tables filled with gifts enticing you to get a credit card without any discussion as to how you’ll pay them off.”
Shanni McNiel and Bernadette Henderson, both 18, took Simpson’s class at the East Orange Campus High School. “Most of us didn’t know anything about investing. Ms. Simpson taught us about the stock market and dollar cost averaging,” says McNiel, who has since joined an investment club at church.
Henderson used to spend her money frivolously: “I had a job over the summer making $200 a week and I spent it all doing my hair, buying outfits, and going to parties.” Now she sets aside 10% of her money for tithes and then saves half of the remainder.
While the nuts and bolts of finance are the focus, Simpson also discusses how money fits into life: She teaches girls that they shouldn’t rely on men for financial security and talks about how character and behavior affect success in business. Simpson also encourages students to think realistically about career choices: “They use what they see on television as a marker of success,” she says, “I have to get them out of the mindset that you have to be a rapper, athlete, or singer to have a certain lifestyle.”
Her innovative program