Jason Young, 33, hopes to impact 20 million young people with his education technology company. As the CEO and co-founder of MindBlown Labs (MBL), he designs products intended to help the youth better navigate in the real world.
The Oakland, California-based business launched in 2012 and released its first creation, an online game called ?Thrive ?n? Shine.? The mobile app allows players to develop a character and career before competing in different challenges that introduce them to personal finances.
Late last year, MBL was awarded more than $600,000 from the U.S. Treasury Department. It is the only financial capability company to have earned the award.
Young was also appointed by President Obama to join the Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans. The entrepreneur recently completed his duties in the council earlier this summer.
Here, the Harvard alum chatted with TNJ.com about his entrepreneurship.
TNJ.com: According to the MindBlown Labs website, the idea for your company was conceived when your family was evicted. Can you tell us more about that?
J. Y.: The idea didn?t come for years later. I had returned home for Christmas break and the day after Christmas, during my sophomore year, I was evicted because my mom had taken out a mortgage. Interest rates decreased temporarily, but it was enough for her to fall behind. That provided a huge lesson for me, which was helping me to understand the importance of making wise financial decisions and instilled in me a strong desire to help other people do the same.
I didn?t have the idea for MindBlown Labs at that time. I went back to school and declared Economics as my major and when I graduated I went to work for Merrill Lynch at the private wealth side. I did that for a few years and learned a lot, but eventually I really wanted to get back to my entrepreneurial roots. So I joined a technology startup that was focused on helping young adults who weren?t financially savvy to make better investment decisions.
While I was working there, I was volunteering on the side, helping other young adults with their personal finances. And through that work it became very clear to me that the problem of financial illiteracy was far greater than I had ever anticipated. From that point, I just came up with the idea for MindBlown Labs.
TNJ.com: Did you have any mentors of your own to help you with financial literacy?
J. Y.: My mom set me up with a savings account when I was about 5 or 6. So she taught me how to save, which was huge and stuck with me my entire life. But generally, no. What I learned about stocks, investing, and credit scores were already self-taught.
TNJ.com: What are some of the most important things that you had to learn about starting MindBlown Labs?
J. Y:? There?s so many things you learn: how to build a team, how to recruit people, how to manage those people, how to lead a team. All of those things are actually very different from each other. I had to learn about fundraising, in a startup context. But I would say that the leadership round is probably one of the biggest things. And then I would say, the importance of understanding your customer and user, is also very huge.
TNJ.com: Who would you say is your target audience for Thrive ?n? Shine and when did it come about?
J. Y: Thrive ?n? Shine had a soft launch last spring. I say soft launch because we didn?t really market it very wisely. But we tested with thousands of students and young adults. So the actual age range for the game is quite wide. We are building a curriculum and that curriculum is targeted towards high school students.
TNJ.com: What is Thrive ?n? Shine about?
J. Y.: Thrive ?n? Shine is about empowering young people to make expert financial decisions. It?s about helping the players to understand they are always making financial decisions and that the decisions they make today have consequences for their future. You can create an avatar, you battle through life, and get feedback.
TNJ.com: What has been the response to your company?
J. Y: The response has been extremely positive. We?ve had teachers all over the country pick it up and start using it. We had a teacher who was very skeptical. He said, ?there?s no way they?re going to get into this, this is stupid.? When he finally used it, he was amazed at how engaged his students were in the game.
TNJ.com: Did you ever think that you would have your own company?
J. Y: Yeah, I pretty much knew. I started when I was 9. During the summer I had the opportunity to work for an entrepreneur, who had his own plumbing business. The idea of someone owning their own company was really interesting to me.
So when I went back to school, I took my savings from the summer and I identified a candy at that time that was hard to find in stores. You could only get it off the ice cream truck once a day.
But I found one place that would sell it to me in bulk and I sold it for a profit. My school eventually shut me down, but by that time I was pretty much hooked. So from the time I was 9 to the time I was 17, I started five different ventures, most of them very small: a travel agency when I was 13, tech startup when I was 17.
TNJ.com: What were some of the challenges you have faced with forming your company?
J. Y: Getting the product took a long time. The investors would say, ?why don?t you just make a game? Forget about the educational part of it. Just make a game. Games are hot.? And it?s ironic because two years later the same investors are saying ?why don?t you just do the education, forget about the game part. People are over games.?
One financial institution told me they bet we couldn?t get one customer in three months. I think just being very clear about what you want to do, and doing it, even in the mist of other people?s doubts and often doing it with very few resources, is certainly a challenge.
TNJ.com: What is your advice for entrepreneurs?
J. Y: Make sure you?re really passionate about what you?re doing because the journey will likely be hard and long. And money is often not enough to sustain people through that journey so you have to have that passion.
Two, find a great co-founder, someone who you trust, and has crazy work ethic. And as soon as you?re able, build a team. Doesn?t have to be a big team, but build a great team. Constantly seek out advisors, investors, and employees. You really have to build a community around your startup.
TNJ.com: What motivates you?
J. Y:? It?s a combination of things. Growing up, I was the youngest of three kids in a single parent household and I?m the first in my family to go to college. I saw that my family, all of who are very smart, didn?t realize their full potential, despite having their intelligence. I feel like I?ve just been given tremendous opportunities and the thing I?ve always said to myself is: ?I?m okay with dying. If I die tomorrow, that?s okay. What I would not be okay with is if I did not do everything in my power to fully realize my potential.? So that is definitely motivation.
The other motivation is that I?ve had lot of people help me along the way, so I want to do this work in particular because this is my way of giving back. And I feel very strongly that people at all levels and all parts of their journey have to give back. The ability to pursue my dreams and create stuff that?s going to have a positive impact is just the best of both worlds.