Like a lot of kids, Myles Gage was into sneakers when he was growing up. But his mom suggested an unusual rule: For every pair of Nikes that Gage owned, he should own a share of Nike stock.
Learning to think like an investor at a young age, he says, helped him become a tech entrepreneur.
Gage, 25, is one of the founders of Rapunzl Investments, a mobile app that lets users simulate stock trading in real time. The platform makes a game out of the markets: Users get $10,000 fictitious dollars to buy and sell stocks, which helps them learn how the markets work and start to experience the excitement and potential benefit of investing.
Gage believes that his platform can help young people who lack formal financial education make better decisions and start investing for their future.
Gage says his parents made a lot of financial mistakes and they wanted to make sure their kids didn't follow in their footsteps: "They wanted us to be financially literate and in a position to make better decisions."
That's partly why Gage's mother, who worked for the Chicago Parks District, found a way to get him and his brother, Mario, into Ariel Community Academy, a specialized public school for students K-8 with a focus on financial education. Starting in first grade, students learn core financial tenets like investing and entrepreneurship and get hands-on experience investing in stocks.
Attending Ariel made a huge difference in Gage's life: "The only reason I know about the stock market is because of Ariel Community Academy," he says.
That knowledge paid off: It helped Gage win a full-ride scholarship to the University of Chicago Laboratory School, a prestigious private high school.
"I wrote an essay about how I planned to finance my college tuition. And the main point of that was that I was going to liquidate my stock portfolio," he says. "I don't think the judges were expecting a 14-year-old to be talking about liquidating a portfolio, let alone one from the south side of Chicago."
As a high school freshman in 2008, Gage immediately bonded with another student, Brian Curcio. While discussing the stock market and the budding financial crisis, the two came up with the idea of a stock market game, using fictional money, to teach people how the markets work.
Over the next few years, the economy recovered. Some investors, who had money to buy stocks when the markets bottomed out, started to see strong returns. Average Americans, however, were often missing out.
Gage didn't think that profits should belong only to a select few, hidden away at the top of a tower like the character of Rapunzel in the 1812 Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
Rapunzl the app, Gage and Curcio decided, would make investing accessible. It would give anybody the chance to learn, to figure out how the stock markets work. Then, when users were comfortable, they could actually start investing.
Through their college years, the two met frequently to refine the concept for Rapunzl. They settled on an idea that would allow users to simulate a stock portfolio without risking real money.
But to make their idea come to life, real money is exactly what the two young entrepreneurs needed. So, after graduating in 2016, they organized their ideas and started looking around for seed funding.
"We put a mini-pitch deck together and shopped it around to our friends and family, and were able to muster up funds to develop a prototype," Gage says. They hired a Canadian developer who created an early version of the app and made it available for download in April 2017.
Around that time, Rapunzl also did another round of fundraising, which netted the company enough money to continue perfecting the platform. Several months later, the founders brought in a third partner, Chris Thomas, as the company's CTO.
To attract users and take aim at their mission of creating a new generation of confident, financially literate investors, Gage and the team headed back to school — literally.
Rapunzl partnered with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and started sponsoring conferences, plus essay and investing competitions at schools around the Chicago area. The team also met with John Rogers, the chairman and CEO of Ariel Investments — which also funds and sponsors Ariel Community Academy — who agreed to sponsor the competitions and provide prize money.
In 2018, Rapunzl was involved in competitions in more than 70 Chicago-area schools, comprising more than 2,000 students.
Rapunzl is building on its success in Chicago schools by expanding. Last year, it sponsored competitions in Los Angeles, Boston, and New York, with plans for more cities next year, and colleges, too. It has even managed to catch the attention of former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
"Our country needs more innovative approaches like Rapunzl that aim to tackle financial illiteracy and close the achievement gap," Duncan said, following an announcement about Rapunzl partnering with investing firm Wedbush. Duncan, who doesn't have any current connection to the app, did play a role in developing the curriculum at Ariel Community Academy.
So far, the Rapunzl team has focused their efforts on generating interest in the platform and getting young users hooked on trading.
The app doesn't currently drive revenue, though, and Gage is hopeful that will change. He says at some point in 2020, the platform will be monetized through affiliate marketing and premium subscriptions.
After graduating from college, Gage juggled two roles: He worked full time as a commercial real estate banker and moonlighted as Rapunzl's CFO. In January, he started working at Rapunzl full time.
He and his cofounders are living off of their savings while earning meager salaries from their fundraising efforts until the platform starts to drive revenue. Meanwhile, the team's priority is to help young people have an easier time managing and understanding money.
Thanks to what he learned from his parents and his school, "I understood that money didn't grow on trees," Gage says. "I saw the difference it made in my life." Now, he hopes Rapunzl can make that difference for others.
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