Alumni Spotlight: B-School Lessons for Teens
On a walk along San Francisco Bay two years ago the idea for Game Theory Academy came into focus. Tricia Johnson '02, who worked as the finance director for Pacific News Service, had been volunteering with at-risk teenagers and kids in juvenile hall. As she and Namita Kamath '02 walked, Johnson explained how inspired she was by the kids and talked about how she wanted to build an organization around the notion of teaching at-risk youth business skills that would not only help them find a good job, but would also help in the difficult decisions they face daily. Kamath, who works as a corporate real estate consultant for CB Richard Ellis and has been discussing Johnsonís work with her since they left SOM, immediately supported the idea and wanted to help build it.
Game Theory Academy, based in the San Francisco area, is built around the notion that the frameworks one learns from economics are crucial to making decisions that result in a successful life. It was not a new idea to Johnson and Kamath. The two were TAs for Dean Sharon Oster and other SOM professors during their two years at Yale. As they worked to launch the academy, the two found that the lessons learned in econ class nearly a decade ago are helping to shape the work theyíre doing today. "If I look at my friends from business school and what we really got out of that experience, I feel like the education that business school gives is a set of tools and the confidence to make good decisions, both in the business and personal realms," Johnson said. "The more Namita and I talked about it, the more I saw how, if applied correctly, these lessons could really help the teens Iíve been working with."
Kamath added: "As Tricia and I talked, I was really intrigued with the idea that we could take economics, and behavioral economics specifically, and apply that to the lives of these kids. To help them not only understand how the world works a little bit, but also how to navigate through it a little bit better. It's not going to change the entire structure of everyone's life, but I think it can really help them move forward in a different way."
At the moment, Game Theory Academy has one employee: Johnson, who is the executive director. Kamath is a member of the organizationís small board of directors. Johnson is currently running the program at one high school and a community-based organiziation for foster youth, teaching a module in microeconomics, with the initial focus on Adam Smithís concept of self-interest, while also discussing equilibrium, pricing, and supply and demand. Her goal is to work the students up to the concept of opportunity cost and also include some basics about financial literacy. One exercise she created had some students starting with $200 to outfit their first apartment, while the others acted as sellers and negotiated with the buyers over the cost of goods. "Itís very application-based," Johnson said. "I think young people learn best that way." The lessons they learned from the exercise caused them to want to "play it again" so they could apply the newfound skills and perform better.
Since most of the students are considered at-risk, Johnson tailors the curriculum to address the difficulties of their lives. The first week she taught the course, she asked the students to write about the decisions they face that she should know about. One student wrote how her house was being foreclosed on and her family faced homelessness. "What the students keep asking me is, 'Tell me how to save,'" Johnson said.
Eventually Johnson plans to run the program inside juvenile hall, with kids who are facing real consequences for bad decisions. But as Johnson sees it, even these experiences can be traced back to the goal of Game Theory Academy: improving decision-making. "When you start talking to them about why they did what they did, usually it was a chain of bad decisions, and often those bad decisions were driven by a sense of lack of options," she said. "Very few of the kids I've encountered are bad seeds or troublemakers. I have no doubt we can help them."
The long-term goals for the organization reach far beyond a course or two inside Bay Area institutions. The goal is to create an organizational framework that is scalable and can be replicated not just throughout the region but possibly across the country. "When you look into it you realize just how poor financial and economics education is in this country," said Kamath. "In even the best schools, economics is usually an elective, and then is rarely applied in any practical way. I think weíre addressing a real need."
The economic downturn has forced the Game Theory Academy to approach any growth plans very cautiously. But Johnson and Kamath are confident that, over time, the model will prove successful. Johnson will keep refining the curriculum and reach out to organizations that could use a visit from the academy. She believes she has hit on a successful formula to help teens find their way in the world. After all, itís right there in the name. "Itís got two levels to it," Johnson said. "Game theory is a subset of economics that can be a great tool for gauging how to choose the best scenario out of your different options. But itís also how the kids in [juvenile] hall refer to the streets. They talk about 'the game,' and the feeling I get is that a lot of time they feel theyíre trapped by it and donít know how to get out if it. People tell them, 'You can't get out of the game.' So I want to play on that and catch their attention and open them to a different way of thinking about the game. Approach it right and you can put the game on your terms."