“Growing up, I saw what poverty can do,” says Johnny Deas, MBA ’04, who was raised in a tough neighborhood in Harlem Lake, Fla. — with a nearly 50 percent poverty rate. In this environment, he learned early on what life is like when you don’t have the know-how or tools to make good financial decisions.
Inspired to give witness to the struggle around him, Deas wrote his first rap song when he was 12. Before long he began performing in talent shows.
After high school, Deas joined the Marines, and then earned an undergraduate degree from National University in San Diego while still on active duty. He studied business administration and graduated cum laude, but it wasn’t until the waning days of his MBA studies at the Olin Business School that he had the epiphany to create financial-literacy music.
While attending a series of extracurricular personal-finance classes, Deas had two revelations: 1) even MBA students aren’t ready to manage their money in the real world (much less the rest of the population), and 2) financial-literacy classes can be really boring. He recalls thinking: “There’s got to be a better way. What if we could make this fun?”
Thus was born the idea for Financial Literacy Music, which aims to help inner-city children and others understand issues like taxes, investment and retirement planning. “Few kids leave high school knowing how to do a simple thing like a budget,” he says. “And kids from urban neighborhoods are the least likely to receive that sort of instruction from their parents.”
Deas created a curriculum based on the rigorous financial planning certification he had also earned, including a workbook and a CD, which features lessons set to hip-hop. The tracks have titles such as “Tactics for Taxes” (“Pay in a lower bracket / That’s a feasible tactic / As far as paying your taxes / To put it in practice is a matter of mathematics”) and “Mr. Bad Debt,” where he embodies a shady figure and warns against things like taking on too much credit-card debt. It helps that Deas is quite skilled as a rapper.
Since launching the program in 2007, he has delivered his financial music with a message to students in middle school through college, all across his adopted hometown of Dallas–Fort Worth.
Deas also recognized that many people who could benefit from his music and lessons were unable to afford it, and so he also launched a nonprofit, Great Ideas Edutainment Foundation, to serve indigent individuals through community-based organizations. Through the foundation, he is able to lead financial-literacy workshops free of charge or at greatly reduced rates. In 2010 he won $10,000 — plus a new car — on behalf of the foundation for its innovative approach, courtesy of a charitable arm of the Ford Motor Company.
(No stranger to competition, Deas also won the Olin Cup as a student for his business plan to market military-cadence music that set military chants to techno, R&B and other music genres.)
Deas’ commitment to serving his community drastically changed his career path as well. In 2011, he left his job as vice president of a Fortune 50 company to become chief operating officer at Uplift Education, an organization that opens and operates charter schools.
Still, Deas’ financial raps remain close to his heart, and in many ways, his songs represent the culmination of an unusual path to his success. As seen in a video on the foundation page of his website, kids eat up his lessons. By approaching his subject matter in a humorous way, he makes financial planning more relatable.
“Kids are probably my biggest fans,” he says, adding modestly, “although adults tend to love it as well.”
Ben Westhoff, AB ’99, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.