When Brittany Teei launched KidsCoin, at age 27, she was embarking on a second career. Brittany was a professional tennis player and on track to the 2012 Olympics when she suffered a second major injury. Tennis exposed her to the sharp economic divide in the world, it also brought her back making a difference in her own community.
Brittany spoke with impactmania about the Māori language and people, money, limiting beliefs, and how tennis helped her become a social entrepreneur.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
You were a professional tennis player and while traveling around, you saw the sharp divide between what we in the U.S. call the haves and the have-nots.
What in particular were you exposed to that motivated you to do something?
One of the catalytic moments was when I was working with kids in a school in New Zealand. I would spend some time teaching kids how to play tennis. Tennis is a global sport and I like showing them something that is not so common in New Zealand.
One of the kids turns around and says, “Well, I can be a tennis player. I can do what you do.” That’s awesome. I love the confidence. I said, “Are you serious about it?” He replied, “Yeah, it’s easy.” I asked him if he played tennis before? “No.” Do you own a tennis racket? “No.” Do you know how to book a flight online? “No.”
Even though he had a bit of an attitude, I realized that he genuinely thought that the idea of achieving what I was doing was inspiring. But he didn’t have any experience, or any access to resources, or even the mindset and habits of what it takes to achieve something. It is sad that this kid has no skills or resources to make it happen, even if he’s genuinely saying that he wants to be a tennis player.
It was moments like these where I’d have conversations with a child… Or children would come for a free tennis lesson and their whole family would turn up, because it was such a significant thing for them. Kids are capable, the talent and the natural ability is there. But what’s that missing link? What is it around their identity and belief that doesn’t make this a reality for them?
What made the difference for you? How did you receive that opportunity?
A lot of it came down to the community that I was in. My family was supportive. They didn’t have a lot, but what they did have, they gave and they put into my tennis. Then, also, other people like coaches who would offer free coaching lessons. My manager didn’t charge me anything, basically took me on like a daughter — he’d feed me, he’d drive me. That was a result of my willingness to have daily habits: commitment and perseverance. People seeing that, thinking, Okay, she’s 11 year old and running up this mountain at 7 AM in the morning. It was a combination of applying myself, and then meeting with people who cared.
A lot of people see in their own community what you saw — a sharp divide and a lack of opportunity. You went from playing competitive tennis to starting an organization. That is not a common trajectory. How did that come to life?
In between playing tennis and starting KidsCoin, I ran tennis coaching businesses in Melbourne, Australia. There was a whole lot of learning, especially the financial system, how to run a business, and being around kids. I started feeling, Okay, I am making money and now what? While I loved my students, I wanted to do something with my own communities.
What was the first step you took moving from teaching tennis to starting KidsCoin? An organization such as KidsCoin has to deal with a rigid education system, building curriculum, and raising funds.
My mum was a teacher, so she’s been in the education industry for over 30 years. I grew up in the classroom. She also started her own schools from the ground up, and built them up from nothing.
How did you learn financial management yourself?
I was traveling for tennis when I was 11 years old. Because money was scarce, mum talked to me about budgeting. You can’t do this trip or you can’t have this record. Ironically, while she was an educator, I didn’t follow the standard education system. I went out and played tennis and we incorporated education into my life. My financial lessons come through play tournaments in Southern California. My English language came from researching and figuring out where I need to go to plan my trips.
What is a specific skill in tennis that prepared you to start KidsCoin?
There is a lot that crosses over from sport, from preparing presentations that feels like preparing for a tournament, to going through the same emotions. I have to take the same amount of time beforehand, the amount of focus, the discipline to get things done. You’re starting out and no one believes what you’re going to do is going to work. Yeah, for me it’s the same thing — I just don’t have to work out all the time! [Laughs.]
Do you still play tennis?
I definitely still play. As a business person, it’s important to keep that balance, especially in tech. I’m so passionate about what I’m doing, I could easily sit there and work 15 and 16 hour days. You have to keep that balance, to be active, get outside, and do other stuff.
How was it to get KidsCoin into the first school?
We started at mum’s school! We did a couple of pilot programs there. Once we validated the program, we jumped into software development. I barely knew how to send email! [Laughs.] That was where I started in tech years ago. I didn’t even realize that you could book meetings via email.
The school is in Auckland, New Zealand, and it is an elementary school?
Yeah, it’s elementary level and it’s bilingual. The kids learn English and Maori, which is our indigenous language. We designed the program to address the needs of indigenous kids around education and financial literacy. I used to get in a lot of arguments with my teachers in high school. I felt school wasn’t preparing us for the real world. I was traveling around the world and would go back to school and thought, How is this relevant to what I’ve just done?
In KidsCoin, we have Maori lessons, because indigenous language is a dying language. I grew up urban New Zealand, Maori influence is based on a family environment. I missed out on the language, because it’s not compulsory in school. I felt like that there are a lot of barriers, for me as a non-speaker. I wanted to bring it into mainstream in a way where we treat it equal.
Why was that important for you?
I strongly identify as Maori and Pacific Islander. When we talk about money it is tightly connected in the context of cultural identity. In New Zealand, many of the Pacific Islanders tend to be the have-nots. I wondered why our identity is so closely related to not having. That can be quite a confronting thing to say. But if you look at the communities it’s obvious, so I’m quite forward about addressing those things.
You are addressing a lot more than financial management.
Yeah, which is the design of KidsCoin. I wanted to take all of that away and base the education on the monetary system. How people identify with that is up to them. At the end of the day, money is just a system. Understanding that system is empowering for people.
People have a weird relationship with money, right? It comes with a lot of emotions. For most people, money is not just a system. How do you foster a neutral and healthy attitude?
Yeah, definitely, my role is to raise awareness of the emotional tendencies. The kids often don’t have those emotional ties yet. They’re actually driving the change, because they’re going home and saying, “I’ve earned $30 of KidsCoin today.” It is happening in a safe way for families.
Kids log in to their own KidsCoin’s account. They can pick among a range of curriculum and subjects. We have numeracy, language, and financial capability, etc. The kids go through a quiz, and based on their passing percentage, they earn KidsCoin money. As long as they’re showing that they understand the concepts, they earn money. The money goes straight in the KidsCoin bank account, they have to pay taxes, pay bills, and they can earn interest.
I understand that they can spend KidsCoin money in the community?
Yeah, they can transfer it to their friends who use KidsCoin and start their own mini-economies. At the end of every 12-week school term, they can purchase something from the community. They get a voucher and have to go face-to-face with a provider.
Give me an example of what they would be purchasing.
It depends on what the community needs. We ask people, “What kind of resources do you need the most? Stationary, food, fun stuff?” Then we take that to vendors who can provide these things and say, “This is what the community needs.” We have had phones, digital cameras, to things like ‘spare time at school.’ Kids can purchase time with a mentor.
How do you protect children from obsessively acquiring KidsCoins — maintaining a healthy attitude — while there are real valuable items to be had?
We have earning limits. Kids can only earn a certain amount per day. There’s no compounding interest. We want them to understand concepts, and that earning and sorting out your money is just one part of your day. Encouraging healthy habits through the program design is a crucial element.
How many kids or schools are participating now?
We have 4,000 kids participating from two years of testing. We are targeting 15,000 children in the next six months. We’re quite lucky that we have some really good partners. These partners are the biggest companies in New Zealand and are 100 percent behind what we’re doing.
What have you learned?
The learning that I’ve taken from the last few years have been beyond anything that I could ever imagine. Obviously, learning about technology — the impact that technology is going to have on our communities. What that looks like for the future of work.
What have you learned about yourself?
I guess my strengths and weaknesses have really come forward — my capability to learn something new, because technology was really intimidating to me. I took two years of procrastination before I started KidsCoin!
What was daunting about technology?
I knew nothing about it. I was under the impression that technology was meant for geeky white dudes. I said, “I’m definitely not a geeky white dude.” I had all these limiting beliefs. I had to adjust my mindset and move to leading a company around innovation and collaboration. Also, earning good money in tennis, and then having to start over again was challenging.
Collaboration must look very different in tennis.
Yeah, that is way different. In tennis, you’re on your own; you’re competing. I appreciate my competition, because without them there’s no one to play. In business, I got validation that there’s a market, but this is a joint journey working toward the greater good.
Talk to me about the future of education. What are we going to teach children when technology is going to take over big parts of what we do? What are we going to still learn?
I think it is going to be more demanding. It is a matter of understanding hard skills and soft skills like personal development. And then you need practical niche skills.
Technology is something that everyone will have a basic understanding of, not necessarily coding, because coding is just one star in the galaxy. But computational thinking and logic, and understanding how a machine works, are things that everyone will need to understand.
It’s going be more demanding for the generation to come. They’re going to be expected to have a broader range of skills, rather than being good at one thing or the other. It’s a lot of pressure, but it is that next level of human potential. Being able to excel or succeed in multiple disciplines is the norm. It is making sure that everyone has that opportunity to develop different parts of themselves.
Your mother must have had a tremendous impact on your personal and professional being. Give me another person that was instrumental in forming you as a tennis player and entrepreneur?
My manager, Tony Rutledge, was influential on mindset. He would tell me, “There’s always a way through.” And that fear is just an acronym, meaning: false evidence appearing real. That’s my baseline and philosophy. I know my manager since I was 11 and still have a relationship with him, his wife, and family.
Mum has been a massive influence as well. When she built her school, she had an offer for a $10 million buyout. She turned it down, because the people who wanted to purchase her business wanted white staff. This is 15 years ago, maybe even longer. Our school was an English language provider as well as a sports academy, so we had a lot of international students. The people were interested in the image that they could sell. My mum turned that offer down; she just couldn’t fire the people.
When I was thinking about starting my own business, I would research possible mentors. In the same way as having a mentor for tennis. It was time to find someone that had done what I wanted to achieve in business. I was sitting in Melbourne and thinking, Man, who has been in education and knows how to make millions. Yeah, then I realized that my mom knows how to do that.
What a shock, you are like, goodness, it’s my own mother!
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly.
What is next?
This year, KidsCoin will go national. I’m really interested in India. I’ve been there four times. Every time that I’ve gone, I’ve been invited to go: the first time to play the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. The most recent visit was for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
It has been an amazing life changing experience. In New Zealand, we have a lot of abundance in terms of space. And our environment is quite clean and standard of living is pretty high, in context of the globe. The first time to India was a confronting trip for me, to see kids really hungry, and then us being spoiled like crazy. That changed me.
Is the plan to roll out at some point in India?
At the moment, I am trying to understand the cultural context and the community. I don’t want to go and think that I’ve got the answer. If there’s a possibility for me to support what the community needs through what KidsCoin offers, then I would be honored to be a part of that.
I spent a bit of time in Oakland [California] and San Francisco [California]. There are some schools that I’m interested in piloting. And schools in New York, Canada, and Scotland, It is interesting to learn about their communities. The community needs to help poor kids more.
What did you see specifically around poverty?
I grew up in communities that didn’t have a lot of money: families struggling to feed the kids or pay the power bill. I saw aunties and uncles go through all of that. I was the white girl in that situation: going into tennis and working with coaches in Los Angeles. I’d visit mansions in the Hollywood Hills, and I used to joke, “You’ve got three people living in a 15 bedroom house. We have 15 people living in a three-bedroom house.” I would joke about it — while questioning it, “Wow, we need your house, you need our house.” It was interesting, two weeks here in New Zealand, and then two weeks in that community in Los Angeles. I had to acclimate quickly.
When I was in the tennis world, I thought, Wow, you get everything provided. There is a lot of abundance in the community; how can we support each other? If only you could just get a little bit of that and take it over here. Not all of it, because I understand that everyone has different needs and expectations and versions of success. But even, for example, the food that was left over at events, because no one could eat it all, could be given to the ones that don’t have enough.
That’s where it started, one simple step.