“By spearheading initiatives that promote financial education for the next generation, we will empower kids everywhere to take charge of their finances and their life,” says Jason Chepenik, managing partner of Chepenik Financial and founder of the Smarter Tomorrow Foundation.
That’s the simple but ambitious goal of the foundation, Chepenik explains—building community-based financial wellness in order to give children a brighter future. Its website drives the point home: “Too many young people aren’t learning basic financial literacy at school, at home or anywhere else. The Smarter Tomorrow Foundation is committed to expanding financial education because the future of our kids—and the communities, cities and country they will lead one day—depends on it.”
The past few weeks have very clearly shown the world the importance of community-level wellness, both physical and financial, Chepenik says, reflecting on the massive medical and economic challenges posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We are seeing the way that our communities’ financial, physical and also mental health are more interconnected than you might think,” he says. “Simply put, if my community is not well, than neither am I.”
Running Toward Wellness
The flagship program run by the Smarter Tomorrow Foundation is the 401(k) Race for Financial Fitness. Launched in 2015, the 4.01 kilometer race is now licensed to run in eight cities around the country, with all proceeds donated to a local organization that provides educational workshops or seminars about financial literacy services for kids. The eight races gather some 2,500 runners and walkers who, during the last edition of the race, collectively generated hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to local financial literacy programs.
“I don’t personally run anymore because I have a bad knee,” Chepenik says with a laugh, “but I walk fast and I try to do three to five miles a day. On the day of the race, it is so humbling and inspiring when you see something like this come to life.”
It was impressive in the first year or two when the race attracted 300 runners, he says, let alone last year when there were 700 people at the local Florida race.
“It was amazing. It was emotional, and it showed my kids and my colleagues that we can do anything,” Chepenik says.
Chepenik is quick to add that the Smarter Tomorrow Foundation and its race events are a team effort. Beyond the internal support from staff, the foundation benefits from the time and efforts of its board members, including Vincent Morris of Bukaty Companies Financial Services, and Jay Fisher, founder of the Economic Recovery Group. Chepenik’s father and founder of the firm, Barney Chepenik, is also closely involved.
Sadly, it does not look like it will be possible to run the races in 2020 amid the ongoing pandemic, but Chepenik says this means there is now ample time to reflect on the importance of giving back and to plan for the redoubling of giving efforts in the future.
“I think one important thing to say is that a lot of us in the advisory industry have long written checks to attend galas and support causes that are of interest to us—from arts and culture to the Boys and Girls clubs,” Chepenik says. “That’s a great way to give back, but frankly, there’s a difference between writing a check and attending a gala, where you’re not really connecting with the people who are doing the community work, versus actually showing up and doing the work and giving back your own time and energy.”
The Impact on Staff Matters, Too
Beyond the money and time given to communities, Chepenik says, the Smarter Tomorrow Foundation has helped enrich the lives of the firm’s staff.
“One very inspiring story is about Courtney Gladden, who we actually brought on as a marketing intern some years ago to work on the Smarter Tomorrow Foundation,” Chepenik recalls. “It turned out she was so good at promoting the events that she became a full-time employee, and, as of last month, she has taken on a marketing position at OneDigital—the company that recently acquired us. So, she’s now in a national marketing role. To see somebody lift up their career that way is just an added benefit.”
Chepenik says the firm’s giving efforts have helped it attract younger talent that tends to care more deeply about corporate social responsibility issues. The firm also has had success inspiring some of its clients and service provider partners to implement their own giving strategies.
“I always take time to tell people about our story and to talk about something real, whether it’s the next race or something else we’re working on,” Chepenik observes. “Our clients like to hear about this and it’s a great way to relate to them and remind them we are more than just a company. And then they often have their own projects that we discuss, and we’ve even helped some of our clients do their own projects.”