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114: Kalani Leifer — The Economics of Higher Education and the Power of Peer Support

Kalani Leifer is the Founder and CEO of COOP Careers, a company aiming to overcome underemployment through digital skills and peer connections. Kalani began his career as a history teacher at Kappa International High School in the Bronx, NY (with Teach For America). Later, he worked as a consultant at McKinsey in Zurich and Dubai, and as a project leader at Google in California. Kalani grew up in the Bay Area, graduated from Stanford, and earned a master’s in education from Lehman College, CUNY.

In this episode, I talk with Kalani about the profound impact of peer support and community in navigating career challenges. Kalani shares his unique perspective, shaped by his upbringing on Stanford’s campus amidst the economic disparities of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, and his early teaching experiences. We discuss the broken promise of higher education for first-generation college students, many of whom face unemployment or underemployment despite their degrees. Through Kalani’s insights, we explore the crucial role of social networks in career advancement and how peer relationships can drive long-term career success and upward economic mobility.

In this episode:

  • [00:00] – Intro
  • [02:06] – Kalani’s background and early influences
  • [07:36] – Navigating the challenges of higher education
  • [12:27] – The reality for college graduates
  • [18:35] – Why building and maintaining relationships is so important
  • [26:22] – How COOP Careers works
  • [27:34] – The struggles of job hunting for graduates
  • [28:36] – COOP’s unique curriculum: head, heart, and hustle
  • [31:34] – Challenges in workforce development
  • [33:07] – Networking and the importance of relationships
  • [37:12] – The need for federal and state investment
  • [43:34] – Advice for recent graduates
  • [48:01] – The future of COOP and final thoughts

Memorable Quotes

“It’s really hard to start a career, to find meaningful work. But it shouldn’t be lonely.”

Kalani Leifer

“That experience and the relationships I built [at Kappa] are what kind of set this path in motion. And I think there are two things I would emphasize: our students thrived because of each other, and there’s real economic power between young folks.”

Kalani Leifer

“Don’t do anything alone. Find your people and do it together.  And then, you know, every minute you invest in networking is going to benefit them and every minute they invest in it is going to benefit you. And that’s how you start getting at this multiplier effect.”

Kalani Leifer

“The bottom quarter of college grads earn less than the average high school graduate. So there’s a huge share of people who will not be any better off than the average high school grad.”

Kalani Leifer


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Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Kalani Leifer: It’s really hard to start a career to find meaningful work, but it shouldn’t be lonely and actually it can’t be lonely. If you’re lonely in this journey, it means you’re isolated. If you’re isolated, it means there’s no one there to pull you in, and that’s the only way in. Find the people who you know are also struggling to find their first good job, and then make a little posse together.

[00:00:24] Kalani Leifer: Make it a little squad. That’s gonna be your source of comradery. Of momentum, of accountability of levity. Also quite possibly the person who pulls you into that first job by putting your resume on the top of the pile.

[00:00:43] Intro: Do you think money takes up more life space than it should? On this show, we discuss with and share stories from artists, authors, entrepreneurs, and advisors about how they mindfully minimize the time and energy spent thinking about money. Join your [00:01:00] host, Jonathan Dio. And learn how to put money in its place and get more out of life.

[00:01:12] Jonathan DeYoe: Hello, welcome back on this episode of The Mindful Money Podcast. I’m chatting with Kalani Leifer. Kalani graduated from Stanford. Earned a Master’s in Education from Layman College City, university of New York. He began his career as a history teacher at Kappa International High School in the Bronx, uh, with Teach for America.

[00:01:29] Jonathan DeYoe: He did the McKinsey Consulting thing in Zurich and Dubai, as well as being a project lead at Google. I wanted to have Kani on the show to talk about his work at COOP careers. Ben Wolski, uh, who was on episode 1 0 3, made the introduction a few months ago, and Ben and I talked about the economics of higher education.

[00:01:48] Jonathan DeYoe: And Kalani’s Work follows on this path through a process at COOP that overcomes underemployment through digital skills and peer connections with a goal of reigniting the American Promise of Upward [00:02:00] mobility. So I’m really excited to have this conversation. Kani, welcome to the Mindful Money Podcast.

[00:02:04] Kalani Leifer: Thank you Jonathan. It’s a pleasure to be here.

[00:02:06] Jonathan DeYoe: Just, uh, just to let everybody know, where do you call home and where are you connecting from now?

[00:02:11] Kalani Leifer: Uh, San Francisco and that’s where I am right now. Beautiful. And where’d you grow up? I actually, um, I grew up on Stanford campus. My father was a professor there for a long, long time.

[00:02:22] Kalani Leifer: Um, my mom was a, a French teacher nearby, so yeah, grew up on Stanford campus, which is, uh, a really special place to grow up.

[00:02:31] Jonathan DeYoe: Growing up on Stanford, growing up in the Bay Area at all, what, what did you learn about money and entrepreneurship growing up?

[00:02:37] Kalani Leifer: So, I, I think the, the connection between money and access is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about and how I grew up really influenced that.

[00:02:45] Kalani Leifer: So I grew up on Stanford campus, as I mentioned, and, and that means that all the houses on my block and in the whole neighborhood were all faculty breaths. You know, I didn’t, I think, really understand at the time just how. Special or, or powerful, that would be, [00:03:00] but it also means I grew up right next door to Palo Alto and back in the eighties and nineties, it, it wasn’t quite the Palo Alto that we think about now in terms of sort of the epicenter of, of tech money.

[00:03:11] Kalani Leifer: But it was definitely an upper middle class, even more so place. And I remember growing up as the son of two educators, actually not feeling like. The wealthiest family in, in the community and actually being surrounded by families, um, who had quite a bit more money. And then on the flip side, Palo Alto is right next door to East Palo Alto.

[00:03:32] Kalani Leifer: And the disparity between those two communities is, is quite breathtaking. And so I kind of got to grow up in the middle of all that around families who were just astronomically wealthy and then others who were really struggling. And I think that that made a big impression on me. And then. Another thing you realize growing up on Stanford campus, uh, in the Bay Area more broadly, is just how powerful proximity can be for your chances in life, [00:04:00] and also how powerful nepotism can be in terms of getting where you want to go.

[00:04:05] Kalani Leifer: And so I think, uh, you know, the, the older I get, the more I reflect on. Just how much of the things I’ve been able to do in my life were, because I knew the right people in the right places and they were willing and able to do casual favors For me, that’s really gotten me thinking about the power of connections You mentioned in the intro, just, just what a, a peer connection can do, and you mentioned that I, I went to Stanford undergraduate and.

[00:04:32] Kalani Leifer: And, and so that actually in many ways was, was my first real big experience with the power of nepotism. And I was a really good student in high school, but a lot of really good students don’t get into San and trying hard to this day to, to make use of that access and, and really thinking about how it is that people pull people into their institutions rather than some meritocracy pushing us into them.

[00:04:57] Jonathan DeYoe: I, I’m curious if you go back to. [00:05:00] You mentioned East Palo Alto, you mentioned out just incredible wealth in Palo Alto and around Stanford. Generally, did you experience both those, I mean, did you have friends in both camps? Did you play basketball or go to a summer camps where it’s just, you know, both groups of people were there And I’m just wondering if you fast forward 30, 40 years if the mix, if the mixing is less than it was.

[00:05:22] Kalani Leifer: Yeah, I think the mixing is less than it used to be. And I’m, I hate to say it, but it, it was not, there was not a lot of mixing, even back when, when I was in school, you know, there was, uh. It elementary school felt very mixed. So I went to this, this elementary school called Escondido Elementary, and it was really the, the children of faculty, the children of grad students coming from all around the world and, and actually not in a strong economic position themselves at that time, and then kids coming in from, from East Palo Alto, and that felt really mixed and rich.

[00:05:56] Kalani Leifer: Rich in terms of experience, and then by the time you get to [00:06:00] middle school and, and then certainly high school, you, you start to get tracked. And you could be at the same school, quite a diverse school, but your own, your classes and, and your sports teams were often incredibly homogenous. Yeah. That, that’s something that made a big impression on me as a kid.

[00:06:17] Jonathan DeYoe: I’m wondering if there’s any like specific instances of, um. Discussions of money around the dinner table or how you were raised to, to first recognize and deal with money in general.

[00:06:30] Kalani Leifer: I’ll connect that here to the way we talk about education. I think as a kid, I grew up believing that. Education was this noble pursuit and an end in, its in its own right.

[00:06:43] Kalani Leifer: And then it wasn’t really until I, I got to college and, you know, I stayed in the area, of course, and, and in college started doing a lot of tutoring, including in East Palo Alto and the kids I’ve worked with there. And the way that we talked about college and why [00:07:00] someone should go to college, I really came to understand that.

[00:07:03] Kalani Leifer: Yes. It’s beautiful to say that education is an end in its own right, but for so many people, education also has to be a means to an end, and there’s nothing transactional about that. It’s very concrete, very real. And actually, I remember that that’s what I wrote my Teach for America application essay about.

[00:07:22] Kalani Leifer: Back in 2008 was really coming to understand that a lot of people, they, they can’t just navel gaze and, you know, invest in their intellect. It’s really about progress for themselves and for their families and sometimes even survival.

[00:07:36] Jonathan DeYoe: I wanna dig into, um, the work you’re doing at COOP careers, but just just before we do that, is there anything we missed about the career trajectory in the intro that you think is important to the story?

[00:07:46] Kalani Leifer: Well, I think the most important experience I ever had professionally other than COOP, and now it’s been about 10 years, so maybe that one takes the cake, but there’s no way I would be doing COOP if, if I hadn’t started my own career as a, as a high school history [00:08:00] teacher. So graduated in 2008, unlike a lot of my peers that year.

[00:08:04] Kalani Leifer: As, as you may recall, that was a, a gnarly year to graduate rough year. Um. Yeah, my fear, unlike a lot of my peers, I, I had a, a job offer lined up, actually not even a job, offer a spot at Teach for America in New York. And then through that I got connected to a school in the Bronx called Cap International, as you mentioned.

[00:08:22] Kalani Leifer: And that was back during the Bloomberg administration in New York when there was a big movement to shut down big schools and open six or seven or eight high schools in the same building, sort of the small schools initiative. And so. I was 21 years old when I joined the staff of, of Kappa. I actually got, you know, these schools started with a freshman class and a sophomore, junior and senior.

[00:08:46] Kalani Leifer: They sort of grew into themselves, and so I got to teach the first cohort at our school. It was the, the class of 2011 at Kappa. About 120 students. And to me, [00:09:00] that experience and, and the relationships I’ve built there are what kind of set this path in motion. And I think there’s two things I would emphasize.

[00:09:08] Kalani Leifer: One is that our students thrive. Like that first cohort in particular was really magical and it was not ’cause our school had it. You know, I, I don’t know if I can swear on your podcast, so I won’t. Um, but it, you know, we didn’t, we didn’t have our stuff together yet. We were a bunch of 21, 20 2-year-old teachers, a lot of us white folks from the suburbs with this incredible principal, so passionate.

[00:09:33] Kalani Leifer: But, you know, we were just getting started. We didn’t have systems and processes and we weren’t a bunch of experienced effective teachers. And somehow our, our students really thrived there. I think we had almost everyone graduate on time. The vast, vast ma majority go off to college right away. And it was so clear to me as, as a teacher, that they weren’t thriving because of us.

[00:09:55] Kalani Leifer: They were thriving because of each other. And that first cohort was so [00:10:00] tight it, it just really struck me, even, even at that young age myself, I. That there was a lot of power. Coursing through the classroom. You know, some days that power would be turned against me, but on most days I, you know, could try to harness it for the lesson plan.

[00:10:15] Kalani Leifer: And it was really our, uh, these peer relationships between 16 year olds and 17 year olds that they, they pulled each other across the finish line, kicking and screaming, and they motivated each other. They held each other accountable. To achieve big important public policy goals like high school graduation and, and college enrollment.

[00:10:33] Kalani Leifer: And so that made a huge impression on me that there is real economic power between young folks and that we so often overlook that, right? We think that it’s sort of a byproduct if we notice it at all, but to me it was very clearly the, the main show. And then the second piece I share is that I, I was one of those teachers, like a lot of teachers across.

[00:10:55] Kalani Leifer: The Bronx across New York, across the country. That was promising my [00:11:00] kids, if they worked hard and played by the rules and earned a bachelor’s degree, that that would be enough to get a foothold in the middle class. You know, nothing fancy, but I. That’s the American dream, and I’m essentially a social contract in America.

[00:11:15] Kalani Leifer: And so to me it’s those two pieces that, that promise of higher education and then learning in the years after that, how broken that promise could be, how hollow that promise is, particularly for a lot of first generation college goers. So that kind of was the challenge that I encountered, that I felt.

[00:11:33] Kalani Leifer: Very personally, I felt like I had made a promise to young folks who I cared about and cared about me, and then feeling that that was a betrayal. And then on the flip side, seeing this power that my students shared with each other, and it was kind of that broken promise combined with that power I got to see in the classroom that, and that’s what COOP is.

[00:11:54] Kalani Leifer: So we’ll talk about COOP here in a moment. Yeah. But I think this is a big national. Broken [00:12:00] promise of higher education and the way we’re gonna solve it is it’s through peers and, and their relationships with each other.

[00:12:07] Jonathan DeYoe: Yeah. And j just before we get there, I’d, I’d like to, if, if, if you could sort of create a statistical picture for the audience.

[00:12:13] Jonathan DeYoe: Like there’s a lot of, like, as you said, there’s this big promise, a lot of long, long-term economic, or hope for long-term economic wellbeing that’s tied to the college degree. So what’s gone wrong with that and what’s that statistical picture look like?

[00:12:27] Kalani Leifer: I think one of the most striking things to say is that literally half of college grads are unemployed or underemployed.

[00:12:33] Kalani Leifer: And so underemployed means working in a job that does not require the credential that you’ve earned, and that’s strikingly more. So if you’re first gen or going to college on a Pell Grant, it’s really about two thirds of of recent college grads. So that’s one year past graduation are gonna be unemployed or underemployed.

[00:12:53] Kalani Leifer: If you fast forward three or four more years, some of those folks will find their way into good [00:13:00] jobs. But about half of first gen and low income college grads remain unemployed or underemployed four years after graduation. I. So that’s one way to look at it. The other is, is in the deceptive power of averages.

[00:13:14] Kalani Leifer: So on average going to college is absolutely a good bet. You know, your lifetime income’s 50% higher on average. It’s really striking, but, uh, averages, especially in median. Is not a floor. I think that this is a hypothesis I have that I’ve never proven, but I think people think of averages as a floor and they’re like, okay, that’s the worst I could do, or I could do better.

[00:13:39] Kalani Leifer: But in fact, a median is the middle person and literally half of folks will be under it and many will be far under that median. And so the bottom quarter, bottom quartile of college grads, they earn less than the average high school graduate. I. So there’s a huge share of people who are a [00:14:00] huge share, one in four who will not be any better off than the average high school grad.

[00:14:04] Kalani Leifer: Now, of course, high school grads is also an average, and that whole story applies to them too. But to me that’s really striking and we don’t live, you know, statistically average lives where, you know, you get to run through it a hundred times and then you get the average of it, right. We just get to do it once.

[00:14:21] Kalani Leifer: There’s a really good chance that you will not. See any payoff from college. And then there’s been some really interesting research that’s come out recently. I’m, I’m going to forget the author’s name, but we can follow up with that showing that yes, there is this wage premium to college. So you may, you may end up on the right side of that median, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a wealth premium anymore.

[00:14:47] Kalani Leifer: So given that in the last several generations, the costs of college has gone up so dramatically and people are taking out huge student loans to pay for college. And [00:15:00] if you’re going to school on a Pell Grant, right, so you’re from a very low income family. The Pell Grant is covering a smaller and smaller and smaller share of the cost of higher education.

[00:15:10] Kalani Leifer: And so even if you manage to achieve that wage premium from college. You’ve gone so deep into debt and you are, you know, likely delaying when you are able to buy your first home, if you ever are, that actually folks who are going to college now, even on average, are not gonna see a wealth premium from going to school.

[00:15:33] Kalani Leifer: And so that’s, that’s a another way to think about it, right. Income, of course, is a very important way to look at this, but higher education is, is one of these big bets that we make in our lives, and it looks even worse when you look at it from a wealth perspective.

[00:15:48] Jonathan DeYoe: I totally recognize the idea that there’s a lot of detail that’s lost.

[00:15:51] Jonathan DeYoe: We look at averages and I, and I, you know, I deal with market averages all the time and, and try to tell people the same. The same thing, like 10% never actually happens. [00:16:00] That’s the average, but it never happens, right? It’s either negative 20 or positive 30. That’s how you get to 10. I’m wondering though. I don’t want the message to be, and I don’t think the message is, you know, college isn’t worth it, but it’s like college alone isn’t worth it.

[00:16:13] Jonathan DeYoe: The the median college graduate does better from a wage perspective, but the cost matters. What you study matters how much time you work on. It matters. Also, as you’re gonna say, I’m sure the peer group matters and all those kinds of things, but doing that. There’s not a wealth difference. What’s, what is the timeline you’re looking at for the wealth difference?

[00:16:33] Jonathan DeYoe: Because wage, you can, you can measure next year, but wealth is something that, there’s no wealth difference between anybody once they graduate from college, but it’s 25, 30 years later, that’s where you see a wealth difference.

[00:16:43] Kalani Leifer: Yeah. And, and unfortunately it’s over, over broad, over decades. That, that, that, that’s true.

[00:16:49] Kalani Leifer: I, I’ve never heard that. I do wanna, what you said is that I, to this moment, you know, even though I, I spent the last 10 years confronting wrestling with. The broken promise of higher education, [00:17:00] I, I still think it’s the best bet. Um, I wish we had some other bed that folks could take, but I, I don’t see it.

[00:17:08] Kalani Leifer: And so I’m, I’m deeply committed to making this work, and I sometimes think if I was that 21-year-old teacher again at CAP or any other school, would I be any less enthusiastic about encouraging my kids to go to college? I’m, I don’t think so. I, I still think it’s the best and maybe only way to achieve the American dream.

[00:17:28] Kalani Leifer: But it’s, it’s not a sure bet. Like you alluded, there’s so many subsequent decisions about where you go and what you major in and how much debt you take, and how many relationships you build in college that have just such a huge impact on whether or not it’ll, it’ll pay off. But I, I don’t want people to stop dreaming big.

[00:17:47] Kalani Leifer: I want people to do, it’s, it’s the only way, but it’s a lot more precarious than, than I thought it was 15 years ago.

[00:17:56] Jonathan DeYoe: So we, we talk a lot about. Actually, you talk about upward mobility, [00:18:00] right? So that’s what you’re referring to when you talk about the wealth difference. So what is it that holds people back?

[00:18:07] Jonathan DeYoe: It sounds like if I am the third in my family, third generation in my family, go to college, I kind of have a, you know, I have a benefit from that even though it’s my first time. But my dad can say, Hey, yeah, this is what he did. This is how you sign up for classes. This is how you that. So what is the total picture that’s different between a first gen student and like a third or fourth, or even a second gen student?

[00:18:27] Jonathan DeYoe: I. So

[00:18:27] Kalani Leifer: I, and this is where I have hypotheses, and if I got to run through my life a few times, one of ’em, I would definitely be a big data analyst. But to me, the biggest factor and the most overlooked is relationships. Often when we talk about first gen grads, we’re thinking that they don’t have connections to older people in positions of power, and that that’s true.

[00:18:53] Kalani Leifer: That’s true. You know, it, it’s not that they’re. Social networks are any weaker. There are [00:19:00] strong, powerful relationships, but they often will not have someone in the generation or two above ’em in a position of power that can pull them into a career. So that’s true and I think much discussed. What I’m struck by is that you can also graduate from college without a wealth of peer connections.

[00:19:20] Kalani Leifer: And so I think when we talk about higher education people in positions of privilege and power, they’re often thinking back to their own undergrad experience. Where they probably moved into a dorm on some hot afternoon in September and then graduated with the exact same group of people four years later on some hot day in June, and in the time in between spent hours.

[00:19:44] Kalani Leifer: Hundreds of hours drinking beer and having philosophical conversations in, in their dorm room late at night and going to parties and going on just all of this, right? We, we have this Hollywood sense of, of what college is, so much so that we even [00:20:00] call it a four year degree, as if that’s how fast it takes most people to earn it.

[00:20:05] Kalani Leifer: But for so many Americans. Their higher education journey looks nothing like that, right? They’re, they’re very likely to have started in a community college and transferred, maybe transferred again. They’re certainly not graduating in four years. You might graduate in 5, 6, 7 years, maybe takes 15 years ’cause you took a.

[00:20:23] Kalani Leifer: 10 year gap in between, you’re working, you’re commuting, you have family responsibilities, and so it’s very, very common actually that you know, you may graduate and earn that bachelor’s degree. Having learned all the skills, having having gained the same credential, but graduating with essentially few or no peer connections.

[00:20:48] Kalani Leifer: Folks who are in the same position you are in, which is having just earned a degree and transitioning into the workforce. So when I, when I think about my undergraduate experience, actually, literally [00:21:00] just yesterday, I, I, I was catching up with my freshman roommate, who’s now a professor at the University of Chicago.

[00:21:06] Kalani Leifer: But when we graduated, I think there was, I think we probably had. A couple hundred, maybe more peers and near peers. So folks, 1, 2, 3 years ahead of us who we could have asked for a favor after graduation, who we could have asked, Hey, can you forward my resume to, to your recruiting team? Can you put my resume on the top of the pile?

[00:21:27] Kalani Leifer: Can can you grab coffee with me and tell me about the interview process at your company? I didn’t realize then, and now I’m painfully aware of just how powerful those kinds of relationships are. You know, we spent four years marinating in each other’s social capital, and what that meant was after graduation, we could turn to each other for informal favors that have very little to do with our professional.

[00:21:53] Kalani Leifer: Acumen or potential, anything like that. They’re informal non-professional relationships that we can [00:22:00] then stick into our employee referral system and out pops a a good job. And we like to think that that was some kind of meritocracy that got us that job, but it was really a collection of non-professional relationships that lead to that professional success.

[00:22:16] Kalani Leifer: When I look out at. The kinds of college experience that our fellows at COOP have, they’re going to the city, university of New York or California State University, or University of Illinois, Chicago, and maybe not living in a dorm. Actually, almost certainly never living in a dorm and, and not starting and finishing with one cohort of peers and sometimes graduating with maybe 1, 2, 3 folks that they could ask for a similar favor.

[00:22:43] Kalani Leifer: And what that ends up meaning is you’re entering the job market. Not ensconced in a community of peers, but rather out there on your own. And that means that there’s not necessarily someone who can take your resume and put it on the top of the pile. And, and again, it’s [00:23:00] great if you know the CEO in the corner office, but that person’s probably not very involved in entry-level hiring.

[00:23:06] Kalani Leifer: And they also probably don’t know a bunch of 22 year olds. And so it’s the most junior people on staff. Who, when their company needs to hire, right? The recruiters are going to them and asking, who do you know? Who do you trust? Who should we interview? And so it’s actually the most junior people at the company that I think have have an immense, almost scary amount of power in the economy.

[00:23:30] Jonathan DeYoe: I think more and more I think my own company is like, Hey, do you know somebody that we could hire for X, Y, z, like constantly. ’cause it’s so difficult to find great people. Yeah. I just wanna be real clear about something. It, it sounds like what you’re talking about is cross class relations, not just freshmen knowing freshmen, but freshmen knowing sophomores and juniors and, and people that’ll are gonna be landing in the job market a year before them and figure it out and have those, and then if you fast forward 10 years and you’ve got 10 years of.

[00:23:54] Jonathan DeYoe: People getting a degree or, or that know people that are younger than them and sort of fosters this [00:24:00] continuous, uh, revolving Yeah. Not just peer, but sort of a peer mentor, you know, not mentor. Yeah. Not someone that’s a generational, but a year or two years old. Is that, is that we’re talking about that kind of a peer group?

[00:24:10] Jonathan DeYoe: Yeah.

[00:24:11] Kalani Leifer: Yeah, exactly.

[00:24:12] Jonathan DeYoe: I, uh, it’s only to hear you say this because I did it wrong. Like I don’t, I didn’t know anybody. There was above me in my, like I was a freshman. I knew other freshmen. I was a sophomore, so I didn’t know anybody else. And actually when I graduated I didn’t really keep in touch with any of them.

[00:24:25] Jonathan DeYoe: I lost an opportunity. Well, it seems things worked out,

[00:24:27] Kalani Leifer: seems though things worked out, Jonathan, but Yeah, they did. But maybe some of those peers you knew knew near peers. Right. It’s, it’s that notion of being ensconced in a community, you know, you need that redundancy. You need. A bunch of connections ’cause you never know which, which is the one that’s gonna pay off.

[00:24:45] Kalani Leifer: Actually on the first night of COOP I often tell our fellows, look around the room. You’re not gonna love all these people. Some of them are gonna drive you crazy, but 10 of them are, are gonna become really meaningful connections and one of them is gonna be the [00:25:00] reason you get your first $50,000 job, but you don’t know which one.

[00:25:04] Kalani Leifer: Which means each of those relationships is is worth $5,000 to you, which is an awful way to talk about a friend. But it’s not wrong. And if you had, you know, $5,000 in your purse or in your backpack, like you would hold that tight on the subway, you know, walking home from work, right. That it, it’s precious.

[00:25:22] Kalani Leifer: You would care for it. And that’s what we want folks doing in our program is, is investing in those relationships and acknowledging the, i, again, I think scary, kind of shocking amount of economic value that exists in what we think of as being just kind of goof off relationships. It’s like, nope. That’s gonna be precious to you one day.

[00:25:43] Kalani Leifer: But I do wanna emphasize the point you made about near peers, right? I think peers are incredibly important, but there’s something uniquely important about near peers, and so that’s someone who’s one, two years ahead of you in their journey. I. And I think that person has an immense amount of power in the workforce.

[00:25:59] Kalani Leifer: [00:26:00] Again, because of these referrals, but also just deep relevant wisdom and credibility. They were in your seat a year ago and now they’re doing exactly what you wanna do. Maybe that’s someone you should listen to and so that, you know, we’ll, we’ll get to it. But that’s how COOP works is, is really acknowledging the power of peers.

[00:26:20] Kalani Leifer: And then particularly the power of near peers,

[00:26:22] Jonathan DeYoe: what’s the actual process like? What does COOP do? Is it a series of questions? Is it three years of programming? What, what is it that you guys do to sort of introduce Yeah, and maintain the relationships across, across near peers? I.

[00:26:34] Kalani Leifer: In many ways, what I’m about to say has been true since 2014.

[00:26:38] Kalani Leifer: When we ran our very first cohort, we started with 12 back then. Now our cohorts are 16. We bring together 16 peers who are, and we call ’em fellows. They’re the first in their families to graduate and almost all of ’em go to college on a Pell Grant. So that’s something they have in common. The the trials and triumphs.

[00:26:57] Kalani Leifer: Of being a first gen college [00:27:00] grad, and, and I, I really wanna emphasize the triumph there. Like it is a big deal to navigate to graduation and often not at, you know, a, a country club, four year residential college, but rather at a big public institution, a commuter school where the path of least resistance is not to graduate.

[00:27:20] Kalani Leifer: And so there’s a lot of shared experience there. Shared dreams. A lot of young folks from immigrant families and the extra pressure and expectations and higher stakes that come with that, and each of them is unemployed or underemployed. So they’ve earned a bachelor’s degree. They’ve probably spent the last 12 to 24 months submitting hundreds of applications online, never hearing back, and at some point the natural.

[00:27:48] Kalani Leifer: Rational thing to do is to internalize that there’s something wrong with you as a candidate. Mm-Hmm. There’s something defective and there’s this sense of being defeated, of, of being broken in some way [00:28:00] that a lot of young folks are coming to COOP with. And one of my favorite things is in the first couple weeks when people are looking around the table, looking around their group of 16 and realizing like, oh my God, like he is such a hustler and she is so smart and they are so creative and they’re also.

[00:28:17] Kalani Leifer: Unemployed or underemployed, and then this kind of like this weight lifting off of you and realizing, okay, maybe, maybe I’m not broken. Maybe there, there’s something bigger here that’s broken. And so that group will come together every night, Monday through Thursday, six 30 to 9:30 PM over 16 weeks. So huge commitments about 200 hours altogether.

[00:28:36] Kalani Leifer: And our curriculum has three pillars. Head, heart, and hustle head is what people would often call hard skills. So we’re teaching, you know, we have a digital marketing track, a data analytics track, a financial services track. I will say all of those tracks are learning a lot of Excel. If there’s one technical skill other than ai, maybe we’ll get to that.

[00:28:58] Kalani Leifer: That’s new. It wasn’t there when [00:29:00] we started. If you can run pivot tables in Excel, you are already off to the races. Um, so we do a lot of excel in, in that part of the curriculum. And then heart and Hustle is what people sometimes refer to as soft skills, sort of broken them out. The heart piece is the sort of the introspective work, touchy feely, and just really explicitly investing in relationships, the quality of relationships you have within your cohort.

[00:29:27] Kalani Leifer: Then hustle is all the stuff you gotta do to get a good job. So your resume’s gotta be on point. You know, great cover letters, your LinkedIn profile needs to be popping, like all that stuff. And it takes a lot of work. I don’t know if you’ve ever, I’m sure you have, we all have helped someone with their resume.

[00:29:43] Kalani Leifer: That takes a lot of work and it, the stakes feel so high, right? You have to somehow sum up your value and. The economy on a single piece of paper’s like that takes a lot of work. The way, what we’re able to do all that hard work with our young folks and do it in a really intimate way [00:30:00] is through our cohort captains.

[00:30:02] Kalani Leifer: So each cohort of 16 peers of 16 fellows is led by four captains, and these are all near peers. So 1, 2, 3 years ahead of our fellows in their career journeys. I think what makes COOP really special is that every single one of them is a, is an alum of our program. That was not true in the first year. We did not have alumni yet, but by the end of the first year, I remember our alumni from our first three cohorts just kind of kept coming back in the evening to hang out, you know, even though they, they’d gotten the job that they came to COOP.

[00:30:33] Kalani Leifer: Seeking, they were still hungry for community, right? They wanted to be together, and it dawned on us like, oh, you, you actually have the job during the day that this next group wants. I don’t really, I’m not an expert in digital marketing or data analytics or anything like that. And so they have that job and they also have this deep.

[00:30:52] Kalani Leifer: Hard won wisdom and credibility that really resonates and, and they are examples of what you can [00:31:00] achieve if you really invest in this program and invest in yourself. So yeah. The way COOP works now we have 16 COOP. Fellows. In each cohort we have four cohort captains who come back in the evening and coach.

[00:31:12] Kalani Leifer: We’ve now done that almost 500 times. So we’re doing that in New York, in the Bay Area, in Los Angeles, in Chicago, and, and we just launched in Miami as well. But that’s the core experience of COOP and, and everyone who goes through it, wherever they do it, they have that same kind of shared experience. And then maybe just one more thing I’ll say about it is.

[00:31:34] Kalani Leifer: A lot of workforce development, nonprofits, you know, they work really hard to create job placements, right? So a kind of a, let me say, an, an artificial job is created and someone is placed into it. And a lot of times that’s, that’s what these nonprofits have to do because there’s no other way in for their participants who may have been involved in the justice system or maybe don’t have any kind of [00:32:00] credential.

[00:32:00] Kalani Leifer: But our young folks have a bachelor’s degree. So they have the ticket, you know, the ticket to the arena. They can get in. It’s a different question of can, can you get a job once you’re in? What we learned in that first year was, was actually we were, you know, busting our butts trying to create these artificial positions that we could place someone into.

[00:32:21] Kalani Leifer: We realized the hard way that it’s often takes just as much work to get someone a fake job as it is to get them a real job. And the fake job is not gonna be around in six months and it’s not. Necessarily solving a core business challenge that the company has. And so we made the decision to actually release that part of our program of, of having a guaranteed placement and really focus in on the messy nepotistic, highly competitive job market for actual entry level full-time positions.

[00:32:57] Kalani Leifer: Because of that, we can’t make any guarantees, [00:33:00] and companies don’t make guarantees either. If a company’s guaranteeing a position, it’s not actually a real position on the job market. Right. And so what that led to is, is another thing I say on the first night of COOP, which is, look, COOP is a multiplier of the time and energy and love and hustle that you put into it.

[00:33:20] Kalani Leifer: And anything times zero is zero because you know we can’t be there in the final interview. That’s you, you gotta get that. We, we can be the source of, of the connection that gets your resume on the top of the pile, but. Even that, you know, you gotta make a good impression on that person and then you have to be there in the interview and tell your story and get that job.

[00:33:40] Jonathan DeYoe: There’s 16, uh, fellows and four cohorts a year. So there’s 64, um,

[00:33:45] Kalani Leifer: four, four cohort captains, so four coaches and 16 participants. 16 fellows. And that’s sort of our core unit. And this year is it, is it just that many units per year? No, no, no. So we, we [00:34:00] run those cohorts a bunch of times, so we’ll have 2000 fellows this year.

[00:34:05] Kalani Leifer: Okay. Okay. But I still emphasize that cohort notion because no matter how big we get, and, and, and we’d like to keep getting bigger the, the scale of this challenge just. Yeah. Dwarfs us right now. Yeah. But I think it always will need to be a deeply intimate, human sized experience where people are building genuine relationships with their peers and their near peers.

[00:34:28] Kalani Leifer: And it’s that actually that relationship between the COOP fellow and the cohort captain that we, we hear again and again from our new alumni. Like that’s the thing. It’s that relationship and the social capital and the access that comes with that. That really is what makes COOP work.

[00:34:46] Jonathan DeYoe: I’m a little leery to ask this question ’cause I think it’ll take us a little bit off, off piece, but I’m gonna ask it and if we don’t have time, just just say, you mentioned like five locations.

[00:34:55] Jonathan DeYoe: How do you scale to. Many locations. I mean, [00:35:00] do you actually have a physical presence in each of these places or is it all digital and zoom meetings? And then what’s the possibility of scaling? What would that take to scale? Is it a federal investment or is it a per college or per university investment?

[00:35:14] Jonathan DeYoe: Or is it just individual companies saying, you know, is it Microsoft saying, yeah, we’ll give you this and, and hopefully that’ll do something. How does that scaling

[00:35:20] Kalani Leifer: work

[00:35:21] Jonathan DeYoe: in your mind?

[00:35:22] Kalani Leifer: I love this question. It’s the question that we’re obsessed with right now and trying to answer, so I’m gonna share my hypothesis with you.

[00:35:27] Kalani Leifer: And by the way, big shout out to Microsoft. They are a, a wonderful partner of ours and have been for many years. But I don’t think it, it’s gonna be on the employers to solve this, but they are an an essential component. We need the jobs that they offer, right? Like it’s that entry level, $50,000 job for a recent grad who doesn’t have a bunch or any professional experience who has so much left to learn.

[00:35:52] Kalani Leifer: And by the way, that’s true of every grad everywhere, whether it’s Stanford or the City University of New York. Every grad has a lot left to [00:36:00] learn. We do our, our program is a, a mix of virtual and in-person, before the pandemic, it was all in person. I was very skeptical of, of what could be achieved virtually.

[00:36:09] Kalani Leifer: But you can have a real connection virtually it turns out. But you can definitely, I, I think, enhance that connection through really intentional quality time spent in person. To answer your question of, of of how can this scale, we think every year about half a million first gen and low income college grads.

[00:36:27] Kalani Leifer: Are gonna get trapped in long-term underemployment. And so in a sense, you could look at the size of the challenge as as half a million a year. And as I mentioned, we’re gonna serve 2000 this year. So we are dwarfed by that challenge, and I don’t actually think the right answer is for. One or two or three nonprofits to scale, you know, and serve hundreds of thousands of people a year.

[00:36:50] Kalani Leifer: We have in the country a couple thousand senior colleges. There’s about 700 public universities that serve the vast majority of our [00:37:00] target population. And we think eventually the kind of work we do of bridging that gap from higher education into a career has a natural home. Higher education. The challenge that we face right now, and this goes to your point about federal investment, the huge challenge right now is that post-graduation career outcomes, there is no mandate and no money for colleges to focus on that.

[00:37:29] Kalani Leifer: I think we like to think, and I did as a teacher that college is about economic mobility. Employment is, we talked about this idea of like education as, as, as an end in itself, or a means to an end. We like to think that college is a means to an end to upward mobility, and I think employment is a really important byproduct of the system that we’ve built.

[00:37:53] Kalani Leifer: But if you, if you really look at how higher Ed works and how it’s funded. It has nothing to do with outcomes. [00:38:00] That’s not college’s fault. Like that’s our societies’. We’re all responsible for that. We decided to scale an academic institution. I won’t go too deep into the history, go back to, you know, world War II and then the GI Bill and just, we’ve made huge progress in democratizing higher education, but nowhere in there is there a mandate.

[00:38:21] Kalani Leifer: Or money for colleges to be focused on the career outcomes of their grads. The incentives are, it’s all about enrollment and credit accumulation. The more cutting edge colleges are thinking about graduation rates, and we’re just starting to see the early movement towards a stronger focus on, on outcomes.

[00:38:40] Kalani Leifer: But my dream, if I could just dream real big federal Pell Grants, so those are federal, um, grants for low income students or students from low income families. To go to college and get six to $7,000 a year, and we spend about $30 billion a year as a society [00:39:00] on Pell Grants, just on Pell. And we spend about another 15 billion on the state equivalent of that in each state around the country.

[00:39:07] Kalani Leifer: And so that’s 45 billion that we’re spending on higher education, I think on the premise. And unfortunately the false premise that that is going to lead. To upward economic mobility for low income Americans. If I could wave a wand, I would say every young person or not so young person who goes to college on a Pell Grant and manages to earn a bachelor’s degree.

[00:39:33] Kalani Leifer: Which again is that that is not the path of lease resistance. It’s a huge deal if you earn a bachelor’s grant at Pell Grant, I think that should unlock one extra year of Pell Grant funding that can be used to fund bridge programs like COOP is trying to be in, and we have some other awesome peers in the space that is dedicated to that transition.

[00:39:53] Kalani Leifer: I don’t want to take away money from colleges that they desperately need right now to. To spend on their core offerings. I think we [00:40:00] do need incremental investment, and I think that should be tied to career outcomes. You know, and then there could be a flourishing of different approaches of, of how to do that.

[00:40:08] Kalani Leifer: And maybe in some cases colleges are building those programs themselves and in other cases they’re working with nonprofits and kind of sub granting to them to run these bridge programs. But I think the big challenge we’re facing as an organization is we do everything through philanthropy right now.

[00:40:25] Kalani Leifer: We raise. Every dollar we spend that can get you to. To the place where we are now serving 2000 fellows a year. To go much bigger than this, you need to unlock some kind of reliable earned revenue. And I do think we have an appetite as a society to spend money on upward mobility. I think it’s why we spend 45 billion on, on financial aid, not to mention the trillions in student loans that we guarantee as a society.

[00:40:54] Kalani Leifer: The hundreds of billions in student loans that, that the Biden administration, I was [00:41:00] gonna say, trying to, they have actually forgiven them. Yep, yep, yep. I can see the exact number. Tens and tens of billions of student loan forgiveness. So like, I, I think the appetite is there, there’s no other thing I can point to and say this has an average of 50% increase in wages.

[00:41:16] Kalani Leifer: So I, I do believe college is valuable. I do think it’s the. The best thing we’ve got, and I don’t think we need to burn it down and build something new in its place. But we do need some incremental funding that is very, very laser targeted on the transition from higher education to careers. I.

[00:41:37] Jonathan DeYoe: I think it’s very compelling.

[00:41:38] Jonathan DeYoe: I think it’s really very compelling, and I would wonder if it’d be easier, and this is just, I guess I’m pontificating here if it’d be easier like to start with the state of California because I, I, I know the state of California or maybe the state of New York, like somewhere where they’re like, yeah, we need to figure this out.

[00:41:53] Jonathan DeYoe: Whereas I think at the federal level, almost impossible. Right? Very, very, very, very hard. Yeah. But if you know, state of California, how do we, ’cause [00:42:00] inequality is like, that’s all we talk about. That’s all we talk about. How do we bridge, how do we bridge it? How do we make this better? I, it’s just constant.

[00:42:05] Jonathan DeYoe: It’s a refrain. It’s in the media every single day, especially here in California. I, I hope you find a way to do it. I think it’s a huge and important task.

[00:42:12] Kalani Leifer: Thank you. I, I agree and I, I agree that cracking this in one state or another is gonna be the way we start. And, and I just wanna be very humble. We’re at the beginning of this journey of figuring out how to shift institutions, how to play in the public funding realm, but there’s some, some really strong precedents.

[00:42:30] Kalani Leifer: The most compelling is one in New York City called, uh, at the City University of New York called CUNY asap. ASAP and it stands for Accelerated Studies and Associate Programs, and it’s a wraparound program that has now been deployed at all the community colleges in that system with the intention of increasing associate’s degree attainment rate.

[00:42:52] Kalani Leifer: So it’s incremental money to spend on career on advising, like student advising on metro cards so people can get to class [00:43:00] on books, sort of addressing the little things that people need in order to achieve their associate’s degree. It’s been a big investment, but it has doubled the graduation rates at those schools and you know, and that started off very small and then got tested and then they realized, oh shoot, we’re actually saving money by spending money.

[00:43:18] Kalani Leifer: Because graduation rates improved by so much. So we are still capable of doing big things in this country, but we’re starting to learn how to, how to tackle that

[00:43:26] Jonathan DeYoe: bit by bit. So I, I wanna, I ask every guest this question, and I, I have to tweak a little bit for everybody, but I want you to really simplify this for us.

[00:43:34] Jonathan DeYoe: If someone on your team, or if you’re talking to, you know, a recent college grad that that fits the bill for the program, what’s like the first thing that they should focus on that’s gonna lead to better economic success for them?

[00:43:45] Kalani Leifer: I would acknowledge that this is hard. It’s really hard to start a career to find meaningful work, but it shouldn’t be lonely and actually it can’t be lonely.

[00:43:55] Kalani Leifer: If you’re lonely in this journey, it means you’re isolated. If you’re isolated, it means there’s no one [00:44:00] there to pull you in, and that’s the only way in. We have this myth of a meritocracy in America, right? Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Rugged individualism. No one in any position you wanna get to got there on their own.

[00:44:15] Kalani Leifer: Again, it’s great if you know the person in the corner office with all the power, but actually they don’t have all the power. And I would encourage people to. Well, first of all, I definitely encourage them to, to apply to COOP. We’re recruiting for the fall cycle right now, but like, you know, like we said, we’re, we’re not everywhere.

[00:44:33] Kalani Leifer: We’re never gonna be everywhere. But I think what makes us special is also something that you can create in your own life by identifying three or four or five people maybe you never even got close with them in college, right? Maybe you just kind of noticed them. They were sitting in a lot of your same lectures or, you know, maybe you saw them at a c, like find the people.

[00:44:54] Kalani Leifer: Who you know are also struggling to find their first good job and then [00:45:00] make a little posse together. Make a little squad. That’s gonna be your source of comradery, of momentum, of accountability, of levity, and also quite possibly the person who pulls you into that first job by putting your resume on the top of the pile.

[00:45:18] Kalani Leifer: So the very first thing I’d say is don’t do anything alone. Find your people and do it together. And then, you know, every minute you invest in networking is gonna benefit them and every minute they invest in it is gonna benefit you and, and that’s how you start getting at this multiplier effect.

[00:45:35] Jonathan DeYoe: The flip side of that is, what’s one thing that they’re doing?

[00:45:37] Jonathan DeYoe: Probably I. That’s not gonna help them, that they should stop doing right away.

[00:45:41] Kalani Leifer: I’ll share two things. One is blind applications. They just very often are just going into a, into a black hole. That said, even in our own program, we require people to apply to 20 jobs because actually, even if you get a referral, you still need to be in the job system, right?

[00:45:57] Kalani Leifer: You still need to be in [00:46:00] whatever recruiting system that that company is using. So you can’t actually get away from the application. You’re gonna have to do that at some point. Just like mass, mass applications. It’s a recipe for, for disappointment. So then beyond that, I would say two things. One is don’t look at each job, each application as a chance to succeed or fail.

[00:46:20] Kalani Leifer: ’cause then you’re gonna be failing a lot and it that hurts. But if you look at it as one big project that you’re working on. And you really just actually need one of those to go your way. Then you’re not waking up every day failing 20 times, you’re chipping away at this big project and you will succeed.

[00:46:38] Kalani Leifer: And then the other is, don’t internalize it. Don’t let what’s broken about this world, about this job market. It’s so easy to take that and turn it in inside and say, there’s something wrong with me. We’re working on 400 years of racial. Injustice disparity. Our schools, our neighborhoods are deeply [00:47:00] segregated.

[00:47:01] Kalani Leifer: And if you look at our job market that’s so dependent on relationships, that’s then taking all that segregation that we see in our schools and our neighborhoods, and it’s kind of importing it into the professional sphere. You know, if you ask a guy like me, you know, a white guy, privilege, Hey, recommend people refer people to this job.

[00:47:19] Kalani Leifer: Oftentimes I’ll do it enthusiastically, but it’s gonna be people who look just like me, similar background, like the people who I’m, I’m ensconced with. And you repeat that a hundred million times, and that’s the American labor market. It’s a choice. Whether you, you make that about you or you make that about America.

[00:47:38] Kalani Leifer: And I wanna encourage you, like, don’t make about America. Don’t, don’t take all that’s broken about this. Yeah. Big, messy, wild, beautiful country of ours. And make it about you. And don’t do it on your own. You don’t have to do it on your own.

[00:47:50] Jonathan DeYoe: It’s a bit of a numbers game, uh, right. It’s, you gotta apply a lot, but, uh, at the same time, you gotta do it with partners, you gotta do it with peers.

[00:47:57] Jonathan DeYoe: So just absolutely. Just before we wrap up, I wanna come back to [00:48:00] the personal again. So what was the last thing you changed your mind about? Oh, this is such a good

[00:48:04] Kalani Leifer: question. Well, let me say the jury’s out on something for me. You know, we’re, we’re wrestling with this question of how, how do we scale and can we do that as part of a, of the university system or outside of it?

[00:48:20] Kalani Leifer: For the first 10 years of COOP, I was really convinced that we should build this outside. Maybe let me say the first seven or eight years. Then the last two or three years I’ve really believed we need to go inside college and figure out how to make it work there. And that’s now something I’m calling into question something I’m, I’m really thinking hard about because the challenge is so big, but it’s very hard to change big institutions.

[00:48:46] Kalani Leifer: And so, yeah, I don’t know if that’s a satisfying answer. The, the jury’s still out, out for me on that. I think we’re gonna hit our first big goal of, of 10,000 careers quite soon. I think we could get to 20,000 the way we’re doing it now, [00:49:00] but the question is how, how do we get to a hundred thousand? How do we reach these half a million people a year?

[00:49:04] Kalani Leifer: And so, ooh, not a satisfying answer, but I, the jury is out on that and maybe have me back in a couple years and I’ll have a more definitive answer there.

[00:49:13] Jonathan DeYoe: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It is just, the idea is that, uh, that neuro flexibility, you’ve thought about it one way, uh, tilted the other way, come back this way. You got, I mean, you gotta keep trying to figure it out, right?

[00:49:24] Jonathan DeYoe: And then, well, I remember the,

[00:49:25] Kalani Leifer: the oh four election right when I went to college and John Kerry got a hell of a lot of flack for, for flip flopping. Flip flopping. Such a, such a dumb,

[00:49:35] Jonathan DeYoe: such a dumb thing.

[00:49:36] Kalani Leifer: So, so dumb. Because like, I, I. Yeah. I, I love that you asked that question because the ability to change your mind and acknowledge that you were wrong, or not even that you were wrong, but that, that you have new information, you have more information.

[00:49:48] Kalani Leifer: Yeah. You learn

[00:49:49] Jonathan DeYoe: new things.

[00:49:50] Kalani Leifer: Yeah. I’m all for that. So I’m actually gonna keep, I’m gonna keep noodling on that question today, and yeah, I just, I appreciate it. I appreciate you and, and this opportunity. Thank [00:50:00] you, Jonathan.

[00:50:01] Jonathan DeYoe: You bet. Tell, tell everyone, uh, how they can connect with you. Before we, uh, before we get off,

[00:50:05] Kalani Leifer: please connect with me on LinkedIn, Kalani Leifer, and then more importantly, please connect with COOP.

[00:50:11] Kalani Leifer: So we’re on LinkedIn, we’re on all the platforms, and that’s COOP careers.org. And, uh, especially if, if you’re first in your family to graduate and you’re still looking for that first good job, we’d love to hear from you and, and be part of your journey.

[00:50:27] Jonathan DeYoe: Kalani, thanks for coming on. Uh, we’re gonna make sure all that stuff’s in the show notes, and I just really appreciate your time and the story.

[00:50:32] Kalani Leifer: Thank you, Jonathan. Right at you. Be well.

[00:50:38] Outro: Thanks for listening. Full show notes for each episode, which includes a summary, key takeaways, quotes, and any resources mentioned are available at Mindful Money. Be sure to follow and subscribe wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. And if you’re enjoying the content and getting value from these episodes, please leave us a rating and [00:51:00] review@ratethispodcast.com slash mindful money.

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