Local nonprofit Build Wealth MN engages Carlson School students for data analysis
Thursday, February 8, 2024
As a financial coach and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing counselor, Demitri McGee spends his days helping people achieve financial goals, such as buying a home. He does this through a variety of programming at Build Wealth MN, a nonprofit organization founded by McGee’s father, who serves as executive director. For nearly 20 years, Build Wealth has provided financial literacy courses, counseling, loans, and related services to individuals and families. The organization specializes in working with underserved communities, such as residents of North Minneapolis.
Build Wealth's programs and services aim to reduce the gap in homeownership between White and Black Minnesotans. According to the most recent Prosperity Now Scorecard, with data from 2015-2020, 77.5% of White households own their home in Minnesota compared to just 30.5% of Black households. The disparity is even larger in the Twin Cities metro area.
In particular, the Family Stabilization Plan teaches clients financial skills like how to budget, manage credit, invest, and save for things like a downpayment. The ultimate goal is to help more people achieve homeownership and create generational wealth. Build Wealth counselors like McGee have seen firsthand how their programs change clients’ lives for the better.
“But of course, we’re a bit biased,” he admits. “We wanted to take out the biases and see what the data produces; to take a look at our client data to see how successful some folks were.”
Enter the Carlson Analytics Lab, home of experiential learning for the Carlson School’s Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) program, in which students provide consulting services to client companies and organizations. Students analyzed data from the Family Stabilization Plan to help Build Wealth better understand how different client characteristics and program activities lead to successful outcomes. The project was the subject of a “live case” in Assistant Professor Teng Ye’s exploratory data analytics course.
Students worked in teams to analyze the data, applying techniques learned in the classroom. Each team devised its own approach to the business problem and compiled findings they presented to McGee and his Build Wealth colleagues.
“Each group produced some really good outcomes,” says McGee. “One thing that I was really happy about is that no one project was the same. They all were really unique. Unique perspectives and unique angles at tackling the same project.”
Some teams focused on understanding the clientele Build Wealth serves, using the data to segment the population into groups that may have different needs. Other teams zeroed in on the timing of program components or where in the process participants tend to drop out.
“It’s hard to be happy about learning that you can do something better, but it’s also really helpful,” says McGee. “I know we do the work. We do an amazing job at actually doing financial programming and helping families. But capturing the data to tell that story is just as important.”
McGee said having a data-driven story built on analysis and evidence will help the nonprofit secure grants and other funding, as well as improve its programs.
Experiential learning with real clients is built into every semester of the Carlson School’s MSBA program. The engagements challenge students to apply analytics skills to situations under real-world constraints. This leads to additional learning for students.
“Engaging in this project allowed me to seamlessly apply clustering and regression techniques to address real-world problems,” says Norah Lu, a current MSBA student. “A particularly gratifying aspect of this experience was the discovery of countless success stories within the dataset.”
Working with a client like Build Wealth provides students with opportunities to use their data analysis skills for the benefit of others. One of Lu’s teammates, Xingyue (Cindy) Wang says, “As we unfolded our analysis, we got to use what we learned from class to deeply understand their story of helping people with financial struggles. And more amazingly, we were able to tell a better story with the data. And that story would actually impact people’s lives going forward.”
“Nearly everyone who engaged with Build Wealth’s programs was able to move one step forward to a bright financial future,” says Lu. “It was not an instinct or wishful thinking, it was a validated fact through our analysis.”
On working with the students, McGee says, “These are some really top-notch students. The quality of the work they’re doing—you’re not going to get that quality at that price elsewhere. More companies and nonprofits should definitely engage with this program.”