Supp-BusinessProfessRealState-REV
Supp-BusinessProfessRealState-REV

Local teens app aims to make kids money smart

This story begins with an all-too-familiar family scenario: a child and her parent arguing over money.

In this case, then-10-year-old Dani Gafni and her father, Etay, are at a video game store, quibbling over whether he’d paid the allowance she thought he owed her for washing his car.

Typically, at this point the youngster crosses her arms in a huff, aggrieved by the injustice of being a child in a grownup’s world.

But Dani was different.

Dani Gafni

Rather than get lost in the particulars of their argument, she realized the simple, recurring problem at the root of their conflict. And she decided it was a problem that technology could solve.

The result is Bankaroo, a virtual bank for kids.

“I found it frustrating that if I wanted to know how much money I had, I would either have to get a wallet or carry my piggy bank around,” she said. “And I realized that this was probably a problem that other kids and their parents have too.”

So at age 11, she hatched the idea for Bankaroo, an app that can help kids keep track of their savings.

What started as the desire for a virtual space for kids to keep track of “what their parents owe them” has now, four years later, evolved into an international simulated banking service with over 60,000 users in 120 countries. The app aims to teach kids how to be “money smart” by offering tools for learning how to budget income, save money, create goals and do basic financial accounting.

Since the launch of Bankaroo in 2011, Dani has presented at conferences in Silicon Valley, been flown to Vienna to teach businesses how to be tech innovators, and won an entrepreneurial award at the 2014 Child and Youth Finance International conference.

Such attention could go to her head, but Dani, a ninth-grader at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, is charmingly humble and good-natured about her accomplishments.

Born in Israel, Dani moved to the Bay Area at age 3 with her parents, Etay and Nili Gafni.

This past year, Dani (who speaks Hebrew at home with her family in Menlo Park) decided to switch educational tracks and move from public school to Jewish day school. She said she was interested in spending more time learning about her Jewishness — particularly about stories from the Bible.

When asked whether she talks about Bankaroo with her new friends at school, she laughed and said no.

“You don’t really talk about that stuff with friends at school, I’m not even sure how I would bring it up,” she said.

Bankaroo.com home page

Bankaroo is unique because of its kids-centered design: Dani worked tirelessly with her father — who has a background in product development and is the founder and CEO of the tech startup BrightAct — to configure the app’s design and features.

Dani drew the initial kangaroo logo on a piece of graph paper.

Back in the early days of 2011, father and daughter spent long afternoons hiking at the Stanford Dish to brainstorm features, and late nights sketching out different UX designs. They built and re-built many prototypes together.

“It was a teachable moment,” Etay said of their experience creating the first prototypes. “I was able to show Danielle how to design and develop a product using the methodologies that adults are using, and to think like a product designer, using facts and data to back up instinctual ideas.”

They launched Bankaroo on Dani’s 11th birthday, and Dani’s younger brother became the first Bankaroo user. Neither father nor daughter had any sense of the success that would follow.

“I didn’t expect as many people to sign up as they have. I remember thinking that if we got it to even 100 users, that would probably be the coolest thing I’d ever do in my life,” Dani said.

With no marketing budget, the duo had to be creative about how to get the word out.

“Whenever we’d drive by an Apple store, we would stop so Dani could run in and download the Bankaroo app on all of the sample iPads,” Etay said. “That way, when kids played with the iPads at the store, they would find the Bankaroo app.”

They also utilized their expansive network of family and friends in Palo Alto and Israel, and did presentations at various tech conferences in Palo Alto, where VCs began to take notice of the young, passionate redhead as she talked about her solution for teaching kids how to be money smart.

“It’s sometimes rather intimidating when you’re 13 or 14 and you’re trying to pitch an idea that you created when you were 11 to a bunch of middle-age guys in business suits that are a foot-and-a-half taller than you,” Dani said. “But I pretend that they’re old school friends and I’m just telling them about an idea I have, and it’s not a big deal.”

And then, last April, as Etay was looking at the numbers, he noticed something unusual.

“I started seeing that there were hundreds of users who had 30 or more kids in their families,” he said. “We contacted them to ask what was going on, and found out that they were all teachers using Bankaroo in their classrooms.”

Thus began the journey of creating Bankaroo for schools. The classroom-friendly app is designed for teachers to use as a way of managing classroom economies. Just last week, Dani and Etay presented Bankaroo classroom at the Riverside Tech for School Summit, to a crowd of 500 teachers.

“It works for younger classrooms as a way to teach basic math skills, and for older classrooms as a virtual currency system for rewarding classroom behavior,” Etay said.

Despite Dani’s flair for finance management and entrepreneurship, she has no set plans to stay in Silicon Valley as an adult.

“Maybe she’ll be a coder, maybe she’ll be firefighter,” said Etay. “As her parents, we are just proud of her, and excited for whatever it is that she decides to make a career of.

“And the fact that I have a 15-year-old girl who still talks to me and thinks I’m cool is probably the best part.”

Hannah Rubin

Hannah Rubin is a writer at J. She can be reached at hannah@jweekly.com.