Andrew Van Fossen, ’06, clearly remembers winning second place in a regional high-school math competition. It was a big moment in his life, equivalent to making the all-state basketball team. But unlike the sports stars at his school, Van Fossen returned to school to nothing, not cheering, not a parade or pep rally, not even a decorated locker.
“No one cared,” says Van Fossen, now 40, who lives just outside Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kathryn Van Fossen, ’07, and their two children, aged 3 and 6.
Van Fossen decided that when he grew up, he’d change the game. Last year, Van Fossen volunteered to create a math competition in a North Carolina school district for fourth and fifth graders to get them excited about math and reward them for their enthusiasm. He wanted to make sure it covered all the bases. Top math competitors? Check. Big prizes, complete with cheering? Check. The opportunity to learn? Check. The Summerfield Open was everything a mini Van Fossen would have wanted.
Van Fossen invited the top fourth- and fifth-grade math students to enter into the yearlong tournament, taking one test a month. Whoever got the highest score based on their five best tests by the end of the year would get $500, followed by $350 for second place and $150 for third place.
The competition started small. At the first test, there were just 30 students. “When I got in front of the kids, I cranked the volume up to 1,000, and I wore my T-shirt that said, ‘I’m kind of a big deal,’” Van Fossen says. Word spread: Van Fossen was making math fun. By the next test, there were a handful more who showed up, and by February, there were about 60.
We have challenges in society, and here was this opportunity at this school, where we could get the kids excited about math.
The three students in the running for first place by the middle of the year were girls, and one of those girls was from a racially and economically diverse school that didn’t tend to be recognized for its academics. When Van Fossen originally asked the gifted-math teacher at that school to send over some students, she was hesitant, concerned that the material might be too advanced for them.
But Van Fossen told her to send them anyway. “It kind of broke my heart—I believe we have challenges in society, and here was this opportunity at this school, where we could get the kids excited about math, and if it lit a spark, they could get a job making them $150,000. I was praying, ‘Please let the kids do well, and let this group do well.’”
To do well, the kids not only have to be good at math; they also have to be able to translate their skills into finance or into practical knowledge, because Van Fossen is “horrified by the lack of financial knowledge in our country.” So for example, an easier question on the test could be: If you want to buy an $80 calculator, and you have $20 saved, and you make $4 per week, how long will it take for you to earn enough to buy the calculator?
Van Fossen credits the math and analytics he learned while a student at Chicago Booth with enabling him to retire from his career at the age most others are still climbing the corporate ladder.
“I had a class that was all hard-core math, using statistics to figure out what was going on with the stock market,” he says. “Knowing that, and being able to use that with the other elements of my education, I was able to retire as a multimillionaire in my mid-30s, and I was able to take on other projects.”
Retiring so early as director of sales operations at Minneapolis-based Medtronic allowed Van Fossen to start this program. He hopes the competition will continue a cycle of kids getting better at math and using their success to make a change, much as Van Fossen was able to do. “These kids are going to save the world; they’re going to cure cancer, and if they cure cancer, we’re going to benefit from that,” says Van Fossen. “If you look at the University of Chicago, it’s going to be the place where a few of the kids go, and it’s where a tremendous amount of cancer research is done. [The University of Chicago] is really the central hub of a cycle of ‘Let’s get people really smart to make life better,’ which allows us to make kids smarter, which allows us to get them into the University of Chicago to make the next best thing.”
—By Danielle Braff