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Bel Air grad, classmate win audience choice award at McDaniel College Innovation Challenge for money-minded app

It’s not unusual for Renie Tsomos, a 21-year-old McDaniel College senior from Forest Hill, and fellow senior Marissa Funke, 22, of Long Island, New York, to have their peers ask questions or advice about personal finances or savings.

“As accounting and business majors, we both notice the lack of basic financial literacy among our age demographic,” said Tsomos, who graduated from Bel Air High School in 2015.

That is the basic premise behind the app Money Mind, which Tsomos and Funke plan to fully develop now that the idea has netted them $2,000 in start-up funds after winning the audience choice award at the McDaniel College Innovation Challenge on Monday.

Aimed at providing 20- to 25-year-olds with tools to more easily navigate the world of finance, all of the information in the app is simple and easy to comprehend, “unlike most other financial information which [is] very overwhelming,” Tsomos said.

“Money Mind includes nine main categories of information that you can explore, learn or even quickly search something specific such has a how to write check,” she said.

Tsomos and Funke, who have known each other since freshman year and have been in many of the same classes at McDaniel, competed against four other finalists narrowed down from a pool of 18 in the Innovation Challenge. This year was the fourth for the annual event at the Westminster college.

Student groups pitch their business ideas to a panel of four professional judges, similar to the ABC television show Shark Tank. The contestants had just 7 minutes to present their ideas to the judges, then judges asked questions for about 8 minutes.

While Money Money didn’t win the top prize of $10,000, Tsomos and Funke said being chosen as the audience favorite meant a great deal to them, especially since the app is targeted toward college-age students.

“It felt amazing to receive such positive feedback from our peers,” Tsomos said. “Winning the audience favorite meant that the students truly felt the need for our app. They noticed that as graduation approaches, they will be in control of their own finances very soon and could use some assistance.

“Marissa and I even had several students approach us after the event and tell us, ‘I need your app!’”

They aren’t alone. Undergraduate students in the U.S. demonstrated low levels of financial literacy in a recent study by RTI International and the RAND Corporation. When asked simple multiple-choice questions about financial investments testing the concepts of inflation, interest and risk diversification, just 28 percent got all three correct, according to the study’s authors.

Both women are slated to graduate in May, and both plan to start studying for the certified public accountants exam over the summer. Tsomos said she is set to begin working with Withum CPA in Bethesda in the fall.

With their winnings, the two hope to get started developing a business plan and developing some of the app content, Tsomos said.

Funke said she’s had the idea for the financial literacy app since her sophomore year, but the Innovation Challenge was the right time and opportunity to put it into motion.

While the app hasn’t been created yet — that was what the two graduating seniors hoped to achieve by participating in the Innovation Challenge — a basic wire frame of what they want the app to look like has already been developed.

“We wanted it to be simple and easy to navigate,” Tsomos said.

Participating in the Innovation Challenge was a positive experience for the two, who Tsomos described as “numbers girls who were forced to find some creativity to create our app’s layout, as well as our presentation.”

She appreciated the experience she gained from participating in the challenge presenting to a large audience, particularly with so much at stake, she said.

“Marissa and I rehearsed our presentation at least 50 times beforehand for practice,” she said. “I’ve gained an understanding of how much hard work is required create a presentation and business of this caliber.”

Funke agreed. “This was a huge learning process, I’d actually never done anything like this.”

Jonathan Weetman, McDaniel College’s entrepreneur in residence, served as a mentor to the contestants as they worked on their ideas and applications.

“There's so many more McDaniel graduates who are going to find themselves running companies and being entrepreneurs than probably ever before,” he said. “If nothing else, this competition gives the entire campus a sense that it can be done.”

Weetman said he was impressed with Tsomos and Funke’s focus on their target demographic. “How well they have connected with it was evidenced by their winning the audience choice award.”

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Catalina Righter contributed to this article.

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