Lily Lapenna

Ashoka Fellow
Lily Lapenna
United Kingdom
Fellow since 2009
This description of Lily Lapenna's work was prepared when Lily Lapenna was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


Lily Lapenna created the first independent peer led youth banking program approved by the national banking regulatory body (Financial Services Authority—FSA) in England. In doing so, Lily is developing the next generation of financially literate and entrepreneurial citizens. In less than three years MyBnk has reached 20,000 young people across 57 partnering organizations.

The New Idea

Lily is fostering and educating a generation of young people who will become the enterprising and financially empowered citizens of the future. By working with young people, as young as nine-years-old, she is fundamentally changing the way they relate to finance, financial services, enterprise, and ultimately their attitudes toward achieving a fulfilled life.

At the core of Lily’s approach is the insight that finance can be used not simply to encourage savings and thrift but also as an effective springboard for young people to launch new ventures. A related insight is that by giving young people the real experience of taking on the roles of various actors in the banking system, they sharpen their entrepreneurial skills and understand the entire ecosystem of creating and sustaining ventures.

The centerpiece of MyBnk’s unique dual approach is the MyBnk-in-a-Box program. As a youth-focused and youth-led microfinance scheme, it emulates a real world lender-borrower scenario. Lily recognized that the principles behind microfinance have great power to shape a young person’s future relationship with money and enterprise from the very earliest stages. By working with young people to create deep-seated habits, Lily will change their attitudes toward money in a powerful and holistic way, which will ultimately carry on into their adult lives. Through the banking scheme young people create and manage their own savings and take out small, interest-free loans to start their own ventures. They also assess the loan applications and manage the bank’s finances, learning through experience about concepts such as interest, risk, ethical banking, and responsible lending.

By coupling microfinance inspired financial literacy with entrepreneurship Lily provides a unique learning experience that goes beyond learning about money, but also equips individuals to thrive in a fast-changing and dynamic workplace by learning financial concepts and tools to achieve their goals and unlock their entrepreneurial potential.

The Problem

In the United Kingdom the average personal debt of an adult is over £30,000 (US$46,500). Moreover, 91 percent of adults have never received any financial education. Against a social landscape where finance plays an increasingly important role, these statistics indicate a breakdown in the relationship between people and money, and young people are the most vulnerable, as many start their adult lives in debt.

Governments, citizen organizations (COs), and commercial banks are aware of the problem and have begun to take action to address it, albeit with notable shortcomings. The U.K. government has recently made an effort to build finance into school curriculum, but its delivery is static and abstract, as opposed to experiential and practical, and teachers do not feel confident or supported to teach it. Furthermore, pedagogical content is often supported by commercial banks, which arguably pursue a commercial agenda such as setting up teen bank accounts, thereby compromising the impartiality of the learning experience. Finally, current government policy overlooks the most vulnerable young people who are unable to attend school or trainings and are thus unable to access government programs that teach finance.

Solutions provided by COs, which rely on teacher buy-in and delivery, run into some of those same issues. Other approaches to financial literacy cater for teachers as opposed to young people and fail to maximize the learning experience for young people, as MyBnk has been able to achieve.

The Strategy

Lily describes MyBnk as born from a young person who wanted to take the reins of her future and enable other young people to do the same. Therefore, she began by listening to young people and understanding what aspects of money mattered to them and why. By taking the core principles of microfinance learned in Bangladesh, Lily’s unique solution places her program at the intersection of microfinance and enterprise for young people. The program incrementally engages them, initially through a banking scheme, making them learn about money, then by linking savings to loans and teaching general concepts associated with money management, and finally by incentivizing them to start their own ventures. MyBnk engages young people in a unique process of self-discovery, ultimately unleashing their entrepreneurial potential.

Since its founding in 2007, MyBnk’s youth advisory panel remains at the center of the program’s decision-making process. MyBnk has grown into an organization of seven full-time staff, two consultants and five interns. It has ten branches across London and is working with 45 partner schools and other youth support organizations such as housing associations and the Scouts. Over 20,000 young people from the ages of 9 to 25 have been exposed to one of the MyBnk projects, of which 10,000 have been directly involved with the microfinance scheme MyBnk-in-a-Box.

MyBnk aims to transform the way society relates to and uses financial services. To achieve this, Lily’s approach focuses on intervening at an early age and reaching the largest possible number of young people. MyBnk’s unique model is designed to deliver bottom-up, independent and holistic financial and enterprise education to children and young people from all walks of life within schools, youth organizations, and anywhere young people congregate.

At the heart of the model is the first ever, independent Financial Services Authority approved youth led banking scheme, designed to emulate a real bank that offers both savings and loans to its young customers. A group of young people is chosen to be the bank managers, their responsibility is to look after the savings, provide advice, authorize loans, and encourage the customers who take out loans to create their own enterprises. The bank is typically open during breaks and after school hours. As they are exposed to the basic concepts of personal finance i.e. the credit scoring system, interest rates, bank fees, and loan repayments, they develop an overall financial awareness that gives them the confidence to use finance in their favor. In addition to the MyBnk-in-a-Box scheme, the program is supported by a wide range of workshops and activities that are focused on enterprise and financial education, and which range from yearlong programs to shorter-term activities. Feedback from participants shows that the success of these activities is due to the fact that they are fun, accessible, stimulating, and adaptable. MyBnk also invites young people to question what banks do with their money and to consider ethical policies when shopping for a bank that suits their needs.

MyBnk programs are offered as an independent activity outside rigid lesson structures, during lunch breaks or after school hours, making them more appealing for participants. In order to de-couple financial education from a purely academic setting and reach the broadest possible cross-section of young people, MyBnk specifically reaches out to a variety of youth organizations other than schools. In doing so, MyBnk is capable of reaching the most vulnerable young people, For example, the Money Works program is designed to empower young people who are not in employment, education or training, and others provide teacher resource packages for structured learning programs around enterprise. This ensures that MyBnk is able to reach all young people, irrespective of background and ability.

Additionally, entrepreneurship education is weaved into everything MyBnk does. Lily understands that one of the many ramifications of a more financially literate person is increased confidence and enterprising ability. For this reason, MyBnk encourages young people to use their loans to set up their own ventures and think about how these may also have a positive impact on society. This is achieved through MyBnk’s Ideas Generator Workshops and Business Battles initiatives, where young people work together to develop and pitch creative enterprise ideas. Through these mechanisms MyBnk uses microfinance as a tool to unlock potential and foster entrepreneurship. Furthermore, participatory education methods, such as enabling young people to run the bank, also incentivize entrepreneurship. Examples of the success of this approach include a car-washing service for teachers set up by a 14-year-old student who quickly repaid the loan and made a profit, and a school which after engaging with the program set up a record of 15 new businesses, including Fully Loaded which produced and delivered sandwiches to the school’s teachers.

To further support its financial literacy work, and because it cares about innovation, MyBnk is developing a new product, Enterprise-in-a-Box, which enforces the delivery of their mission. This will provide young people with all the tools needed to create a social enterprise, giving them an extra boost to break the initial lack of ideas or the panic some face. MyBnk has also recently brought its central project online with the creation of the first online banking system for young people.

Key to Lily’s success and penetration in the market has been the strong brand and reputation built around MyBnk, as well as a model that engages students and provides ongoing support to the teachers and adults involved, making it attractive for schools.

Part of Lily’s spread strategy depends on working with local authorities to identify organizations that deal with vulnerable young people outside the education system. Local authorities also provide the funding to deliver the MyBnk program through their youth organizations, housing associations, and so on. Lily will expand the program by identifying more partner organizations in London and the South East region of England.

Lily has put considerable thought into a potential national franchising model, having mobilized MBAs to put together feasibility studies and to study other success stories such as that of Ashoka Fellow Jeroo Billimoria. She realizes that for the program to go national she will need to complete a stronger impact assessment piece and is already engaging with partners to identify the optimum framework to build her evidence base. One idea is to conduct a longitudinal study and analyze two control groups of young people at transitional moments of their lives. MyBnk is interested in understanding how their programs influence young people’s choices throughout critical moments of their lives.

MyBnk is currently set up as a social enterprise with a diverse funding base that ranges from sales of services and programs to organizations working with young people, private donations, grants, corporate partnerships, and sponsorships. Lily has built MyBnk to be sustainable and remain relevant due to creative delivery programs, as well as how it raises funds. Lily’s team is working toward a model that will increase the proportion of MyBnk’s generated income to move away from traditional fundraising for core costs. On the other hand, Lily is very clear about offering the services to a wide range of young people and foresees that grant funding will still be needed for the maintenance of these specific programs.

The Person

Lily comes from an Italian family but was raised in the U.K., where she moved with her family after her father was assigned to work in London. Despite the move, trips to Italy were very frequent and during these Lily spent a great deal of time with her family, particularly her grandfather, a respected and active member of the community in Abruzzo as well as Lily’s great inspiration. From early on, Lily’s grandfather instilled in her the values of altruism and doing good for others.

Lily remembers never being particularly academic and while she was in school she discovered a passion for theater, which she also describes as her coping strategy. During school was always involved in setting up drama clubs, performing plays, and even managed to convince a traditional French Lycée to formalize its school theater company—a small revolution at the time.

Upon finishing school, Lily realized that she was not ready to throw herself into an acting career just yet. Instead, she felt compelled to spend time in Africa as a volunteer. After raising part of the funds for the trip, she spent nine months in Zimbabwe, where she received training in non-formal education and began to work at the local primary school. She describes this year as the most fulfilling year of her life, feeling for the first time a sense of real purpose. She stayed an extra year by which time it was clear to Lily that she wanted to spend her life serving others. Her newfound passion led her to Bangladesh, where she worked in the field with women and experienced yet a second insight. Lily witnessed how small loans were unleashing the potential of people by giving way to entrepreneurial ideas and ultimately acting as a powerful educational tool. The women were learning business skills, negotiation skills, finance and economy without even knowing it. After spending time in Bangladesh and engaging in other humanitarian work, Lily returned to London with a number of ideas brewing. Her return to the U.K. also exposed her to a new reality in Britain; one where she became aware of the serious social issues affecting young people like herself. As Lily’s ideas matured, she realized that she wanted to marry some of the learning from Bangladesh with an issue that was very close to home: The lack of financial education for young people. Her idea was to use financial services as a practical learning tool to encourage young people to manage their finances and help the wider community. Lily plans to spread the program by identifying more partner organizations in London and the South East region of England. When asked about the future, Lily sees herself fully engaged with MyBnk’s growth and gleams with excitement at both the possibilities and challenges ahead.