Inside MassMutual’s Radical Learning Initiative

By Judy Quinn |  January 20, 2015

The street-level store looks like a hipster coffee shop, complete with chalkboard murals inside. There are maple-bacon doughnuts in the mornings, and supper clubs at night. Comedian Mike Birbiglia, a regular on public radio’s “This American Life,” performed at the opening. And there are classes with titles like “In Case of Zombie Apocalypse: Why You Should Think About a Will.”

This is the first spin-out project from the MassMutual Financial Group, a $27 billion financial services company founded in 1851. It’s called Society of Grownups, and MassMutual describes the 2,000-square foot facility as a consumer “learning initiative.” It opened in October 2014 near a public transit stop in Brookline, a Boston suburb not far from Boston College.

Here’s how the radical concept was born, and what MassMutual hopes to achieve.

From Millennial to “Mindset”

The genesis of Society of Grownups derived from a familiar-sounding innovation challenge. Several years ago, Gareth Ross, MassMutual’s senior vice president of advanced analytics and data science, was asked by MassMutual senior management to lead an effort to better understand and engage with “the future consumer.”

Ross, right, admits that he “initially thought this would be all about a certain demographic. But what we learned is that we needed to engage the consumer in having a ‘grownup mindset’ – thinking about the future, willing to take actions. I was initially equating that to a millennial, but we have quickly moved away from that.”

And Ross quickly realized that he’d have to take this project outside. “We do a lot of things well, but large organizations can find it hard to get the space to move quickly, to escape our own gravitational pull,” he says. “Our initial bent, was, ‘Let’s go ask some experts, get some outside partners. Let’s treat it as a startup, let’s unencumber it.'”

So MassMutual hired IDEO, the design and innovation consulting firm, and set up Society of Grownups as its own legal entity that, after some startup funding from MassMutual, is expected to run as its own business.

Ross says such there was not much debate within MassMutual about that decision because “it seemed self evident that a Fortune 100, more than 160-year-old firm is built to provide a great deal of value and stability. But to innovate, we would have to create new spaces.” As part of the separation, Society of Grownups’ on-site financial planners, available by appointment in 20- or 90-minute sessions, are forbidden to push MassMutual products.

“I cannot stress this enough: We didn’t say ‘How can we sell more insurance through this thing?'” says Ross. “It’s about ‘How do we get to know the marketplace?'”

The startup team tapped into what Ross describes as IDEO’s “well-established human centric design process” to develop those new spaces, which would best engage emerging audiences in seeking knowledge and community about their financial/life milestone concerns.

“Much of it involved going out into the real world and drawing insight from analogous research,” says Ross. “For example, we looked at a motorcycle store called Deus Ex Machina, which gave us a working model for how to build a business that has multiple price points of entry. We also conducted a series of interviews with people at either end of the risk spectrum: ‘cliff divers’ and ‘survivalists.'” The former group represented extreme risk, the latter extreme conservatism. The process led to a series of ever more refined prototypes, and eventually the final model. 

Ross acknowledges that he originally thought that the model would largely focus on that popular target group, the millennial generation. That soon shifted, and a primary customer focus for the Society is young people who are not well-served by financial planners today, and who may not seek out advice from traditional financial services firms.


Of course, millennial flavor is certainly still a key element in Society of Grownups’s general presentation, with Wired magazine recently dubbing the initiative “the Anthropologie of annuities.” But just as that retail outlet isn’t necessarily solely for a younger demographic, so too does Society of Grownups aim for a broad reach. Nondini Naqui, the banking/philanthropy professional hired to be the director of the spinout last February (pictured at left), says that class attendees so far have been impossible to slot into a single demographic.

“It’s about the 27-year-old thinking about freelancing to the 45-year-old thinking about buying a house,” she says. She sees the initiative as addressing a “consumer-latent need” and serving as a “democratizing” of financial information. “We seek to curate and make it meaningful,” she says. “Our physical location is an incredible catalyst and a place of learning.”

The space is open Wednesday through Sunday, closed Mondays and Tuesdays. There are free movie and board game nights. “Chats” on topics like becoming a freelancer or planning grownup trips cost $10. Evening supper club conversations on topics like “Couples & Money” cost $40. At the high end of the menu are 90-minute financial consults, which cost $100. The description: “We’ll look at your household budget, tax situation, and debt picture. Then we’ll assess your risk tolerances and factor in your lifestyle choices. Finally, we’ll apply this knowledge to the scenarios you’re most likely to face in the future.” While the Certified Financial Planners who teach classes and offer consults can make recommendations about products, they don’t open accounts at the Society, and they aren’t there to pitch MassMutual’s offerings.

“A Constant Iteration”

Ross and Naqui are quick to point out that they intend to keep learning from the initiative, finding out what works and what doesn’t and adapting the concept. As Ross puts it, the spinout of the Society of Grownups was done with that purpose in mind, “to give us distance and space to test and learn.”

Naqui is only half-kidding when she mentions that a key lesson gleaned soon after launch was that serving food family-style at a supper club actually didn’t work as expected, because “people didn’t pass the food.” Supper clubs now have staff servers, so the focus can be on fostering good conversation, not on the mechanics of moving food around.

Humor has proven to be a vital part of the enterprise, with Ross and Naqui both mention that the “In Case of Zombie Apocalypse” tagline has proven to be an effective way to draw in audiences, and eliminate the fear factor of focusing on the scary financial topic of wills.

Another take-away for the team so far is that classes aimed at new parents haven’t taken off. “We realized this group is too busy to actually attend classes,” Ross says.

The current focus is on refining the Society of Grownups offering. “We ask at the end of every class and every planning session, ‘How did it go?,’ likes, dislikes, ‘What would you change?’ We also ask every teacher or planner for their perceptions,” he says. “And we make lots of small tweaks constantly.”

Ross also pores over a host of digital metrics, including the growing hits received on the Society of Grownups website, as well as social media chatter.

“What’s really been great is that others are defending us to those who are skeptical,” says Ross. Naqui notes that she already has an uber-ambassador: one woman has signed up for every class offered at the Brookline facility to date. Cultivating positive word-of-mouth is a must, especially given that financial regulatory rules put restrictions on what kind of testimonials MassMutual and the Society can use on websites or advertising.

What’s next?

When and how additional locations might be launched remains to be seen. “We have dreams to expand and be able to reach more grownups nationally,” Naqui says, “but right now we’re focused on what we can learn here.” She says that a current focus is improving the Society’s online presence: “How do we humanize our digital platform? How do we take our message and make it scalable?” Naqui says the dialogue and feedback taking place at the facility are helping to shape and expand the learning content of the Society of Grownups website.

Another next step may well be new alliances with partners to further enhance the value proposition. “I’m really pushing for partnerships,” says Ross, who notes that MassMutual doesn’t currently directly sell property insurance, for example, yet these products align with the interest to emerging Society of Grownup community. “We are thinking about partnering with other firms to grow an even bigger base of trusting consumers.”

The Society of Grownups team now has 17 people, and Naqui says it has a great deal of independence, though she still interacts regularly with Ross. “We’re empowered to make our own decisions about our strategy,” she says. “They are advisors, collaborators. But we’re given a great deal of latitude to be able to take this forward.”

Here’s a video overview created by Society of Grownups:

Welcome to Society of Grownups. Helping you find your inner adult.