UI graduate student promotes financial literacy on viral TikTok account

University of Iowa graduate student Claire McDonnell uses her TikTok account of more than 600,000 followers to address social issues for women and promote financial literacy.


Sid Peterson

Claire McDonnell poses for a portrait at the Pentacrest on Wednesday, May 5, 2021.

Sabine Martin, News Reporter

Claire McDonnell made her first TikTok last September, and the short comedic clips on women’s social issues that she continued to publish quickly went viral on the platform. Direct messages filled McDonnell’s inbox with women thanking her for creating inspiring content and for amplifying women’s voices.

“That’s when I started to really take it a little bit more seriously,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell said her TikTok account, @cleasel, has a 90-percent female and 10-percent male audience.

She has 642,300 followers on the platform, and said it is important to use her platform for good –– promoting financial literacy to underrepresented communities. McDonnell’s TikTok tells stories of her experience at the University of Iowa and in her life.

McDonnell is a graduate student at the UI in the master’s in science and finance program in the Tippie College of Business. She will graduate this spring.

McDonnell’s master’s thesis and research grew into her nonprofit, FinanceEDucational, and the graduating business student said TikTok has played an outsized role in growing the nonprofit.

“My nonprofit is to promote financial literacy to the underrepresented, so people like women, immigrants, minorities, low-income families and individuals,” McDonnell said. “I also am creating a sector as well to promote financial literacy on the business side of things for women-owned, first-gen, and immigrant minority-owned businesses.”

McDonnell said all the proceeds from TikTok and her upcoming book project about amplifying women’s voices will go toward FinanceEDucational.

“I’ve already been using TikTok to promote the nonprofit and get volunteers to help,” she said.

Mallory Brand, a sophomore at the UI, had McDonnell as her teaching assistant in microeconomics during the spring semester. This summer, Brand plans work for McDonnell’s nonprofit.

“I love that she tries to normalize stuff that a bunch of people go through,” Brand said. “I’ll see her record TikToks and I’m like ‘How do you just say that?’ and ‘How are you so vulnerable?’ She’s really inspiring for so many people in her comments and to people that reach out to her.”

McDonnell, who grew up in Iowa City, worked in commercial banking as a commercial credit analyst for two and a half years during her undergraduate education at the UI. She said she enjoyed her position but realized that she didn’t want to start a high-paying finance job after graduating, when some people don’t even know the basics of finance.

The National Financial Educators Council’s national financial literacy test, taken by more than 17,000 participants, has an average score of 63.17 percent.

“I was inspired. I saw it just even within our own community,” McDonnell said. “Every loan I was working on was for a white male, and it wasn’t like we were denying women or immigrants or minorities on the application, but we weren’t even really getting any.”

The nonprofit is in the fundraising stage to build and launch the curriculum for financial literacy, McDonnell said.

“I’m so ready to be done and start really focusing on my nonprofit and devoting all

my time to my book and my nonprofit and continuing to make content for women,” she said.

McDonnell was featured on the NBC show “Little Late with Lilly Singh” in February and has been written about in Buzzfeed News and Insider after speaking about her finance program at the UI on TikTok.

The Insider article, titled “A science student recorded a work call to show how often women in STEM are interrupted by men, and the TikTok went viral,” was written without McDonnell’s consent, but she received messages from women across the country thanking her for her TikTok’s message.

“There was a lot of backlash from my peers,” she said. “But I also had so many women reach out to me from those articles who said, ‘Thank you for demonstrating, this is literally me every day,’ and ‘It’s so nice to feel heard.’”

McDonnell said her opinion on traditional finance sector soured because of her experiences with some peers in her program. Some of her classmates responded negatively to her choice to start a nonprofit to promote financial literacy. She decided not to attend the UI’s in-person graduation celebration after her experience with the program.

“It’s definitely been hard,” McDonnell said. “I’ve been through a lot in my program and finance career. A lot of people, a lot of guys in my program, have even made fun of my choices for choosing to start a nonprofit. I haven’t had the best experience in my field whatsoever, which was another kind of reason why I have decided to kind of exit the traditional finance field and kind of go into a little bit more of a social cause-type finance career.”

The UI’s online MBA program at the Tippie College of Business is composed of about 62 percent men and 38 percent women. In McDonnell’s graduate science and finance program at the UI, she is one of four women out of 60 men.

Sean Carlin, who is graduating in the same UI program as McDonnell, said McDonnell’s platform for women to talk about feminism and social issues is inspiring. He said he commends McDonnell for speaking out against any mistreatment of women and encouraging diversity in the UI’s program.

“Having that platform to promote her nonprofit, to promote financial literacy is really impressive and inspiring to those who may be afraid to take an unconventional route or take the skills that they learned in school to make an impact on the world,” Carlin said.

McDonnell said, even though TikTok has allowed her many social media opportunities, her finance career will always be her lifelong work.

“No matter what I’m doing, even if it’s not always my main focus, this is something I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” McDonnell said. “I want to dedicate my life and everything that I’ve learned in my undergrad and grad school program to make a difference.”

Editor’s note: This page has been updated to reflect more accurate enrollment numbers of the UI’s online MBA program.