Leading Economic Educator
Then he discovered that business itself made a great lesson plan.
By: Frank Rubino
H E WAS A NICE GUY who had only himself to blame for the professional nightmare in front of him. Certainly no one had coerced Steve Mariotti into seeking a teaching position at Brooklyn’s notorious Boys and Girls High School, an institution with a dropout rate exceeding 50% and one so rife with violence that newspaper cover stories wrote themselves. “Teacher Beaten and Dragged Down Steps,” screamed one tabloid headline. And it wasn’t as though Mariotti lacked for less dangerous career options. He held an MBA from the University of Michigan, and was such a whiz at international finance that his colleagues at Ford Motor Company had dubbed him Stevie Wonder after he made millions for the auto-motive giant lowering Ford’s international interest expenses and improving their international cash management.
After serving as Ford’s South African treasury analyst for thirty months in the late 1970s, he moved to New York City and started an import-export company, cleverly specializing in exotic commodities from Africa and Pakistan—freshwater shrimp and nuts, to name two—that larger firms over-looked. He was a fresh-faced commercial genius living in the epicenter of capital-ism with moneymaking opportunities streaking around him like comets. Few doubted that he would achieve his goal of becoming a millionaire by age thirty Yet here he stood, clutching a piece of chalk and trying to teach math over the cacophony of forty-six rebellious teen-agers in one of the most dangerous public schools in the country. He wouldn’t be here had he not already been assaulted.
Months earlier, while he was jogging one late afternoon along Manhattan’s East River, a half-dozen young thugs surrounded Mariotti and made him give up $10. They slapped him around, knocked him down, and threatened to throw him in the river, humiliating him in front of his female companion. After the attack, he became fearful of young people who looked like they came from “bad” neighbor-hoods, even crossing streets to avoid them. The paranoia went on for months; Mariotti stopped jogging and relived his mugging daily. Finally he was struck by the notion that teaching in a tough inner-city school for a short spell—confronting his fear directly might help him to overcome it. Then he could resume his passion, the art of making dollars. “I only wanted to teach for about four or five days,” he says. Mariotti applied for a teaching position with the New York City Department of Education, asking to be assigned to the ‘worst” school with an opening.
After he agreed to earn nine college credits in education over the next two years, the school board hired him and gladly accommodated his “special request by dispatch-ing him to Boys and Girls High in Brooklyn’s blighted Bedford-Stuyvesant section Initially, the plan seemed a stroke of brilliance. Within an hour of arriving at school on his first day, Mariotti’s fear of his teenage students was waning, and they listen-ed quietly as he went through his introductory spiel. But the honeymoon ended abruptly, and the kids turned belligerent. They called him “Mr. Manicotti,” pelted him with spitballs, and stuck gum to his chair. They played radios during class, clapped in unison, and danced on their desks. One kid even set another’s jacket on fire. Three particularly surly boys named Mills, Morrow, and Braddock worked overtime to torment Mariotti. They grunted like animals when he spoke, challenged him on everything, and cursed him viciously when he reprimanded them.
One particularly tumultuous afternoon, Mariotti’s uproarious eighth period students drove him from the classroom. As he trembled in the hallway, he gave serious thought to pulling the plug on his teaching experiment. He wasn’t afraid of his students at this point. Rather, he was frustrated over his inability to reach them. “I felt like I was in a situation that I had no control over,” he remembers. “It was like no matter what I did, I would always be a C-minus as a teacher. I just stood there going, ‘I can’t stand it.”’
The year was 1982, and Mariotti had arrived at his life’s defining moment. To this day, he can’t say what precipitated his next move. He only knows that he gathered his composure, strode back into the classroom, and launched into a sales pitch involving his wristwatch. He highlighted its features, arguing that anyone willing to pay six bucks for it would be getting a great deal. And he noticed that something strange and wonderful was happening: the kids were paying attention to Gaining momentum, he incorporated the mock transaction into a conventional math lesson: if he had paid three dollars for the watch and sold it for six, he would be reaping a profit of 100%.
The students remained quiet, tuned into Mariotti’s every syllable. And he realized that he had struck upon a powerful dynamic: poor kids’ intense hunger to become educated about free enterprise.
“ALL I’VE DONE for twenty-one years is think about that one idea,” Steve Mariotti, now forty-nine, says on a New York evening in late February. “How do you teach business to kids that don’t get exposed to it?” He sits behind a large, cluttered desk, and wears a navy blue pinstriped suit. He has a bit less hair than he did a couple of decades ago, but he’s lost none of his zeal for shining the beacon of opportunity in kids’ faces.
Mariotti is president of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE—pronounced “nifty”), a nonprofit he founded in 1987 while still teaching in the public schools. His organization, headquartered in a suite of offices on the twenty-ninth floor of a Wall Street skyscraper, is grounded in the concept that Mariotti stumbled onto in a chaotic Brooklyn classroom: Kids growing up poor want to learn about running their own businesses. What’s more, their unpredictable childhoods serve as training grounds that prepare them for the uncertainties common to virtually all fledgling entrepreneurs. “Small business is all about ambi-guity,” Mariotti explains in his excited-to-be-alive tone. “I call it the fog of bus-iness, and they don’t teach it in school. In business, people don’t pay you, people don’t sign contracts, people badmouth you, people mislead you. Kids who have been raised in situations where things are constantly changing develop an ability to deal with that stuff.”
Large, framed photos on the walls of Mariotti’s office underscore his philosophy of engaging kids early. In one, an African American boy maybe seven years old uses a magic marker and poster board to express his ambition: “I want to design clothing for people, cats, dogs, and horses. My clothing will run from $25 to $500 because horses are big, the material costs...”
Actually, NFTE’s programs, which entail between 50 and 200 hours of instruction, are tailored to children between the ages of eleven and eighteen. Most of the learn-ing occurs in public school classrooms (NFTE targets schools in which 50 % or more of the students are eligible for free lunches as well as schools situated in enterprise zones). Teachers either blend the curriculum—based on several editions of Mariotti’s text The Young Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting and Running a Business into traditional reading, writing, and math lessons or conduct classes based exclusively on the NFTE material.
Buy low Sell high. Satisfy customer needs. Create a business plan. Write clear memos. Keep good records. Be polite .Develop ethics. According to Mariotti, the kids eat it up. “They’re dying to learn it,” he says. “These kids are dying to .learn about ownership. It’s what they’re interested in. And we hide it and push them away from it, and set up this whole thing where business is for rich people and the sons and daughters of the rich. That’s the tragedy of the public schools.”
Public schools aren’t the only settings for NFTE instruction.. Boys and Girls Clubs and other community organizations also host classes (youth counselors are trained as business instructors through NFTE University, Mariotti’s teacher-training initiative). Every summer, Babson College in Massachusetts and universities such as Georgetown, Stanford, Columbia, Carnegie Mellon and New York University host eleven-day NFTE Bizcamps. There is also an interactive, online course known as Biztech www.nfte.com
During its first year, NFTE operated in Philadelphia and in Newark, New Jersey, on a shoestring budget of $189,000. Today the curriculum is taught in forty-three states and in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands, Africa, India, El Salvador, and Argentina. Corporate and private donations (NFTEs biggest sponsors are Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, NASDAQ Educational Foundation, and McKinsey and Company), plus about $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Education and the Small Business Administration gave the organization nearly $8 million to work with last year. More than 65,000 kids have graduated to date. Since July, 2002, some 17,000 new students have enrolled.
Not all of them will become as entrepreneurial as Bill Gates, or even as Steve Mariotti, who earns $160,000 annually (he travels 200 days a year raising money, recruiting board members, and training teachers). In fact, most NFTE grads won’t go into business at all. Mariotti estimates that about one in eight alumni start small enterprises—usually tiny enterprises at the outset—involving such endeavors as babysitting, fixing cars, baking cakes, or knitting sweaters and Web site develop-ment. “It’s very rare that one of our kids is doing more than $1,000 a month,” Mariotti says. “On average, I’d say our kids do $100 to $150 a month.”
Genevieve Santos is faring slightly better than that. She’s a seventeen-year-old senior at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens who graduated from NFTE two summers ago. Since December, she’s also been the president of her own company, Blue Media Photo Albums. For $9.99 she’ll sell you a basic mini-album; for $39.99, a fancy wedding scrapbook. She’s artistic, and for an extra fee she will customize your book’s cover (she offers gift wrapping, too). Santos says she’s taking in $200 to $300 dollars a month. She plans to go to college, and then to find a job in marketing, ‘the fun side of business,” as she calls it. Ultimately, she hopes to start a marketing solutions firm. “I don’t want to work for the Big man,” she says. “I want to be the Big man.”
Then there’s restaurateur Malik Armstead, a NFTE alumnus, who would appear to have indeed become ‘the big man.” Armstead, a thirty-two-year-old native of a low-income neighborhood in Philadelphia, has displayed a knack for selling food since he was a teenager. During his high school lunch periods, he peddled desserts he had prepared at home, store-bought snacks, and cans of no-frills soda for small markups. “It added up,” he says. “At the end of the week, I’d have enough money to buy a pair of sneakers or go on a date.” He went through the NFTE program when he was seventeen, and it sharpened his business acumen. “I can’t say enough about all the things they taught me,” he says. It also instilled in him the importance of pursuing higher education, developing solid professional relationships, and conducting himself ethically, he says. After high school, he attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in finance. He ended up on Wall Street in 1993, working for investment banker Morgan Stanley. That would have provided a happy ending, except that Armstead yearned to be his own boss.
He saved his money, and in 1996 opened a soul food take-out restaurant on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood. He worked long hours in the beginning. serving as his own chef, hut his food was tasty, and his customers came back. Four months after lie opened, he bought the building he was renting and subsequently purchased two more properties on the block. Today, the Five Spot restaurant is thriving. Armstead and his wile, Kim, still provide takeout service, but they also operate a supper club with a bar. They employ a staff of twenty, and host live entertainment nightly. Their business is part of an urban renewal process sweeping Clinton Hill. “Not long ago, Myrtle Avenue was known to a lot of people
as Murder Avenue,’’ Armstead says. “I’m proud to he helping to turn this neighbor-hood around.” Armstead is not the only NFTE graduate who is shaking things up. Jimmy Mack, thirty-one, is the owner and CEO of Bulldog Bikes, also based in Brooklyn. Mack, who went through the NFTE program in 1989, previously owned
Bulldog Records, a hip-hop label. He got into BMN hike manufacturing four years ago, and is now marketing his products across the United States, and in Europe and Australia. “We make high-end bikes,” Mack says ‘We’re selling them all over the world. We’re doing well.”
Others too are achieving success, and Mariotti says he’s proud of them all. But lie’s quick to add that entrepreneurship education is not singularly focused on the brass ring. It’s also about shaping city kids into good citizens, sometimes by modifying distorted views of “the system.” Many students, for example, who previously felt contempt for immigrants who own stores in urban areas have gained an appreciation for the financial realities such entrepreneurs wrestle with. “A lot of these kids thought a small business owner makes ninety cents profit from every dollar in sales, when in fact it’s more like three or four cents per dollar,” Mariotti say’s. “When kids do income statements and learn about costs—rent, utilities, even things like pens and paper—they become much more sympathetic. This actually saves lives, because a lot of the tragic stories in cities involve people targeting small business owners.
John C. Whitehcad, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Cor- poration (who recently accepted an architect’s design for a new World Trade Center), has long been impressed by the positive morphs he’s observed in NFTE students. “These kids get the idea that they can make money in a legitimate way, and they become inspired,” he says. “When they open little businesses, they become part of the system, and they start to believe in the system. And now they realize that they have to be nice to their customers, they have to be nice to their suppliers, they have to be nice to their bankers, and so on. The process changes their lives. It’s quite remarkable to watch them come along.” adds Marcia I. Lamb, co-executive director of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a national think tank on urban business development: “NFTE has an extraordinary impact on young people. I’ve interacted with some of them, and the growth in self-esteem that they experience through tackling something that was foreign to them is a powerful thing to witness. It turns them into leaders in their communities.”
MARIOTTI SAYS HE’S JUST getting warmed up. He plans to grow NFTE internationally and hopes that within operating in every country. “I’d like for every kid in the world to have the opportunity to learn one of the most important skills a person can have, the skill of knowing how to earn a living in a free market economy.” He hopes that in 500 years people regard NFTE as “the best organizat-ion there ever was at doing what we do. “ Mariotti taught at Boys and Girls High School for just one year in 1982 initially, but he remembers it as one of the most rewarding interludes of his life. He says the nicest part was that ‘selling’ a watch led him to develop a teaching style that sold his students on their potential. He started by designing business-oriented exercises that entertained the kids while improving their basic skills. They worked on speech and courtesy by making mock sales calls that Mariotti videotaped for review. They worked on math by taking turns playing the role of a shopkeeper making change. They worked on reading by poring through the pages of The Wall Street Journal (they even learned to track stocks). Before long, little businesses began sprouting up around the classroom— kids cutting hair, doing manicures. selling sunglasses. Even Braddock, one of the three tough guys who had sweated Mariotti unmercifully, announced his intention to get something going.
Mariotti requested a transfer near the end of the year because he wanted to test his method at other schools (he continued teaching in the New York system until 1988). When he walked into his final class at Boys and Girls High, he found a basket of chicken, a record album, and a bottle of cologne on his desk. On the blackboard, all of his students had signed their names underneath this salute: “Goodbye, Homeboy. From the Entrepreneurs of Boys and Girls High School.”
Frank Rubino is a writer in Philadelphia
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