Regardless how big or small a company is, all entrepreneurs have a beginning. Sometimes that beginning is clear and definable, and other times it is more ambiguous and stretched out over a period of years. No matter the time-frame, each story is full of valuable lessons. My experience as an educator has proven that these stories hold valuable information for the next wave of entrepreneurial beginners given the proper level of review and scrutiny. In fact, Harvard University does an excellent job of teaching students via these stories that are referred to as case studies.
It is with this value in mind that we decided to make beginning stories an integral part of the OFBV Network's entrepreneurship education programs. As you grow in technical knowledge, we share inspirational and informative stories that detail how entrepreneurs began, in conjunction with related lessons that can be immediately applied to your own entrepreneurial experiences. It is our hope that entrepreneurs will find others' journeys as insightful and supportive as we do.
To kick off our beginners stories, I’d like to share my own beginning in the world of entrepreneurship.
As a teen, I gravitated toward activities that allowed me to help others through service leadership. Whether it was serving as the captain of my county baseball team or through the Boy Scouts, I enjoy being a part of and leading teams. While these early teen experiences may not seem terribly significant, our county baseball team enjoyed three straight county championships and I earned the rank of Eagle Scout and lead our county troop to the National Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill through the Boy Scouts. I’ve always accepted leadership positions with eagerness, and these early experiences helped me to become both a leader and a team player.
Being part of a team, setting goals and helping others to achieve collective goals helps teens to become both confident and capable. Once these activities were accomplished and I moved into young adulthood, I looked to the future to see where I might find opportunities similar to the ones I’d just experienced. Although, I hadn't yet realized that business, and specifically entrepreneurship, would provide me with these same service leadership opportunities.
After graduating from Loyola University, I chose to teach at Jane Addams High School in the Fort Apache section of South Bronx. I’d decided this would be my last form of service before heading to law school and realizing my dream of becoming a sports agent representing athletes. While there, I was shocked at the lack of resources available to educators. At the time, NYC was spending more money per day to house youth offenders at Rikers Island than was being spent to educate students. The lack of resources not only impacted my ability to teach students, but also affected overall morale. Despite the difficult environment, I drew upon my past experiences of leading in difficult situations and completed my first year. I was recognized as one of the top new teachers in the school by the Principal, Patricia Black, who later went on to become Superintendent of Manhattan High Schools.
It was at this time that I met Steve Mariotti, who had begun to teach entrepreneurship to special education students. Steve knew of my reputation in the school and asked if I would partner with to help develop his ideas. I knew next to nothing of wealth creation, free markets and other entrepreneurial concepts that would go on to become an integral part of my life. Steve’s elevator pitch was falling flat, however, he went on to explain his desire to help change the culture of teaching in America by creating an organization that would enable teachers themselves to become a driving force in the development of curriculum and educational tools for students.
Steve shared his belief that the principles of entrepreneurship would improve the individual lives of inner city children, but also build stronger communities in which they live. Steve’s vision stood in stark contrast with what I’d seen in my first year of teaching, but I also saw his determination and was certain he’d succeed with strong leaders to help realize his fantastic vision.
I considered his request only seconds before saying yes and sealing that with a handshake.
Within thirty days I had formed a formal partnership with Steve and was managing our first citywide entrepreneurship education program.
We were was based in Newark, New Jersey and went on to form partnerships with the public schools as well as The Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs. Teaching 900 students and managing twenty full time teachers, I met Mike Caslin shortly thereafter. Mike was a local entrepreneur and development consultant that Steve had brought aboard, and made the third member of NFTE’s founding team. During the course of the next 20 years, our partnership was the core of the NFTE movement that guided the development of entrepreneurial curriculum and systems that brought entrepreneurship to low income youths around the world.
We ultimately built NFTE into a 25 million dollar foundation.
Much has been written about NFTE and our achievements over those 20 years, yet the core of that success was being founded on the principles of service to the marketplace via entrepreneurship. We believed then, as we do now, that idea development through entrepreneurship impacts people’s lives for the better, that entrepreneurs can transform the world by finding effective ways to satisfy the wants and needs of consumers. While we’re all called to express our gifts and talents, entrepreneurs are called to express their gifts and talents through business.
Looking back, I see many examples of how our small team’s commitment to these beliefs helped to build a worldwide movement from the halls of one of the poorest school districts in the U.S. with one of the lowest records of entrepreneurial activity in the nation. Our team efforts, coupled with continuous improvement strategies, propelled Steve’s fantastic vision to the world of tangible realities. I'm proud of NFTE’s history as well as my role as a founder and leader, but would like to highlight the fact that this was all based on the values of service leadership and teamwork learned early during the childhood and teen years.