Guiding Poor Kids to Business

  • Prosperity
  • 1987

Steve Mariotti owned an import-export business in New York when he was mugged by a gang of teenagers in 1981. He wondered what made young people act like that and decided to find the answer by selling his business and becoming a public-school teacher. He asked to work in “the worst schools in the worst neighborhoods,” and then he asked for “the troubled kids.” He believed teaching these children how to start a business would give them “a vision” that would motivate them to stay in school and learn. His first class was part of the typing department at Jane Addams Vocational High School in the South Bronx. In January 1987, the principal asked him to make it an all-day program for 16 of the most troubled students: “Try to save one student,” she told him. It worked much better than that.

The following year, New York Times reporters were shocked by the successes of students to whom Mariotti was teaching business, like Howard Stubbs, a 17-year-old who helped his mother expand a hot-dog stand into a six-cart operation. Mariotti wasn’t surprised: “The best entrepreneurs have had trouble in a structured environment.” In August, he and a colleague hand-wrote fundraising appeals to the entire Forbes 400 list. Ray Chambers, chairman of the private-equity firm Wesray Capital, called him at school and became his first donor, providing $200,000 in seed money to establish what became the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. The organization received additional financial lifelines from Chambers and the JM Foundation when expansion of the operation caused cash-flow struggles. After it launched programs to train teachers, the group began to grow exponentially.

By 2015, NFTE had 11 offices serving 18 states, plus licensed operations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The group has trained more than 500,000 young people in how to start and succeed in their own business. The eleventh edition of its curriculum, Entrepreneurship: Owning Your Future, won the 2010 Distinguished Achievement Award of the Association of Education Publishers for best high-school math curriculum. Research by scholars at Harvard, Brandeis, and the Koch Foundation shows that alumni are far more likely than control groups to have started a business, attended college, and increased their business knowledge.

Among hundreds of individuals, foundations, and companies that now support NFTE, to the tune of $18 million per year, leading recent funders have included the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, MasterCard, Ernst & Young, and the Seedlings Foundation.