I founded the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) in 1987 after seven years teaching special education in New York City Public Schools. It was my experience in the schools that showed me that students actually wanted to learn about business, and that learning about it opened their eyes to a new and exciting world.
September of 1981… Life seemed perfect and like it was only going to get better.
Out of nowhere, I got mugged in broad daylight in a neighborhood park. The mugging took its toll on me and I developed a crippling case of PTSD that I would not wish on my worst enemy. I sought help from the famous psychologist Albert Ellis and part of his prescription for me was to work as a teacher in Bedford Stuyvesant. His argument was that by teaching for a short time in difficult schools, I could face my fears and heal.
Despite some kicking and screaming on my part, my first day was March 6th, 1982.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was also the first day of what has now been a 37-year career in at-risk youth education. I ended up selling my import export business to a client in 1983, so I could focus full-time on teaching in the South Bronx.
On March 18th, 1983 at the Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, my first breakthrough came.
The class was unbearable, as it was on many days, so much so that I had to step outside and rest. In the hallway, I prayed that something would happen so that I wouldn’t have to go back in.
I crossed my arms and looked down toward my feet, trying to think something up, when my wristwatch called my attention. Maybe this will distract everyone, I thought to myself as I walked back in the room.
With a little bit more confidence and some good showmanship, I walked up to the board and held the watch out. ‘What would you pay for this?’ I yelled.
The class went stone-cold silent before voices erupted to discuss the watch’s value. This was the same class that was in utter chaos just a few minutes before, so I knew I had what they call a teachable moment. I began asking more questions. What did the watch store pay for this watch? How much did its parts cost? My students were again silent. It turned out that none of them had been taught about production and manufacturing, or wholesales and distribution.
It occured to me that my students, all of whom were living in a cycle of intergenerational poverty, knew nothing about how businesses work.
And because of this dearth of knowledge, they had almost no chance of finding a business opportunity, a niche as a wholesaler or retailer, or even negotiating prices.
This was probably the most important insight of my career. It helped lead me down a path to learn more about why people stayed in poverty, and to work on my personal mission to bring ownership education and entrepreneurship to every young person.
This turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with my students and find out what worked for them. As a result, I developed and used my own curriculum about making and managing money, all of which turned into the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship in 1987.