Steve Mariotti has spent the past three decades on a mission to bring the concepts of entrepreneurship and business ownership to every student around the globe. His own experience in the classroom inspired him to create the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) in 1987. The NFTE mission is to bring entrepreneurship education to low-income youth, and empower them to create pathways out of poverty.
Mariotti started his teaching career in some of the toughest public schools in the country in neighborhoods like East New York, Bed-Stuy, and Fort Apache in the South Bronx. What he found there were students who had been relegated to life in poverty through an education based on being an adequate employee, with little knowledge about the world of opportunity in small business.
By bringing business into the classroom, he not only saw that his students became more engaged in what they were learning but also in their futures. 30 years later, Mariotti is sharing some of what he learned in those long, early days in his new book Goodbye Homeboy: How My Students Drove Me Crazy and Inspired a Movement. In short, Goodbye Homeboy is moving, funny, and a compelling memoir about a person’s drive to make a difference in the world and society.
When you first started teaching your students about entrepreneurship, they were enthralled. What was that like for you?
It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Even 30 years later, I can recall every second. It was the 18th of March, 1983 at the Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. 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 into 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 occurred 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.
Image credits: Steve Mariotti