Chapter One- From the Book I SaidYes! Real Life Stories of Teachers Youth and Leaders Saying YES! to Entrepreneurship in America’s Schools

Posted: April 10, 2009 in Education
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Excerpt from I SaidYes!

Real Life Stories of Students, Teachers and Leaders Saying YES! To Youth Entrepreneurship in America’s Schools (http://www.amazon.com/Stories-Students-Teachers-Entrepreneurship-Americas/dp/0976582368/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1231191796&sr=8-1)

By Julie Silard Kantor

 

Available on http://www.amazon.com and www.gazelles.com ISBN-10:0-9765823-6-8

Published by Gazelles Inc. © by Julie Kantor.

 

Deshaun’s 6-foot, 300-pound frame towered over my 5 foot 6 inches. His lower lip twitched as he stared down at me. He was about to cry! Was he mad at me or mad at life? I wondered.

“It’s not that I don’t care, Ms. Julie,” he said, “it’s that I can’t do math!”

It was the summer of 1993 in Brockton, Massachusetts, and a particularly hot and sticky day. The shoe manufacturing capital of the world in the early 1900s, Brockton was now strewn with abandoned hulks of factories, and other grim reminders on the desolate streets, of a once-vibrant economy. A few remaining downtown storefronts displayed “Going Out of Business” signs. Deshaun and other residents were subject to periodic “brown-outs,” and sometimes there was no electricity at all. Now it seemed that a recent graduate from Brockton High had never really learned to add or subtract. I wondered how Deshaun had made it through school.

Even with a high school diploma, Deshaun’s future seemed uncertain and bleak. Eighteen years old, raised by a single mother who was living on public assistance, Deshaun felt the pressure of being the man of the house and the need to help raise his four younger siblings. Several months before joining my class, a stray bullet had torn straight through Deshaun’s calf while he was at a party. He told me he had “been in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

But rather than dwell on the negatives in his life, Deshaun had come up with inventive solutions. One was for a refrigerator with a backup battery that would provide power during the brownouts that often spoiled his family’s and neighbors’ groceries. Another was for a convenience store on wheels, to provide goods no longer available in town, to bring ordinary consumer items to those unwilling to risk Brockton’s dangerous streets.

At this summer BizCamp I was teaching at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Brockton for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) — a “mini-MBA” program for at-risk youth — Deshaun finally seemed to be in the right place at the right time. With his innate charm and sparkling brown eyes, Deshaun soon became the class leader and chief motivator — as well as my favorite student. He shared his ideas about how he could improve people’s lives in his hometown while satisfying their needs as consumers. “I’d be like the ice cream man but with more products,” he told the class. “A lot of people are scared to go out at night, so the Deshaun’s Convenience Store on Wheels van would come around, and I’d be sellin’ VCR tapes, baby formula, diapers — whatever they’d need.”

On this particular afternoon, I was setting up a lesson on the concept of Return on Investment: “Let’s say that one day your brother invests $2 so you can start a lemonade business,” I had begun. “Then, at the end of the day, you have sold $5 worth of lemonade. So you give your brother back the loan plus $2, or $4 total. What was the return on his investment?” (The formula is: what you made [$4 – $2 = $2] over what you paid [$2 at the beginning of the day] times 100 (4 – 2 over 2 = 1 times 100 = 100%). Exercises such as these were an integral part of the NFTE course as set out in its textbook, How to Start and Operate a Small Business. As I asked each student to take a turn answering these kind of simple math questions, I noticed Deshaun closing his book and avoiding eye contact. He leaned back in his seat with his arms folded.

“Deshaun, you’re next,” I said.

He looked away.

“Deshaun?”

His eyes met mine. Suddenly his defiance turned into an empty gaze, as he stared at the floor.

“Deshaun, would you like to do the next one? Number 8, I believe, on page 86?”

“Nope,” he finally replied.

“Deshaun, can you open your book to page 86?”

“Don’t care to.”

Now, this is a real tough moment for a teacher. My top student was basically telling me to “F-off.” Deshaun looked both defeated and irritated with me. I didn’t know what to do.

“Deshaun, can I see you outside, please?” I asked, and had my teacher’s assistant take over the class. I didn’t want to embarrass students in front of their peers.

“Deshaun, you have been the best student in this class, and the others all look up to you,” I said, remembering to start with a positive comment before stating my concern. “When you say that you “don’t care to,” what message does that send to everyone else?”

Keeping my poise, and with a very stern face, I then said, “Deshaun, can you please tell me what is going on here? I can’t let you ruin the class today.”

“I can’t do the math, Ms. Julie,” he said plaintively.

“OK, Deshaun, if I give you a dollar,” and I handed him one, “and at the end of the day you give me back two, after you made five dollars selling lemonade, how much is what you give me back compared to what you started with?”

In one hand, like a scale, Deshaun held the dollar I gave him, and in the other he held an imaginary dollar that he was going to give me.

“It’s the same,” he said. “I’ll give you back the same amount that you gave me plus another dollar.“

“So is it 100% of what you started with?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Another question, Deshaun. When we went to New York and you bought those ‘music star’ T-shirts for $36 a dozen, how many did you get?”

“I bought 12 shirts, Ms. Julie. They cost me $3 each.”

“How many did you sell?”

He replied, with a big smile, that he had sold eight for $10 each.

“So how much did you make when we were selling our products at the Unity Festival?”

“Eighty dollars — no, ninety, ‘cause I sold the Janet Jackson one to my aunt later on that weekend.”

I saw recognition light up in Deshaun’s face. Earlier, he had shared his great sales results with the class, and I knew this was a source of pride.

“So, how much did you spend on those nine?”

Deshaun started counting on his fingers. His lips moved as he counted; he got frustrated and counted again.

“Twenty-six — no, 27 dollars,” he said proudly.

“Deshaun, I don’t know if you realize this, but you are doing math, my friend! Let’s go back into class now and we can work more on all this. I want you to be really strong and confident in business.”

This moment freed Deshaun from his paralysis of not knowing math in the classroom. He went on to sell many more shirts that summer, earning more than $500 each month. But a sense of outrage passed through me. How could a young man with so much potential and passion graduate from high school in the belief that he could not do simple math problems? How did Deshaun slip through the cracks of our educational system? What would his future hold if he didn’t have the basics? Deshaun, as with millions of other economically disadvantaged youths , would be prevented from working in the business world and pursuing entrepreneurship simply because they could not read and write or do simple math. How can we ensure that students are prepared to make it both in the market economy and as good citizens? How would Deshaun make it?

That day showed me that many young people do not have the confidence they need in the ability to perform basic but crucial career-related tasks — whether math, reading, writing, or speaking in public. But I’ve seen this lack of confidence shift in young people time and again when it comes to showing them how to make money through their own businesses.

The I can’t suddenly becomes I can, when math and reading are shown to have practical, real-life applications. Something as simple as getting business cards made or filling in an inventory or sales sheet can spark the inspiration to figure out math, create flyers, check spelling, learn to use a computer, and speak to strangers, as they relate to building a small business and getting customers to buy their products. I often tell my students: “The last four letters in American are I can.” With appropriate training, education, start-up capital, and access to the resources of our market economy, young people can be economically productive members of society and lead fulfilling lives.

Edward Taylor is an example of what can happen when people choose to take control of their lives despite initial disadvantages. Having grown up in poverty in a tough neighborhood in New York, Edward became one of my first board members when I was the director of NFTE’s Boston (later, New England) operations. He spoke to Deshaun’s class that summer and at one point pulled up his sleeve and showed two scars, where he had had gang tattoos removed. “Out of nine friends I had growing up, eight are now dead or in jail,” Edward said. He told the class that he had been lucky to have escaped a life of gangs and street fights, which would have led to prison and perhaps death. Deshaun had edged forward in his seat, listening intently, soaking up every word.

Edward talked about running across a copy of Better Homes and Gardens. He asked himself why he couldn’t live as well as the people in the magazine. “I decided to make a change in my life,” he told the class. He started a small business in high school, typing term papers for other students, charging a few dollars a page. After a few months, he decided he truly hated typing, so he hired other people to do the work, and then marketed the business for a 50% cut of the revenues.

Edward would eventually found one of the largest minority-owned temporary staffing agencies in the country. While he was growing up, Edward’s mother worked as a maid to provide for the family. As an example of how far he had come in his life, Edward told the class that, a few years before, he had been able to buy his mother the house that she used to work in.

Edward related that he had had many tough choices to make at an early age, and many temptations. But he chose to build a legal enterprise and he had created a good life for himself and his family. “Like most young people I speak to these days, many of you are likely at a crossroads in your life,” he said. “Let’s face it, if and when Julie invites me back, some of you will not be here — based on the decisions you will make today and tomorrow. Some of you will go on to college in a few years and — according to statistics — several of you just might not be alive. Your life is about your choices. So my last questions for you are: What are you going to do? What choices are you going to make now that will determine your future?”

Kids like Deshaun have so much potential and so little support and training on how to succeed after high school. With one in three young people living in poverty, how will they beat the odds and build their competitive edge? Deshaun and others like him are the reason why I left corporate America at age 22 to work for NFTE. I quickly found, after participating in a few classes, that kids like Deshaun began to see that they had the tools to become economically productive. “Don’t you see the opportunity we have here?” Deshaun would ask his classmates. “Pay attention. We are lucky to be the first kids in Brockton to get this chance to become entrepreneurs.”

* * *

As we all know, stories of people overcoming disadvantaged beginnings to succeed are a hallmark of America. Countless immigrants have come to the United States and fought for the opportunity to accomplish what people like Edward Taylor have achieved. My own family’s experience has certainly shaped my life and motivated my involvement with NFTE.

After World War II, my grandfather, Nandor Szilard, ran a store selling supplies and household goods in his native Hungary. My grandfather loved being in business for himself. He had escaped from a slave labor camp during the war in the early 1940’s and went into hiding. The Nazis murdered many members of our family, including Nandor’s in-laws, at Auschwitz. After having escaped the murderous clutches of Hitler’s henchmen, Nandor began rebuilding a life for his wife and five-year-old son — my dad.

However, one day, a group of Communist Party officers from the government installed by the Soviet Union paid him a visit. “Is this your store?” Nandor proudly answered, “Yes it is.” He was ordered to get his coat and leave. Under the new Communist regime he could no longer own a store. My grandfather had no choice. Everything he had been building was snatched from him in the blink of an eye and there was nothing he could do. How would he provide for his family?

But Nandor was a survivor.

He began making tablecloths and other items that quickly became famous in the Hungarian embroidery industry. My father’s room was his manufacturing plant. My dad remembers needing to open the windows in the wintertime because the odor of the chemicals was so strong. It was often necessary for the entire family to work until two in the morning to make ends meet. Nandor rose at 4 a.m. to sell his wares at the country market.

Even though my grandfather found a way to run a business in Communist Hungary, he was not allowed to let it grow. He would carry and sell his own wares until he died, at the age of 77. My father, meanwhile, was initially told he could not go to college — despite being a “straight A” student and ranking first in his class. After much persistence on his part, he was finally accepted into law school in Budapest, in 1956. As a young entrepreneur himself, he had sold postage stamps to pay for an English tutor and purchase Shakespeare’s 16 Plays. My father escaped the ill-fated Hungarian Revolution of that year by jumping on a Red Cross bus on its way to the Austrian border. He was 18.

Hearing rumors that all vehicles would be stopped at the border, and realizing that he might be killed, my father and others left the bus and crossed the wooded frontier late at night. A Hungarian farmer took pity on them, giving them food and letting them spend the night in his barn (and of course risked his own life by doing so).

My father got across the border and somehow made it all the way to Washington, D.C. Jewish Social Services helped him get placed, as a refugee, with a family that we will always be indebted to — the Levys. He worked at bagging groceries at a Giant supermarket for a year, while he tried to improve his English. My father applied to ten colleges. Although he was turned down by nine, his one acceptance was to a particularly good one — Harvard — on a partial scholarship. He washed pots and pans in the school cafeteria to help pay for his tuition and graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in three years, going on to Harvard Law School. After graduation, my father worked for more than 30 years as a lawyer at the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank, and then retired happily to his paradise in Maui, Hawaii, with my wonderful stepmother, Monique.

My family’s experiences are an important reason that I so strongly believe in the I can (American) dream. It was a sad thing when I found out that so many of the Brockton students’ families did not see opportunity in this country. On a NFTE pre-test, I asked my class whether we lived in a Socialist, Communist, or Free Enterprise System. After explaining the differences between the three, 85% thought we lived in a Socialist or Communist economy. When I asked why, they answered: “Because we get everything from the government.”

Many of my students’ families were on welfare and did not have jobs. They had a feeling of entitlement about receiving government benefits. One young man told me how, in his neighborhood, you could own a car but it couldn’t be worth more than $1,000 or else you would lose your welfare benefits— which of course meant you were probably going to own a very substandard car.[1]

Like my dad, many immigrants have risked their lives to come to America for the opportunity to receive an education and try to better themselves financially. In some communities, such as the Korean, friends and family pool money so a relative or friend can open a small grocery store, often working 16 to 18 hours a day to make it a success.

This realization has strengthened my vision and has given me energy to teach the American Dream to young people who need to hear its message. Studies show that 30% of those who start businesses do so because a parent owned a business. But without such a role model for success, kids like those I taught in Brockton will most likely have a tough time envisioning a way out of welfare dependency or, worse, a life of crime. So my personal mission became to channel I can’t into I can, through teaching entrepreneurship.


Lesson Learned: Many young people have not been exposed to the concept of personal ownership. To move our disadvantaged youth from poverty to prosperity, every high school in America needs to teach financial and entrepreneurial literacy.

 

[1] With the federal government determining the poverty threshold of $19,307 a year for a family of four, our NFTE students need to make over $64 a day (300 days a year) just to “exit” poverty — although I would estimate that $75 to $100 would be closer to the truth. With $19,307, a family of four would not have enough money for life insurance, gifts, school books, shoes, clothes, or many other necessities (See Appendix 3: Budgeting for Poverty).

 

 

 


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