With the 25th anniversary of NFTE fast approaching, my friends Marisol, Serena and Vincent recently met with me to share their life stories. These three students were all in the same remedial business class at Jane Addams High School in the Bronx, 28 years ago.
Being mugged in early ‘80s NYC was a blessing; it stopped me in my tracks and led me to a career change. The teenagers who humiliated me were my neighbors, but their world was filled with poverty, drugs and violent crime, and they saw petty theft as one of their only options. In the course of a few short years I went from owning a small business to teaching entrepreneurship in the some of the roughest neighborhoods in the five boroughs.
The three students showcased here were all in the same remedial business class at Jane Addams High School in the Bronx, 28 years ago, in 1985. Those first years were formative years for all of us. I was at a stage in my career where I had realized the power that ownership education had on disadvantaged youth, but was still learning a lot about curriculum development through trial and error, and had yet to start the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship.
I had the help of a wonderful principal, Pat Black, who enabled me to make the classes I wanted to teach. This particular class’s curriculum required each student to create a small business of their own, which ran the gamut from selling AVON products to fixing cars. In addition, we collectively created a store at Jane Addam’s, called the Addam’s Apple, which served to highlight for students the teamwork inherent in any business endeavor. The program was covered in the New York Times in March of 1988, and more national media attention quickly followed. The publicity was instrumental in gathering seed capital for NFTE, and the rest is history.
As it turned out, the 22 people in that remedial business class were among the first of more than 500,000 and counting students who would pass through the NFTE program. With the 25th anniversary of NFTE fast approaching, my friends Marisol, Serena and Vincent recently met with me to share their life stories, at the NYC offices of NFTE, the nonprofit that became my life’s work.
Marisol has been a close friend for the past 27 years, and someone who has endured a lot of challenging situations to come out on top. Today she still lives in the Bronx, and is a wonderful wife and mother.
Even by my neighborhood’s standards, I had to grow up at a young age. I was 9 or 10 when I noticed my mom was acting erratically, and I soon learned that drugs were to blame. I had a sister, a brother and two half brothers, and she would neglect to feed all of us. I remember losing consciousness because I was so hungry. I left when I was 12, and never went back. It was hard leaving home, but it was an improvement. First, I was living at a homeless shelter, until at 13 I applied to live at group home through Lutheran Community Services. I continued going to school and living at the group home, and moved on with my life.
I’ve lost touch with many of my family members because of crack and heroin, because I simply can’t trust them when they’re using. When we were young adults, someone I loved stole my children’s presents from under our Christmas tree, for drug money. I cried and cried. What could I possibly tell my kids? Being the youngest and watching family members get addicted to crack gave me perspective on what it really does to your life. I know better, and have never touched the stuff, which I’m proud of.
When I first met Steve, I was in 11th grade, and he was a very positive influence. I was about 16, and he stayed my teacher for a few years, first at Jane Addams and then later in an off campus business program.
Steve arranged for a store to be made on Jane Addams main campus so that our class could sell items through the store that we bought wholesale. The part I remember best was going to the wholesalers and picking out items to sell. I bought Avon products like perfume, soaps, makeup, and also lingerie, clothes, and stuff like that. Simple things like buying low and selling high were really valuable for us to learn at that age, and showed me that it was possible to make money legally by selling goods and services.
Meanwhile, I left the group home when I was 18, and started renting my first apartment and working in clothing stores to pay the bills. The lessons learned through NFTE led me to start numerous small businesses in my local community. I would cater and organize baby showers, birthdays, or any kind of gathering where people could use my services. I would collaborate with people on what kind of decorations they wanted for any gathering, and then I would make the decorations and install them. I realized I could turn things I already knew how to do into money, and in the process build local community and friendships.
The lessons I’ve learned from being associated with NFTE have helped me in all sorts of ways. In addition to allowing me to try my hand at all sorts of small businesses in my community, it made me more aware of everyday expenses, and of the importance of managing my family’s assets properly. Knowing Steve definitely helped me move in that direction, and for everything he’s done for me I love him like he was my own father. In my twenties, I started a housekeeping business, and to this day, I still keep Steve’s own house clean and organized. In addition to taking care of my own family, and being a devoted wife and mother, our family also hosts foster children when they are in need of a home.
- Finish high school, and go to college. Not doing either will seriously limit your options.
- Don’t start a serious relationship before you’re 18 years old. Also, 22 is the youngest age that you should consider having children.
- Having children is a serious financial responsibility. Being financially stable and responsible is a necessary part of having a family.
- Learn everything you can about business and how to make money, and you’ll be able to identify and create your own opportunities.
Serena reminded me of a scene from our years at Jane Addams recently. My lesson for the day was for everyone to come up with a business plan to give me, so I could discuss the specifics of each student’s proposed business. As Serena reminded me, She and others insisted that I write one as well. I agreed, and then wrote a business plan for the non-profit business education program that would become my life’s work.
Serena has been in my life ever since I met her. We both agree that she could have made better choices when she was young. She has led a very hard life, and in my opinion her story has an element of heroism for enduring what she’s been through. I have been in touch with her through all her hardships, and we remain friends to this day.
I want to take this opportunity to tell my story to let others benefit from my experiences, without having to make the same decisions I did. Looking back on my life, I can see that things got off to the wrong start from the very beginning. I grew up in a bad household where people were rude and mean to each other.
I didn’t take well to years of traditional schooling. Steve’s class was an eye opener for me because I realized I loved buying and selling things. The hands-on, real-world approach that NFTE adopted made school directly related to the world outside. It kept my interest in a way that normal classes simply didn’t.
I didn’t finish high school; I wish I did, but it didn’t happen. I got pregnant at age 16, and had my child when I was 17. I didn’t stay in touch with the father, and he was absent from my son’s life. High school was a lot of work, and being a young mother was a full time job, so something had to give.
I later realized that one of the best days of my life had a dark cloud over it. My son was born through a C-section procedure, and I required a blood transfusion. This was October 25, 1987, and while AIDS was in the news at the time, the hospital neglected to screen the blood and I have been HIV-positive ever since.
On top of that, like many of my peers, I started doing drugs; first weed, cocaine, then crack. And crack was by far the worst. I was in and out of jail for minor drug charges during my late teens and early twenties. In a way prison was fun when I was younger, like it was a game or adventure. But when I caught a state bid for armed robbery, I grew to feel differently.
I needed money for crack, and after being molested as a child there was no way I was going to turn to prostitution to get the money. So I turned to what I saw as the only option: robbing people and stores. I fell into a routine of robbing the grocery store across the street from my apartment. I would go in with a trench coat on: that was my typical disguise, even in the peak of summer. People must have known I was on drugs, walking around in the heat with a trench coat on. Regardless, I would put on a ski mask, go in, get the money from all the hiding spots, and go out the door, and directly back home, right across the street.
While I got away with it, I soon realized the police had a warrant out for my arrest. After being on the run for two years, I got sick of running and turned myself in in 1993, and began my 11-year prison term that same year. I was 20 when I went in, and I was 31 when I left. After11 years, I don’t ever want to go back. And as odd as it sounds, I think in some ways prison was good for me. It taught me a lesson, and I haven’t been back since.
Steve Mariotti with Serena Felder
Life has not been easy since jail, but with God’s help I’ve been completely clean for six years. I have had a lifelong love for reading, and I still read constantly. I have rekindled a relationship with my son after being absent for so many years, which is a real blessing. I’ve also been blessed to have aged gracefully through all I’ve been through; When I spend time with my son, people think he’s my brother. Being associated with NFTE has been a wonderful experience. Steve has been there for me when nobody else was around. I still count him as a true friend and mentor after all these years.
- It’s not easy when you’re young and you feel that nobody’s on your side. I would advise that if you are being hurt, molested, or abused in any way by anybody you should go and tell someone and get help. If you hide trauma like that, it will only get worse and wreak havoc on your life. It takes courage, but there is help out there. I learned that lesson the hard way.
- Stay away from drugs, drug dealers and guns. They don’t lead you anywhere but to jail, and you don’t want that life
- Find a school that fits your needs. If you’re a unique learner like me, that will enable you to stay in school and thrive.
- Learn everything you can about small business. If you learn the language of small business, you’ll always have a place in the workforce.
I have known and been close to Vincent ever since I met him when he was 17 years old.
He is a prime example of how I had as much to gain from teaching class as the students did from attending class. When I first started bringing students to buy wholesale goods, I would offer him T-shirts, hats, and other items of clothing that I could see were simply so cheap you couldn’t help but make a profit if you sold it. I remember him saying to me that there was no way to sell that stuff because it wasn’t in style — nobody would buy it, no matter how cheap it was. There was simply no demand for clothing that wasn’t in fashion, and though it seems obvious, his insight shifted my whole curriculum in that lesson from that day forward.
After seeing that he had grasp of street culture in a way that I could never hope to, I still rely on his guidance in issues of marketing to inner city youth to this day. A year or two ago my entire staff was sold on the design of a new textbook we were about to make part of NFTE curriculum, when I called Vincent in for his critical eye. He shot it down, said it wouldn’t work, and offered advice on how to fix it. While in the short term it meant more work for us, it saved us from putting out material that didn’t speak to our audience.
I was a freshman when I met Steve, and I soon noticed he was different than other teachers; his unconventional approach got my attention. When he was talking about starting a store in Jane Addams, I remember being incredulous. Who does that? He said to me, “I’m going to show you through my actions.” He had a vision. He told me that he was starting something big, hat he was going to go as far as he could with this work. He said he was building a team, and that I could be part of it. But first, I remember he said to me, “Show me you’re interested.” I worked hard in class to prove myself, and he noticed.
I also was constantly working on my music, first hip-hop and then R&B. Artistic endeavors like music are another form of entrepreneurship, and I’ve been making music my entire adult life.
A year or two went by, and I was one of 22 people in the East Tremont program, which was a special off-campus business program. Steve got funding to rent a room in a corporate business building to host class in. Just that simple aspect of being in a corporate environment changed the whole tone of the class. It opened my eyes to another world, and made me feel empowered.
After school, I stayed on Steve’s team, so to speak. Over the course of our friendship, Steve founded NFTE, and NFTE programs started to pop up all over the country and eventually the world. Steve took me around to speak to high schools about NFTE, the benefits of the program, and the like. We traveled all over the U.S. promoting NFTE, and I was having the time of my life.
Steve was friends with notable people in the hip-hop community through NFTE, such as Dan Simmons and Melle Mel (rap pioneer and member of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five). Because of NFTE’s appeal to that community we got to attend hip-hop awards shows. All of the sudden, I met Dan Simmons, I met Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Rakim, Grandmaster Jay of Run DMC, and many others. Steve was excited that these men were realizing their dreams. From my perspective though, I was meeting my idols.
I also met Ray Chambers during that time, who in addition to other charitable donations was NFTE’s first contributor. Meeting someone who was rich and gave back to others was a revelation. They didn’t have to do it, but they did because they wanted to. I still want to do that when I get the chance.
In my adult life, I have no criminal record, which is a real accomplishment living in urban America. I feel good about that. I had to overcome drug and alcohol abuse in my young adulthood, and I feel good to have overcome those demons. Now I’m in my 40s, I’m alive, and I’m rejoicing spiritually.
These days, I’m working as a store manager in the South Bronx to pay the everyday bills, making my music, and taking care of my mother, who’s getting older and can use the help. I feel good about it, just doing simple things like getting her medicine, cooking food. I feel good about that as a man.
I’m in a good place financially, and I’m still chasing my dream of making music pay. I am going to be 45 in two years, but that’s my deadline. If the music doesn’t start to take off by then, I’m going to hang it up and focus all of my energies on making my own clothing store. I know it’s no small endeavor, but I have a lifetime of experience to build upon. I told Steve my business plan recently, and if I go down that road, I know he’ll be on my team.
- Find work you love to do and are good at, and build your life around that.
- Work hard.
- Follow your dreams.
Vincent Wilkins, Steve Mariotti, Marisol Burgos & recent NFTE alumni Rodney Walker