One decision can change so much.
Thirty years ago, Steve Mariotti decided to take a jog by the river. He was about a mile into his run, close to where his high-rise Wall Street office is located today, when a band of teenagers circled him, menacingly waving their knives and demanding his money. “Give me your wallet,” he remembers one sneering. Steve, a former state wrestling champion, did nothing. He handed over his cash—$10—and listened to the gang of boys taunting him as he ran home.
Weeks later, he still couldn’t sleep. He suffered from flashbacks and continually saw the silver glint of a knife flash against his cheek. He heard the insults they’d flung at him: sissy, crybaby. He was an adult, they were children, he kept telling himself. He was physically strong, a fast runner, a former wrestling champion, and had done nothing.
To everyone else, it was clear what was happening. His therapist explained it in simple terms: “You have post-traumatic stress disorder,” he told Steve.
Steve had to face his fears head on. He was to become a teacher in the worst borough of New York City, where knives and guns were as common as chewing gum and candy bars.
Today, Steve looks out of his floor-to-ceiling windows and points to a street to his left. “That was it, right there,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s where it all started.”
Steve is the founder and former CEO of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) , an international nonprofit group that teaches business concepts and skills to low-income students. He never expected to be here, he says. And he never expected being mugged to lead to a successful teaching career, which led to the creation of NFTE (pronounced nif-tee). Steve teaches these young people how to do just what he did: go from powerless to powerful, by the way of owning their own businesses. Since 1987, about 350,000 kids have graduated from his programs. The NFTE program gets students up to speed on relevant math, research, writing, and reading skills. Then students are guided to use a “hands-on approach” to apply these skills to the creation and development of an original business plan. The end results are designed to be a win-win. Students renew their interest in education, discover innate talents and aptitude, and take pride in a new level of self-responsibility and achievement. They discover their own power and mature through an understanding of self-ownership. Appropriately, a NFTE textbook written by Mariotti is titled, Entrepreneurship: Owning Your Future . Meanwhile, society enjoys the benefits of the creation of new small businesses and a newly minted “business-savvy workforce that ultimately promotes America’s long-term economic stability.”
His first group of kids was rough; they cursed, did drugs, stole money and robbed people. They were the kind of kids nobody believed in, Steve says. But through the years the tragedies in the student’s lives—the murders, the shootings and the homelessness—resulted in stronger bonds between the teachers and students.
The determination and perseverance of Mariotti, current NFTE CEO Amy Rosen, and other staff, has set an example for their students. Twin brothers Glenn and Bruce Proctor, both alumni of NFTE, continued with their business interests and were recently chosen to design a new line of women’s wear for Sean John. NFTE alum Zoë Damacela launched her own clothing design firm, Zoë Damacela Apparel , designing prom dresses and selling them to other students. She’s now expanded her line. “I grew up in difficult circumstances. . . .” Zoë told WGN News. “I was actually homeless for a little while.” A high school class in fashion design ignited her passion and the NFTE training took things to a new level. For example, Zoë had been selling her dresses for $13, but discovered they were actually worth $100. “I owe all of my success to NFTE,” said Zoë, who is now an optimistic and hard-working scholarship student at Northwestern University.
Mariotti’s former students are as loyal as blood brothers, praising him for his work and generosity. Two of his very first students from 1986 still work for him. One student cried when he spoke of his gratitude to Steve for helping him get off the streets. Some of his students were homeless; some have witnessed people being shot to death.
“Steve is my homeboy,” says Rahfeal Gordon, a NFTE alum and motivational speaker. “He’s like the godfather of this family.”
Steve grew up in Flint, Michigan surrounded by teachers. His mother taught special education, his father taught engineering.
From his youth, Steve always had a business or was trying to make money. He taught golf lessons when the only talent he had was his swing. He had a kite-making business and a wrestling tutor business. He says he was the first Avon salesman in Flint. “If you want to talk creams, I can talk creams,” he says, laughing.
His parents home-schooled him and his favorite things to read were books on political economy and the voluntary trade thinkers. He read Ayn Rand voraciously. Steve went on to obtain an MBA from the University of Michigan, and pursued studies at Harvard and Stanford. In 1977, Steve was a liberty fellow for the Institute of Humane Studies at George Mason University and studied under famed economist Friedrich Hayek, author of The Road to Serfdom.
In the previous year, 1976, Steve had begun a 3-year stint as a financial analyst in the international division of Ford Motor Company. He saved Ford over $5 million a year “via interest-expense reduction and improved cash management,” per a NFTE bio.
By 1979, Steve was in his mid-20s, eager for a career change and a new challenge. He moved to New York City to start his own business: Mason Import/Export Service.Taking on a role of sales representative and purchasing agent, Steve placed ads in overseas chambers of commerce newsletters, inviting international businessmen to stay with him in New York and pay him rent while he helped them market and sell their products in the city. By 1983 he had conducted business with a total of 32 overseas firms. In its last year, 1983, Mason Import/Export earned $360,000 in revenue and netted a profit of $80,000.
It was in September of 1981, while Steve was running Mason, that the mugging occurred.
After his therapist told him he needed to confront his fears (teenage boys), he decided to start teaching at a Boys and Girls Club on Saturdays. For three or four hours, he would instruct the students on how to set up a business and gain clients. “I never felt better,” Steve says. He had always had a gift for teaching. Upon first meeting him in 1979, Ayn Rand had pegged Mariotti as a teacher. “Her parting words to me were, ‘You seem like a teacher, not an import-export person,’” Steve recalls. “She was uncannily prescient.”
The students threw chalk at Mariotti, stuck gum on his back, and called him a midget.
After a few months, he applied for a full-time position and landed one teaching special education math at Boys & Girls High School. The dropout rate was at 50 percent and 72 teachers had recently refused to come to work. Steve stood out in his business suit and pasty skin next to tall, ebony-skinned youths with wiry hair and neon-colored windbreakers. Every day he’d be taunted, just like he was when he was mugged. One student set another’s coat on fire, they locked Steve out of his class, threw chalk at him, stuck gum on his back, and called him a midget.
One day, he couldn’t take any more. The kids were running around the classroom, making so much noise that he couldn’t hear himself scream. A radio blared somewhere in the back. When he tried to help a student with a math problem, one of the boys hit him in the eye with a spitball. He walked into the hall, slammed the door behind him and took deep breaths. He took off his watch, a stretchy wrist model bought at a cheap department store, walked back inside and held it up. “How much would you pay for this?” he asked them. The kids stopped talking. They looked at him curiously.
Steve started a mock sales pitch, hawking his own watch to the class. “I noticed immediately that as soon as I started to talk about money, how to make money by selling something, they actually quieted down and became interested,” he wrote later.
He went home and spent the night designing lesson plans based on business principles: profit, the tax code, and something tricky called economics of one unit. “If a kid can understand this, he can understand everything,” Steve says.
For a few years, not everyone was happy with his experimentation in the classroom. The principals told him his ideas didn’t fit into the curriculum and he’d get letters from the school boards, asking him to reconsider his teaching methods.
He switched schools a few times. Finally, he got a job at a place called Jane Addams Vocational School, and the principal thought he was a good fit for a new course, called the South Bronx Entrepreneurship Program.
Steve spent his evenings designing lesson plans based on business principles.
He was to get the worst of the worst: 18 kids that were prevented from returning to school because of their records. The school was located in the South Bronx, a place nicknamed “Fort Apache” in the 80s. But these kids were going to be part of the program and would own their own business.
They didn’t have much to start with. One girl couldn’t subtract or add. One boy sold drugs on a street corner. Motivation was low. You could earn $200 for a few hours of peddling marijuana or crack, and what Steve was asking them to do took work.
Steve started with the basics, just like he did in other classes. Eventually, the girl who couldn’t add began selling lingerie in flea markets on the weekends. The boy who was selling drugs began recording rap songs. Another opened a hot dog stand and earned $10,000 in one year.
Steve’s work soon caught the attention of others. In 1988, Peter Jennings of ABC News introduced the story on Steve and his program with one simple question: “Can one person really make a difference? The issue tonight is drugs.”
Howard Stubbs, the young man who sold hot dogs, told the reporter he was glad he didn’t have to be “afraid” anymore. “The cops aren’t after me, I don’t owe anybody money—this is my own little business,” he said.
Howard got a four-year scholarship to a college. The girl who sold lingerie ended up moving to Los Angeles and landed a job as a bank teller. Vincent, the rapper, wrote a song about his former life: “I was doing the drug way/ that’s the wrong kind of life / but when you’re living in the ghetto, it’s hard, you gotta fight.”
Vincent and Steve (both pictured at left in 1987 with producer Tony Stone, far right) were close. Steve hounded him to record more songs and keep writing. He even gave him a loan to buy equipment so the young entrepreneur could charge his friends $40 an hour to record their music. Vincent wrote down everything Steve said: keep busy, stay strong, be involved. He kept the notes in his pants pocket, and when his friends told him he was stupid, he’d reply by saying, “No, that’s life, love your life, value your life.” He stopped making an easy $200 on street corners peddling drugs. Soon, he was turning a profit of $600 a night by hosting parties.
Steve says the kids transform their lives because they feel a certain pride in themselves they never felt before. “In my opinion, they see themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy,” he told ABC in 1988. “Getting a kid his business cards, making him president of his own company, all of a sudden, he comes out of that hierarchy. You have to give a child a vision and entrepreneurship does that.”
Four of the 18 students in the program graduated from high school. But Steve was just getting warmed up.
With all his success, Steve is still not a pretentious man. He rushes around his office, shuffling around books and making phone calls, oblivious to the holes in the back of his black turtleneck sweater. Sometimes his shirt-tail sticks out of his pants or rides up his back; sometimes his blazers are stained. His short frame seems packed with enough energy for 10 people. It’s like nothing else matters but his work—he forgets everything (sometimes even who you are) except his task of the moment.
"You have to give a child a vision and entrepreneurship does that."
It’s this kind of work ethic that vaulted NFTE from a small nonprofit in 1987 when Steve first founded it to a well-known organization in 11 countries today. While he was still teaching at Jane Addams, he wrote the top 400 people on the Forbes List asking for funding for his idea. Ray Chambers, a wealthy philanthropist in Newark, was the only one who responded.
Steve had 15 minutes to convince Ray that teaching business skills to inner-city children from low-income homes could make a significant difference in their lives. The philanthropist responded quickly: start in Newark.
Over the next year, Steve ran NFTE during the day and taught on Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and Saturday. He had contracts with seven schools. He had to resign from Jane Addams in the spring of 1988. He hired his best friend to help him land contracts with more schools.
By December, Steve thought he’d made a mistake. He couldn’t pay his bills and lived with his fiancée. But one day, a $20,000 check arrived in the mail and money didn’t stop coming for nearly three months. He sold more programs and saved cash, and NFTE grew until September 11, 2001. All of his work was almost for nothing—the organization nearly went under after no donations came in for two months. But again, the Coleman Foundation sent a check for $250,000 and NFTE started to grow.
It’s this kind of uncertainty that can be hard on an entrepreneur.
“You’ve got to be mentally strong because there will be times when you can’t stand up,” Steve says.
The hard times weren’t just because of money issues. Over the years, Steve says about 14 of their kids have been murdered. In 1995, NFTE’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year was shot and killed on a playground. “I’ve personally attended too many funerals of NFTE students,” he once wrote.
And some of the kids didn’t do so well, either.
In March, Vincent Wilkins, who is now 41, said the last time he’d heard anything from Howard, he was serving time in a prison after getting caught with cocaine on the state border. He remembers one girl who stole checks from NFTE’s office. “I think she died,” Vincent says.
“She grew up with me and got that HIV. A lot of them didn’t come up. My friend Dom didn’t get out. That’s why Mariotti said you gotta catch them young because you be set in your ways.”
Vincent dropped out of high school to pursue his music career, but has always remained close with Steve. Steve spurts out Vincent’s phone number by heart, and still takes him into CBS studios to try to help him land an interview for his rap songs. Vincent never returned to drugs, but instead, started working with other children through NFTE. Today, he’s taking care of his mother in New York and still working for Steve, teaching kids the very same business skills he was taught.
“It’s just incredible that we’re still together,” Vincent says. “There were only two or three of us that stuck with him. A lot strayed. As for me, I never went to jail. I just stuck with Mariotti and I stay strong. Now, Mariotti’s got like a whole lotta children.”
One of those children is Rahfeal Gordon, a lanky man with a quick smile who smells slightly of baby powder. Rahfeal, now 27, calls Steve the “godfather” and still stops by the NFTE office on Wall Street to say hello.
Rahfeal grew up in Newark as the oldest child of four boys. His mother and father were alcoholics and addicted to drugs, and when Rahfael was 11, he realized his father was physically abusive to his mother. His father left and his mother couldn’t raise four children on her own. They started sleeping in a car in the park and stayed in shelters. All through high school, he kept it a secret that he was homeless. He stayed the nights at a friend’s house or his grandmother’s and repeatedly washed his one pair of jeans. The popular kids in school were drug dealers, he says, but he never wanted that kind of popularity. “I didn’t want to sell drugs, so I sold candy,” Rahfeal says. He got a job at Burger King, and with his first check, he bought Leadership for Dummies and read it so often the ink faded.
When he was 18, he learned about the Prudential’s Young Entrepreneurship Program (PYEP), which was a subsidiary of NFTE. “It was my way out,” he says. “It was like the Mickey Mouse Club for entrepreneurs.”
Rahfael hid the fact that he was homeless.
Even with his dreams, he knew college would have to come first. He went to Montclair State University and began throwing parties on the side to make money. In May 2005, he got a phone call. His brother Alfonzo had gotten into an argument with someone on the street, and the man shot him in the head.
Rahfeal says he fell to the floor. He didn’t sleep or eat for three days. That summer, he took summer courses and all he did was study. For the first time, he made the Dean’s List. “Nothing else mattered,” he says. “I just focused.”
About a year later, he couldn’t stop thinking about what his brother had once told him: “You gotta tell our story or you’ll never make it big.” Rahfeal says when he was sitting on a friend’s couch, he decided to become a motivational speaker.
His first talk was through the Student Government Association at his school. They paid him $3,500 to speak, and 400 people showed up. But it was beginner’s luck, and for another year, he didn’t book any speeches.
Then, he contacted a reporter who’d wanted to tell the story of his brother’s death. The story ran in February 2008, a full two-page spread in The Star-Ledger, the Newark newspaper. Every day, he got calls from other newspapers and magazines wanting to hear his story.
Now, big corporations such as NewsCorp and CBS endorse him, and he flies around the country in a first-class cabin (the first time he flew first class, he asked for cereal) to speak to sold-out venues.
“It’s knowing you’re meant for something,” Rahfeal says. “Sometimes people go through a lot of pain . . . You take risks and see things that aren’t here. You do crazy things—you spend all your money, relationships go south. It’s a beautiful struggle.”
He credits Steve and NFTE for helping him to focus and see into the future, past his years as a homeless teenager.
“He’s the guy and it’s all because of him,” Rahfeal says. “I just thank Steve. He’s a phenomenal person. He doesn’t know when he says, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ how much it means.”
Over the years, the NFTE alums such as Vincent and Rahfeal have inspired students, just like Steve inspired them. In January, a 16-year-old who runs his own website about veganism gushed over Rahfeal. He waited for Rahfeal to finish visiting in the NFTE office so he could question him about business. “Now that kid knows what’s up,” Rahfeal says. “Me, I wasn’t anywhere near that focused at that age.”
"You have to be comfortable with uncertainty and these kids are fearless."
That kid, Anbessa Tiwoni, spouts off quotes by philosophers and reads books that college students struggle with. He’s been involved with NFTE for two years, and when his business plan didn’t win in a competition, after he was “supremely confident that it would,” he was “pissed off,” he says.
“Every day, I wake up and feel like I should be doing more for the business,” he says. “Even if I’m doing a lot, I’m never comfortable. I always feel like there’s more to be done, and that drives me.”
His words sound a lot like Steve’s. Steve’s mission is to place NFTE programs in every country. They have about 1,800 teachers who are spreading the word that unfortunate children can learn.
“Kids from low-income families always are categorized as dumb or low achievers,” Steve says. “We redefined that. We said street smarts equals business smarts. You have to be comfortable with uncertainty and these kids are fearless. We brought that idea in.”
For Vincent, this is what made Steve stand out from the other teachers two decades ago. He listened to Vincent when, for years, others had ignored him. For the first time, Vincent had someone to look up to who wasn’t pushing him to sell drugs.
”I respect him and I love him,” he says of Steve. “He’s got love and decency in his heart. I look at him as my spiritual father.”
Sarah Perry is a recent graduate of the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. Sarah's work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, and Ten Spurs Literary Journal. She enjoys travelling, cooking, reading, listening to folk music, and writing bad poetry with a pencil in one hand and a goblet of Cabernet in the other.
Photo of Steve Mariotti by Spike Johnson for TNI.