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JUNE 2007

Steve Mariotti Guides Inner City Kids To Entrepreneurial Success

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

Malik Armstead is no ordinary restaurateur. While his thriving Bedford-Stuyvesant soul eatery, Five Spot, has become a fixture for some of the biggest names in rap music, Armstead did not come by his fame or fortune easily. A poor child from inner city Philadelphia, he enrolled in a high school course on entrepreneurship sponsored by the nonprofit National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, (NFTE, pronounced “Nifty”), which kindled in him the desire to run a small business. After a stint as a financial analyst, in 1996 Armstead plunked down his life savings on Five Spot and followed it up with a series of savvy real estate purchases in the same neighborhood.

Success stories like Malik’s are happening all over the globe, thanks to the inspiration and can-do attitude of Steve Mariotti, a businessman-turned-special education teacher who founded NFTE in 1987 to bring fundamental business skills to disadvantaged young people. “For over twenty years, I’ve been thinking about this issue: how do you get somebody who has been left out of ownership and hasn’t been exposed to markets and profit involved in wealth creation and capitalism?” muses Mariotti from his midtown Manhattan office. “It’s not just for the sons and daughters of wealthy people, or people that are gifted in certain areas and go to top business schools. How do you open up our world to a billion people who don’t own anything?” he adds with a deep-seated passion for financial equality, “the civil rights issue of our time,” as he calls it.

In the 20 years since NFTE was founded, their entrepreneurship training programs have proliferated into 35 states and 13 countries, reaching some 100,000 students a year. Through a 100 hour course that can be offered in either a semester or year-long module (after-school instruction is also an option), students ages 11 to 18  learn the basic principles of finance and marketing, securing a competitive edge, and writing a business plan. Top students have an opportunity to apply for start-up capital for their own small businesses. A recent study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education validates the program’s efficacy: NFTE students revealed a 32 percent greater interest in attending college and a 44 percent increase in occupational aspirations when compared to their non-NFTE peers.

Mariotti points to grim statistics that bolster his case for business education in the ghetto. There are two million men in prison, and almost all of them share two basic characteristics: they didn’t graduate from high school and they have profound reading difficulties. “You can almost build jails now based on second grade reading level and income level,” states Mariotti ominously. “My view is, there’s a whole bunch of people that could be very talented in business, but instead of encouraging them, often when they display the characteristics of an entrepreneur, they’re brutalized by the school system. They’re viewed as troublesome. Many of those children could have had very normal, productive and extremely successful lives if had been were viewed in a different way by the teacher…A lot of kids who are not doing well in a structured environment have really unique perspectives on markets and have entrepreneurial abilities – street smarts – that could be turned into business smarts. And by seizing on this, we could lower the dropout rate and have a really major impact on people’s lives at a really young age,” sums up Mariotti.

Mariotti knows from first-hand experience that kids need powerful incentives to turn from academic inertia to motivation. Following a successful career as a financial analyst for Ford Motor Company and then as a proprietor of an import-export firm, he switched gears entirely, embarking on a career as a special education teacher in New York City’s toughest neighborhoods. Mariotti faced danger and humiliation in the classroom every day: on one occasion, a student set fire to another’s coat, and on another, he was locked out of his own classroom. Yet Mariotti found that when he taught the students about his import-export business, they were rapt and engaged. By the end of his teaching career, he had developed a core curriculum that incorporated supply and demand, cost/benefit analysis, and a host of principles that would later become NFTE’s cornerstone syllabus.

Building on his phenomenal success (Mariotti has received a raft of prestigious awards, has attended the World Economic Forum, and has amassed a $15 million budget with numerous charitable backers), his vision is, not surprisingly, grand: “In the next 30 years, I’d like to be in every country in the world. I don’t know how yet, but it will happen,” he says with a certainty that makes it clear that great things will continue to happen for inner city kids with a penchant for entrepreneurialism.



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