Recently I was asked to teach an hour-long class to seniors at my Brooklyn-based high school alma mater, Bishop Loughlin, for career day. I agreed to do it, thinking I might inspire some young people to start and operate their own small business, as I myself had done at their age, and to do it responsibly.
I hadn't been back to Bishop Loughlin in 46 years, and it was eerie to walk through those hallways. Actually, it was comforting to know that a part of my past still exists. Loughlin used to be a tuition-free school for boys who competed to attend from all over the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York. Back then it was a college preparatory high school that drew its Christian perspective from the Lasallian tradition. One hundred percent of us students passed our Regents exams and got into a college. Many of us received Regents scholarships as well.
Today the school is no longer the New York Diocese-wide magnet school. Loughlin serves low-income black and Latino students who might be considered "at risk" -- 85 percent of the students are African American and 12 percent are Latino. Statistically, half of these kinds of students fail to earn a high school diploma in four years, according to a 2006 study by the Manhattan Institute. Proving the point that it is not the students who are fault for failing in America's schools, it is their teachers, 100 percent of Loughlin's students still graduate with a Regent's diploma and get into college. Despite the dramatically different demographic for the student body, the mission of the school has not changed one bit since the day I attended.
The students filed in, sat down, and looked attentive. They were ready to be inspired. I didn't have a lesson plan, notes, or a power point. I thought I would tell a couple of funny stories, or maybe read from my new book.
Instead, I surprised myself and launched into a topic Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's had discussed with students at Gifford Pinchot's Bainbridge Graduate Institute last week. In the early days, I told them, religion had all the power. Then as time progressed government had the power. Now business has all the power. The point? The institution that has all the power today does not exist to serve the people. Religion and government serve the people. Too often, business exists to exploit the people. As young people considering their careers, I pointed out that there is an option to taking jobs in such companies. Start your own business.
I asked the students if any of them were already running a business. At first they looked at me quizzically, probably imagining that a business is a big complicated enterprise. How could high school seniors already be running a business?
Then Shane raised his hand and told me he bought sneakers from kids and then sold them for a profit. He'd pay $150 for a pair of sneakers and get $300 for them on eBay! Jessica told us she was charging people to get their hair braided. Another student, Christopher, was tutoring other kids. We came up with a trademark for Shane's business: Shane's Sneaks. And I showed them how simple it was to establish the trademark -- just stick a small TM at the end: Shane's Sneaks™. This delighted them.
We brainstormed about what skills someone who wants to start a small business should have. One student, Eddy, said, "Be good at manipulation." It reminded me of the days when I was learning about business, when manipulating and exploiting people were considered part of what you have to do to be successful. This was before those of us practicing responsible capitalism proved otherwise. "Manipulation and exploitation might work in the short run," I told Eddy, "but it doesn't create as much success as doing the opposite -- empowering people." I told him how the latter strategy had produced dramatic results in my own business. In fact, I was able to sell Tweezerman for much more money because I had empowered employees, loyal customers and vendors, and Tweezerman had a reputation for giving back to the community.
Later while we brainstormed about how you might act toward your customers, employees, vendors, and community if your intention were to be a responsible capitalist, I told the students that I had set things up so my employees owned 20 percent of Tweezerman. Eddy again raised his hand and asked: "Why would you want to give your employees ownership?"
I told Eddy I was so grateful my employees showed up for work every day and did things I couldn't possible do or want to do myself that I felt they deserved to share in the profits and eventually the capital gains made when the company was sold. This wasn't charity, but rather a strategy to involve every employee in the business the way that I was -- as an owner. They became more productive, inventive, and protective of the company. It was usually employees who reported instances of other employees stealing.
The hour crept by. I was developing incredible respect for teachers everywhere who do this day in and day out. Fortunately, the students weren't falling asleep. They seemed to take to the idea of starting their own business and operating it responsibly.
At the end, I told them how much money I had made from selling Tweezerman, and someone asked me if I donated to Bishop Loughlin. I laughed to myself, thinking "Wow, these kids are on the ball." And they loved their school. I told them I had donated to the school but planned to give Loughlin another $1,000.
When I heard from Brother Dennis, Loughlin's president, that the students pay $8,000 per year for the education that costs the school $9,600 per student, and that the Diocese of Brooklyn had just eliminated their funding, I made a $5,000 donation to the school. Obviously, I'm not going to sell $5,000 worth of books to the Loughlin alumni, which got me to career day in the first place -- but who cares? The point of my book is to inspire people to start a business and do it responsibly, and to help Americans take back our economy from the greedy minority that are using the large corporations as their personal oil wells.
My guess is more than one of those kids I spoke with will start a business. And I got the sense from Eddy that even he will do it responsibly.