Street-smart head start
Education leader shares entrepreneurial insights with Kellogg students By Aubrey Henretty
10/20/2006 - Call it a meeting of the streets — Wall Street and Urban Ave.
As chief operating officer at the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a nonprofit devoted to helping students turn “street smarts into business smarts,” David Nelson ’66 is applying a lifetime of corporate experience to advance the enterprise’s mission.
As part of his Oct. 16 guest appearance in Professor Donald Haider’s Management Strategy class, Nelson recalled how the organization’s founder began his teaching career by conducting market research to learn a lesson in street smarts.
According to Nelson, NFTE founder Steve Mariotti was singled out by his former boss in New York City Public Schools as the worst teacher the principal had ever seen. “So what does [Mariotti] do? One afternoon, he takes six of these kids out to dinner,” he said. “And he asked them, ‘Why am I such a bad teacher?’ And they told him!”
A Kellogg alum, Nelson was recently named a Purpose Prize Fellow by think tank Civic Ventures, which established the award to honor and invest in the nation’s social-problem solvers aged 60 and older, for his work with NFTE (pronounced “nifty”), which engages students in mostly low-income communities.
Professor Haider said Nelson embodies and promotes lessons learned at the Kellogg School: “For the past five years, David has given many hours to teaching in Kellogg courses and programs as well as working with Northwestern undergraduates.” Haider called the Kellogg graduate an exemplary figure, one demonstrating many of the leadership qualities that the school’s Social Enterprise at Kellogg Program (SEEK) extolls.
During his visit, Nelson walked students through the evolution of NFTE, which he joined as COO in 2001, following a distinguished 33-year career with IBM. As he filled the chalkboards with key words and phrases, check marks, asterisks, lines and arrows, Nelson engaged the class with pointed questions and colorful metaphors. He followed NFTE from its uncertain beginnings to his own time there, which began as Goldman Sachs was poised to grant $1 million to the fledgling $5-million organization if its leaders could present a cohesive growth plan.
“It’s like the person who dreamed they ate a 400-pound marshmallow and woke up to find their pillow missing,” said Nelson of the offer. “That’s a lot to digest!” To help draft the plan, NFTE hired McKinsey & Co., whose strategy suggestions included the creation of Nelson’s position.
Nelson said his first days at the company were full of challenges including initially skeptical young executives looking at him and thinking, “Is this guy going to have enough energy to keep up with all these young people? Holy mackerel!” Nelson smiled. “And what am I looking at?”
Nelson answered his own question by turning to regard the chaos on the chalkboard. The students laughed.
During Nelson’s tenure at NFTE, the New York City-based organization has increased the number of students served annually by more than 22,000. It has expanded to 33 states and 13 countries. Since its founding in 1987, NFTE has reached more than 150,000 youth and trained more than 3,700 Certified Entrepreneurship Teachers through local offices in 10 U.S. major metropolitan cities, according to information on its Web site.