I must admit that the word entrepreneur never crossed my lips until I was an adult with a subscription to Forbes Magazine. You see, I grew up in a family of four children and two parents living in the Center Court public housing project in Niagara Falls New York during the 1950s. We were there because by certain standards, we were poor and my father was the sole wage earner while my mother devoted herself to raising three daughters and me. Some of the good news was that public housing projects in a small city were very much like villages, not the crime infested ugly places that many people think. All the parents were aware of all the children. At 10am or 10pm, we'd walk the neighborhood without worries. Of course the later hour was much more interesting to a 10 year old boy.
My mother had only a grade school education but she was astute, ambitious, proud and resourceful. My dad worked as a general laborer and machine operator for the Vanadium Corporation, a subsidiary of Union Carbide. I visited him at the plant once around age 8 and was enthralled by the all the noise, sparks and heavy equipment. The environment all over town was pure smokestack America. Our city offered cheap hydro-electric power then which had attracted metallurgical and chemical companies in droves. DuPont, the Carborundum Company, Hooker Chemical and Union Carbide were just a few. I never thought of them as companies that were once just a gleam in some entrepreneur's eye, and as much smaller businesses. In my neighborhood, I knew people who worked for these big companies and only one African-American, Mr. Fields who owned his own enterprise, a convenience store at the corner. We didn't have dinner table conversations at our apartment about wholesale, retail and merchandising, so I simply wondered how the Fields family made ends meet without daddy having a job! I did hear conversations from my dad about things such as silicon carbide, and boron nitride, which may be why I first thought of becoming a chemist! Sadly, because of the chemical factories and indiscriminate dumping, Niagara Falls eventually became ground zero for super pollution at the now infamous site of the Love Canal.
We had moved to Niagara Falls from a town of eleven thousand souls, Andalusia Alabama. All the businesses there around the town square were small and family owned. The biggest I recall was the lumber mill. Yes, racial segregation was still alive and well there at mid-century. An enduring childhood memory for me is of separate drinking fountains in the train station. The discriminatory practices and laws of the early 20th century actually propelled many blacks into owning small businesses which served their communities. After the family move north for job opportunities, my mother especially kept her small town ways including the knowledge that you had to be prepared to hustle to put food on the table and clothing on the fast growing young brood.
One day my mom, Lorean asked me help her with something that required my red Radio Flyer wagon. It sounded like play to me so I was happy to pull the wagon and go along. We gathered a couple of burlap sacks, some of my father's discarded work gloves and a large hammer, all tossed into the wagon and off we went to a nearby wooded area known as the dump. It was called that because it was directly behind an Autolite Battery factory which churned out the lead-acid batteries for the new cars pouring off the assembly lines. They dumped defective batteries in the nearest vacant lot. What my mother had learned was that the discarded batteries had a value for us. She showed me how to hammer open the cases and using our gloved hands, take out the lead plates, placing them in the burlap bags. Into the little red wagon went the booty from an hour of hammering and plucking for the trip back home. Once there, we hosed the remaining acid off the lead, took an old and very large iron skillet, loaded it with the plates and began melting them over a coal fire! Lead melts at about 620 degrees Fahrenheit, well within the reach of hot fire. We'd repeat that until we had four to six of those lead ingot pancakes to put into the same wagon and walk them to a nearby scrap dealer to have them weighed and exchanged for cash. That was my first entrepreneurial lesson! The Autolite scrap yard became a steady source of income to supplement my father's hourly wages.
When I was 12 years of age, my mother gave me lesson number two by encouraging me to take on a newspaper delivery route covering the housing project. It began with delivering the Sunday edition of the Buffalo Evening News and she probably loaned me about $5 to buy the first batch of papers. I was good at it so I wanted more customers and a larger income. That goal brought a switch to the Niagara Falls Gazette which meant I was on the route six days per week, whatever the weather. You really had to run a micro business as a newsboy in the 1950s. I collected cash from the customers once per week and the newsboy rep from the paper collected the wholesale price from me weekly as well. He really didn't want to hear any stories about me being short because customers hadn't paid. I built the route up to a circulation level that earned me a prize trip to New York City, my first ever airplane ride. Now I was getting a peek over the fence as to what the results of hustling and learning business principles could mean. Today's youngsters would be surprised to know that my first car, a slightly tired Chevy convertible came from the proceeds of a newspaper route!
My dear mother never thought of herself as a business person, but simply as a woman creating ways to help provide for her family. She was too proud to accept the day's welfare programs and wanted the children to develop a strong sense of independence. Near that very same dump that yielded the lead plates, we started a community vegetable garden. Could any of this happen today? Probably not, since the environmentalists and child activists would be all over the Autolite Company for their dumping practices and the parents in the project for allowing a child to handle that much lead. The newsboys in my Los Angeles neighborhood today are adults delivering papers from the back of pick-up trucks! But I do believe that the very same spirit of self reliance, resourcefulness and entrepreneurial thinking is more important than ever. The country is hungry for it. You've probably read the biblical references to teaching people to fish rather than simply giving them a fish.
Lorean Davis passed away a few years ago of natural causes at age eighty eight. She left each of her children a very monetarily modest but emotionally significant inheritance. I wouldn't be surprised if some of it came from our home based lead recycling enterprise! Her spirit of hustle and resourcefulness provided a rich family life and a host of my most valuable life lessons. I'd like to know what was your first entrepreneurial lesson.
Written by: Nelson Davis