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My Favorite Teachers, Part 4

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This is part 4 of a four-part series. Read part three here.

4. Bill Daugherty

Bill Daugherty was born in Atlanta, where he was an all-state football player in high school. He was not a good student and had difficulty getting into the University of Georgia. Once there, however, and focused on academics instead of football, Bill thrived, ultimately being named Most Outstanding Senior. After several years working in real estate investment, Bill went back to school and got an MBA at the Harvard Business School.

Bill was the first MBA hired by the National Basketball Association (NBA), where he eventually became Senior Vice President in charge of new initiatives. After nine years, he left to join a Harvard classmate to found an Internet company. They survived the gut-wrenching early years of the Internet by reinventing their business model several times. Through trial and error they created the search-distribution industry and grew to become Google's second largest distribution partner. Bill sold his company in 2004 for an immense profit and immediately looked for ways to "give back" philanthropically.

This was not so easy. Bill was never good at meetings and found that the nonprofit world was meetings-heavy. His inclination had always been to roll up his sleeves and get to work immediately to solve the problem at hand. In these early days of personal discovery, he was disheartened to witness the failure of the education system in poor communities. He felt intuitively that the solution was in training kids to take control of their lives through entrepreneurship and small-business start-up. Through the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, Bill worked to become a teacher, utilizing NFTE's training, methodology, and materials. In 2006, he started an entrepreneurial education program at the famous MET school in Providence (where he had settled with his family). This fall, the MET and Bill will open the country's first free-standing center for entrepreneurship at a public high school.

Think of the positive sociological implications of a Harvard MBA and self-made millionaire teaching low-income children how to start their own businesses. I visited Bill's class and watched him teach. He was a natural. In the classroom, Bill is "all in." He has high expectations of the students but knows when to push and when to ease up. Bill glided effortlessly through the finer points of small business and the craft of ownership -- including such challenging topics as return on investment and profitability.

Many students in at-risk high schools have a fear of numbers. They tune out when the teacher turns to math lessons because math can make them "feel stupid." On the day I was in his classroom, Bill dealt with this fear by using an overhead projector to show a basketball-style scoreboard filled only with numbers -- the score, time remaining, leading scorers, etc. -- of a fictitious game. He then asked the students to tell him about the game through analyzing the scoreboard. Some got animated by "announcing" the game as time was running down. When the students realized that they had told the story of the game through numbers, math seemed more accessible and less scary. They quickly made the connection that numbers could also tell the story of a business. Their comprehension was a joy to witness.

But it isn't always fun in the classroom. Bill starts each new semester with a roundtable discussion about who he is and how he came to the MET. The students then share their backgrounds and dreams. Inevitably, there are tears because the kids hear others describe the difficulties that they all face each and every day. It becomes clear that life really isn't fair. In fact, for many, life stinks -- broken homes, severe poverty, gangs, drugs, prison, and even death. It's all there out for everyone to talk about.

Just when it feels like there is no hope, Bill brings it back to why he is there: it is because he genuinely believes in them as potential entrepreneurs. In this one area in life they have advantages. The injustices they face have made them stronger, more adaptable. He tells them that just by making it to the 10th grade in the inner city they have proven themselves to be resourceful, creative, and hard-working -- all critical traits of a successful entrepreneur. By necessity they are risk takers. Their difficulties and life journeys are a springboard for opportunity. And this is only the first day of class!

The semester culminates in a business plan competition. This is a standard NFTE program feature, but there is a distinctive twist. Bill has lined up venture funds so the winners can actually start and run their own businesses immediately. Private donors have backed graduates in everything from a soda business to car detailing. Every day, Bill's center is filled with students operating their own businesses. The kids make it work because a great teacher took the time and effort to share his knowledge and communicate his belief that they can succeed. It is Bill's faith in his students, and his ability to share his expertise in an inspiring, no-nonsense style, that makes him my favorite high school entrepreneurship teacher of all time.