02/14/2012 03:49 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2012

Replicating An Idea, Part 1

I had an idea that I believed in. I thought about it constantly and saw connections to it everywhere. I needed to share it with others, and it became my life's work. I worked on my idea for years, day and night, examining the very depths of my existence and often looking back to see what I had learned. I became intimate with rejection and developed a thick skin over time.

After several decades, the hard work began to pay off. Others started to understand what I was getting at, and they began to implement the idea themselves. I felt validated, flattered. The work and struggle and pain had been worthwhile; I was making an impact and began to understand fully how ideas spread. Now, I would like to share my story so that others can replicate their own ideas more effectively.

My idea was a simple one, born in 1981 out of an isolating incident that altered my life goal of being a successful businessperson: I was mugged and terrorized by a group of kids and robbed of a few dollars. As a result, I became determined to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds, so that they would not have to resort to such methods of getting money.

With this idea in mind, I made my second major career change in just a few years. The first had occurred when I had left the Ford Motor Company to start my own import-export firm in New York. Now I closed up my business and became a high school teacher, asking to be assigned to notoriously "bad" neighborhoods.

The students in these schools were rowdy in the extreme, however, and didn't want to learn. I tried everything I could think of to create order in chaotic classrooms, but nothing worked -- until one day in a remedial math class, out of desperation, I gave a mock sales pitch for my own wristwatch. I talked about its features and why it would be a good buy, and then about profit margins, supply and demand, and other basic business topics. To my surprise, for the first time I had my students' full attention. This was not theoretical math I was trying to teach them, it was real, useful information about earning a living in the real world -- and they were riveted.
I didn't realize it at the time, but this incident, spontaneous as it was, showed me how to implement my idea -- which was that imparting the principles of entrepreneurship and small-business startup to inner-city children could dramatically improve their lives.

My commitment to this idea led me to leave the public school system in 1987 and found the non-profit Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). We ran our very first programs were in the New York-New Jersey area, but I soon realized that the NFTE system had to be replicated, so that my idea would be able to travel beyond my personal capacity to deliver it. So I worked hard to raise donations and broadened our outreach until today there are NFTE programs in 21 states and ten countries, with teachers being trained to teach our entrepreneurship program to at-risk youth in 50 countries.

In fact, in December of 2010, over a quarter billion Chinese viewers tuned in to watch NFTE and our partner, Bright China Foundation (BCF), win the "People's Choice Award" for Best Charity in China on national television, with over a half million online votes. Last year, almost 23,000 Chinese students completed the NFTE-BCF entrepreneurship program. These students started small businesses in such diverse areas as handcrafted goods, used cell phone resale, computer repair, recycling, restaurants and farming. Before studying entrepreneurship, these low-income Chinese youth were slated to end up as low-income workers in factories. Now, they are empowered to start their own businesses.

The core of the NFTE program worldwide is the textbook I developed, with an accompanying workbook and teacher lesson plans. Because we need motivated and exceptional teachers to deliver NFTE's specialized curriculum, we had to develop a teacher training program, too. We used our associations in both the education and business sectors to develop NFTE, and created models for both in-school and after-school scenarios. We worked with local school boards or established institutions, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs.

Throughout this process I often asked myself: What does it take for an idea to spread throughout the world? How does idea replication really work?

Replication is the process of sharing information and ensuring the consistency of an idea through open practice. One idea can revolutionize the world, creating shifts in understanding until thinking otherwise is inconceivable. There is no joy like that of working on the replication of an idea, but it often comes from a paradox that seems unsolvable.

In this regard, I think of Max Planck, the German physicist who actualized quantum physics because of his inability to solve a math problem. In 1900, he revolutionized the field by inventing the Planck Postulate, which provided a constant between the intractable issue of energy and radiation frequency. I won't go into the details of the theory here, but the point is, the postulate started as an idea in Planck's head, was published for review, and then was discussed by the imminent physicists of his time, integrated into world conferences, improved upon by other scientists and, finally, led to Planck receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918.

Universities accepted Planck's idea, governments funded research to put the idea into practice, and entrepreneurs, developing products based on derivatives of his insight, brought the idea to the marketplace. This single idea became a sustainable basis for many products and innovations from which entire new industries were created, while our understanding of energy was forever altered -- simply because one man formulated a connection between two seemingly disparate entities.

Looking back on twenty-five years with NFTE, I now see that teaching entrepreneurship to disadvantaged kids -- Planck's constant transposed to youth development -- has affected so many lives. Our idea provided a point around which separate entities could converge. When I was a teacher, my colleagues insisted that I focus on basic academic skills -- reading and writing, math, communication and presentation proficiency -- and good citizenship. I experienced firsthand that this approach often failed to motivate my high school students to learn When my students became interested in starting their own businesses, in contrast, they discovered tremendous motivation. They wanted business success, and therefore they want to know how to write and speak effectively and how to do basic math. They realized that they needed communication and presentation skills to operate a business profitably. They also learned that good citizenship -- showing respect to others -- was essential to maintaining profitable relationships with current and potential customers.

Knowledge of basic business principles greatly modifies the behavior of young people. Entrepreneurship changes the structure of their psyches. Many young people have a natural aptitude for entrepreneurship -- their challenging lives encourage independence of spirit, assertiveness, and a natural ability in salesmanship. They are comfortable with risk and ambiguity. When channeled into entrepreneurial activities, negative behaviors turn into positive ones, and students benefit beyond both business and academic venues. They establish positive values, enhance self-worth, and learn the power of their own potential. The return on my original idea continues to be immeasurable, and has become the motivation in my drive to actualize the concept in a scalable way.

As I worked to encourage replication of this idea , however, I had to take a hard look at the ways I chose to share it -- from one-on-one conversations to think tanks, mass market media, scholarly journals, educational forums and global conferences -- so that I could effectively assess the impact it was having. We also evaluated the process by which we selected NFTE partners, and continually questioned the quality of my knowledge of the field. Our team conducted research regularly, believing it to be a substantial investment in development, and vital to the organization's growth.

NFTE's leadership role in creating an international movement teaching entrepreneurship to at-risk youth keeps reassuring me of my initial conviction: we can turn around the economic decay of communities by teaching entrepreneurship to the young people who live in them. In fact, I believe that the standard curriculum of every school can be greatly improved by the addition of entrepreneurship education. Dozens of national and international foundations, and hundreds of major corporations and entrepreneurs are now funding youth-entrepreneurship programs based on NFTE's paradigm.

Thirty years of being an educator have gone by with what feels like the speed of light. The NFTE idea has permanently changed the thinking of more than 450,000 young people, and is leading a global-education reform. In 2009, the World Economic Forum adopted NFTE's mission as one of its official education policies: Every child in the world should learn how to start a business. With this idea at its core, NFTE continues to grow. I am continually amazed by the power one idea can have in shaping the world.

This is part one of a three-part series. Read part two here.