05/01/2013 03:17 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

Me and 'Mr. K' -- How Meeting Ewing Marion Kauffman Changed My Life and the Future of Entrepreneurship Education

Standing in front of 56 unruly students as a newly minted math teacher at one of New York City's toughest, most crime-ridden schools was not part of my master plan in 1982. My dreams ran more along the lines of becoming the CEO of Ford Motor Company (I was from Flint, Michigan, and had worked as a financial analyst at Ford after earning my MBA) or starting my own multi-million-dollar business.

Frustrated and close to tears, I stepped outside for a moment to try to gather my composure. My students were having too much fun being rowdy to even notice that I was gone.

I racked my mind for answers. I had been bored as hell in high school, too -- what had interested me when I was their age? Only one thing: money. I always had some little business going. Earning money was always what had interested me most and was probably the only reason I had ever bothered to learn to read, write or do math.

I whipped off my watch and marched back in to the classroom. I held it up and screamed over the din, "Hey! What is this worth?"

The room fell silent. The kids were curious... and riveted, as I launched into an impromptu lesson on buying low, selling high, profit and return on investment.

In 1987, this magical moment, born of sheer desperation, spawned my creation of The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), which today runs entrepreneurship education programs in over a dozen countries, teaching about 50,000 students annually how to create and operate their own small businesses.

We have our own award-winning high-school curriculum now, used in hundreds of schools and counting, and research done by Brandeis and Harvard has proven that students exposed to NFTE's entrepreneurship education programs develop new aspirations changing their subconscious picture of themselves.

Perhaps this rapid global growth would not have happened if I had not had a pivotal meeting in 1992 with one of our greatest modern entrepreneurs and philanthropists, Ewing Marion Kauffman.

Kauffman founded Marion Laboratories in his basement in 1950 with just $5,000 and built into a powerhouse earning $930 million in annual revenues by the late 1980s. He had made his fortune developing life-saving drugs and had built an empire by viewing his employees as "associates," as he called them, and incentivizing them through stock ownership plans.

By the time Kauffman merged his company with Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals in 1989, Marion Labs was worth $6.5 billion. With the sale to Dow, over 300 of his associates became instant millionaires.

"Mr. K," as he was affectionately known, was legendary for his honesty, genius and kindness. In the mid-1960s, he had established the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds get quality educations. By the time I was invited to meet Mr. K, the Kauffman Foundation was considering focusing its grant-making on promoting entrepreneurship and improving the education of at-risk youth -- exactly NFTE's expertise.

As someone who was trying to grow my own nonprofit focused on a similar mission, you can imagine how excited I was when I got a phone call from Mickie Slaughter, the director of the Kauffman Foundation, in the spring of 1991. He wanted to come to meet with me and my team at NFTE's office that Friday, bringing with him the president of the foundation, Bob Rogers, and a board member named Mike Herman.

I was petrified and thrilled all at the same time. These were seriously heavy hitters -- Slaughter, for example, had been head of personnel at Marion Laboratories, on one of the most successful management teams of all time; Mike Herman had been the CFO of Marion Labs. I hung up the phone and took a deep breath; finally a major foundation was coming into the field of entrepreneurship education. This could be the greatest thing that ever happened to NFTE and our teachers and students.

Our office at 64 Fulton Street, over a Chinese restaurant in downtown Manhattan, was $1200 a month, rat-infested, dirty and small. We spent all day Thursday dusting, mopping and polishing, getting ready for our big-shot visitors.

Friday morning arrived and my staff and secretary nervously gathered in our conference room. My secretary wore her best suit, and I was in my best one, too, trying to look spic and span. Given that I was usually pretty disheveled and had trouble keeping my shirt tucked in, this was no easy task. Mike Caslin, our CEO, had prepared the agenda. Jack Mariotti, our head of curriculum, spread our books and manuals out on the table. We brought in Chinese food for lunch from the restaurant downstairs.

At noon on the dot, the doorbell rang and in walked three people who looked straight out of central casting for the role of "executive." Slaughter was strong, handsome and tall, and I just knew he'd played football at Denison University. Rogers had leadership and the charm of a veteran community organizer -- he had been in charge of community relations at Marion Labs before the sale. Mike Herman conveyed a quiet confidence. Highly intelligent, he had been Mr. K's right-hand person in finance.

We spent the next five hours talking about Marion Labs and Mr. K's values. I was deeply inspired by these good men, and the genius who had inspired them and sent them to meet me. Although NFTE only had twelve employees and 50 part-time teachers at the time, working with just over 3,500 kids in New York City, Newark and Wichita, we had big dreams.

Over and over again, we had witnessed the power of entrepreneurship education to re-engage disenfranchised at-risk teens in school and get them excited and hopeful about their futures. I was determined to build a worldwide movement.

When I heard that the Kauffman Foundation had almost $900 million in its endowment, I was so excited that I had to pretend to go get a glass of water in order to step outside the room for a minute and collect my thoughts. Yes, NFTE had garnered lots of international attention and we had kicked off the beginnings of a national movement to bring entrepreneurship education to low income youth, but we never had more than a month's cash on hand. We were constantly under the gun -- operating contract-to-contract with no margin for error. Here was an organization with almost a billion dollars. My head spun with the possibilities.

Sensing my excitement, Slaughter said, "You are a key part of our plan. You know the youth entrepreneurship education field better than anyone -- you created the field for low-income youth. We need your expertise and your knowledge. We want you to be on our advisory board. Come to our meetings in Boca Raton and Arizona and help us prepare a plan to use $50 million a year from the interest on our endowment to build a national entrepreneurship education movement. We are recruiting the best and the brightest, and we want NFTE on the team."

I was euphoric. The future looked bright. But first, I had to travel to Kansas City and meet the man himself, Mr. K.

Six weeks later, I walked into his office building in Kansas City with my heart pounding, wearing my best suit cleaned and pressed and my shoes shined. I was about to meet one of the world's greatest entrepreneurs. I could hardly wait.

A young man named Steve Rolings came down to greet me and said: "Let's go see Mr. K." I was told that we would have an hour together. I already sensed his energy before I was ushered into his office. Mr. Kauffman was handsome, bald and wiry -- extremely intelligent and energetic.

"I know Mickie has already explained what we are doing," he said. "I have read about you and I admire what you have begun, alone and without capital. I wanted to meet you."

"Thank you Mr. K," I replied, my heart filling with pride, and my face flushing bright red.

"You are a fine educator and leader, and we want to help you," he added, in his raspy voice.

He leaned forward and began peppering me with questions, cutting each of my answers short as soon as he had comprehended the gist of my response. He asked to see the books I had written for kids. Our textbook, in particular, seemed to fascinate him. When I showed him the lesson plans we had created for our teachers he muttered, "Brilliant," and tears welled up in my eyes.

"This is your life's work," Mr. K said, looking at me with a kindly expression. "I see that clearly, and I understand what you have accomplished and it is what we want to do, but on a larger scale for every entrepreneur. We want to create a foundation dedicated to helping foster entrepreneurship in the country."

"Thank you Mr. K," I muttered, deeply touched.

Then the questions began again. I had never been interrogated so thoroughly by such a quick mind. He began to hone in on research, asking me detailed questions for which I didn't really have any answers. We hadn't been able to afford to conduct any real research yet, but I knew the value of what we were doing. I had seen it change lives and also knew the complexity of research and measurement on human behavior. Did I have the kind of proof he was asking for, though? No. I began to fumble, feeling intimidated and flustered.

Angered by my timidity, Mr. K roared, "Do not back down! You know what you have done and seen. You are the researcher! What you have seen is important. It is the beginning of our field. You do not have hundreds of millions of dollars in a research budget. So what! Fight back! Be fearless, not weak."

I pulled myself together, faced him squarely, and gathered up my courage to share with him my biggest fear. "Honestly, I'm afraid that you will compete with us."

"We will not," he said firmly, and I knew he was giving his word.

Our eyes met and that moment gave me enough courage and faith in NFTE's mission to last my lifetime.

On my way out of Mr. K's office, a photographer took a picture of us together, and then I was on my way back to the airport, knowing I had just met a great global leader.

Mr. K and I stayed in touch, talking on the phone shortly before he died in mid-1993 from bone cancer. His friend and righthand person Lisa Mitchell became a lifelong friend of mine.

Mickie Slaughter also became a friend and mentor, and joined our board after I went to Boca and Arizona to present my plan for Kauffman's entrepreneurship education initiative.

It was bittersweet for me as I had written the plan immediately adopted by Mr. Kauffman for my beloved Flint, Michigan. While talking to Mr Kauffman board I remember how I had pleaded with my first employer, the Mott Foundation, to become the founder of entrepreneurial philanthropy, but sadly no one is a prophet in his home town.

Fortunately Mr. Kauffman's advice helped us become more focused and persuasive; with the Kauffman Foundation's financial help, we were able to invest in research on a massive scale. In 1995-1996, we conducted the first random assignment study on entrepreneurship ever done, demonstrating the life-changing effects of entrepreneurial education to the world.

Since my meeting with Mr. Kauffman, NFTE -- now a global movement -- has grown exponentially and I have received numerous awards. In 2004, when I accepted the Ernst & Young National Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Palm Springs, the Kauffman folks -- who are national sponsors of the award -- sat with me, enjoying the celebration while Jay Leno made some nice remarks about my work off stage.

I wish Mr. K could have been there. And I wish he were here now.