My son teaches underprivileged students in Dallas. Here’s my experience sharing the Impact Makers story with them

Welcome to Fred Florence Middle School, known formally as the Young Men’s Leadership Program. My son, Turner, greeted me at the side entrance near the big green dumpsters. My Uber driver had navigated us through a part of Dallas that neither of us had seen before, a stark contrast to the polished rows of chain stores in the other burbs or the steel and glass skyline of downtown. One pawn shop, dollar store, taco take out, and mini-mart after another, no grocery store in sight.

The hallways exploded with noise as we entered and the bell rang. The middle school boys clamored into the corridor, filling the space with their yellow uniform shirts, giant backpacks, and cell phones. Turner noted that he can control the classroom fairly consistently, but all heck breaks loose in the hallway, even with his better students, once everyone mixes at the bell. I entered Turner’s classroom, noting his laminated Mr. Willett sign on the door. He corralled a few kids from the hallway who were not finding their way to the classroom as quickly as they knew that they should.

Turner had set my expectations fairly low before I arrived: “These are not my best kids. They tend to not pay attention as well. Although, the worst of the bunch are not here because the substitute teacher had six of them suspended when she was here. And the police arrested another one a week ago.”

What I got was actually quite different. The students walked in and they all addressed him as “Mr. Willett.”

“That’s your dad. You guys look just alike. Same chin, same long nose.”

Turner only had said that he had a guest presenter coming to the class, but had not shared the presenter’s identity. Hands extended to shake and greet me. I was impressed by those manners and their smiles. The students quickly coined my title for the day “We will call you Mr. Mr. Willett.”

Turner started my first class with a loud voice and call to order, firm but not yelling. The boys settled down immediately, impressing me again as I was expecting more disruption. 

I have given the !m story, and the social enterprises, B Corps saving the world talk so many times but never to an audience this young or this potentially challenged. What message would resonate with these kids? Turner was right there to help me by having the students take out their journals and write “Presentation” at the top of the page. “Who knows what a summary is?” A quiet Hispanic kid offered up a definition. “I need you to write a summary of what you learn today.” Everyone complied.

I then took the stage. “I want to give you some background on my career – I spent a lot of time in school including four years of college and three years of law school. Has Mr. Willett shared any of his background with you? Did he mention his pro wrestling career?” Every student turned their head towards Turner with looks of disbelief. “No way. You did that? That’s crazy!” They all believed me.

Turner chimed in: “Class, we are learning the meaning of the term sarcasm today. My dad is sharing sarcasm with you.” And then I did it again: “But seriously, Turner must have mentioned that he did TV commercials.”

“No way. That’s crazy. Which ones did you do?”

“Class, he is being sarcastic again.” I could have gone on.

Tag team teaching with Turner, my son – how cool is that? I shared an abbreviated version of my life’s story, lingering on some reference points of interest to the class:

  • Cell phones were as big and heavy as this text book – I held up a giant literature book they weighed at least ten pounds – that they were in a bag that you slung over your shoulder.
  • I had the first smart phone – no color, just green and black in the screen.
  • Google was so small that I could call the company directly to order equipment – they only had around 100 employees then. More amazement.

“My company helps other companies by solving their problems or helping them do something better. My company gives away its profits to charities.” Turner interrupted: “Who knows what a charity is?”  A few hands went up. “Andre – what is a charity?” Andre: “They help other people. They give them money or things that they do not have. Like helping the homeless.” Good answer. I continued.

“Let’s talk about companies that do good for the community. What if you were buying basketball shoes at Foot Locker and had the choice between two very similar, clean looking shoes where one pair is from And One that cost $10.00 more than the Brand X pair but And One gives away a pair of shoes to kids in Africa for every pair that you buy.” The students all went with the And One option.

“What if you are at the store to buy cleaning supplies. Really? How to distinguish between the 100 bottles on the shelf when they all are green. And why are they all green? Would you pay $2.00 more for the bottle that has the B Corp logo seal of approval on it?” I gave them a high level explanation of what having the B Corp seal means.

“What about companies that do good by their employees? I toured a company (New Belgium Brewing) that gives each employee $200 to go do something fun. And they give you $250 each if you do a fun activity with a group of employees. So, you could go bowling, rent your shoes, have pizza and soda, and all of that is paid for by the company. A guy who works there gave me his business card – much more interesting title than mine (I shared my card): his read Director of Fun.” Immediate response: “No way. That’s so cool.”

Turner signaled me that now would be a good time to pass out the snacks that I had packed in from VA. Per my nephew Mason’s recommendation, Cheddar Blast Goldfish. I counted out 54 individual packages. Too much packaging, but so many happy boys.

Student drawing of “Mr. Mr. Willett”

Turner and I then had the students do a participation exercise, trying to keep them engaged a bit longer and hopefully to the end of class. We asked the boys to sketch out in their journals their ideas for creating a company that could do good for others. Several students jumped into writing something immediately, others lingered in thought for a while. After ten minutes or so, Turner had several of the students read off their ideas. My favorite: “We would make jet skis and then give away extra jet skis to homeless people.” Several boys reacted to the pitch before Turner or I could say anything. “And where is the homeless person going to put the jet ski?”

A student sitting in front of me had not said a word the entire class, but he had managed to fill an entire page of his journal with a description of an electrician service, bearing his name, that he wanted to create. I asked him if I could snap a photo of that page of his journal and he did.

Turner was amazed that one of his most challenging students – the guy never sits down in class – actually had been volunteering answers to my questions. And when asked what type of company that he would create, he nailed the “suck up to the presenter/teacher best answer.”

“We will hire Mr. Mr. Willett’s company to help our company grow.”

I shook hands as the students headed out of the classroom. Many thanks for the Goldfish. The only Caucasian kid there was not even supposed to be in class. He was a major admirer of Turner and had cut his other class to be here when he learned that Turner had someone coming to speak. He was the quarterback of the football team and and really seemed to have his act together, laying out his plan to do forensic research in Richmond, noting that another teacher had gone to school at University of Richmond. Tuner later shared that he was almost 16 and repeating this grade for the third time, so he should have things down by now. He and several other students shared a similar demeanor when they spoke with Turner. They did not look at him but rather gazed up to him, at least figuratively. He was their teacher but also their mentor, leader, father figure, and friend, all in one.

The second class had Turner’s better students. Similar mix of mostly Hispanic students with African Americans. No Caucasians here. We had not been in class more than five minutes when a small, very young boy approached me with a drawing on notebook paper in hand “Here is a sketch I did” and he presented a pencil drawing of me in my deconstructed jacket. He really nailed my look, although I thought my shoulders looked too slouched. He signed the sketch: “To Mr. Mr. Willet.”

This was a block class – double period – so we had time to cover the same Impact Makers/social enterprise overview and questions before jumping into the exercise. These boys were quicker with their answers than the other class but no more enthusiastic – the earlier guys had impressed me with how much they embraced the lesson. Turner and I traded back and forth on our remarks and questions. Mr. Willett and Mr. Mr. Willett, father and son. One young, physically striking white guy with his blond hair slicked back. And another, much older, much thinner white guy with his graying hair, badly in need of a haircut.

We broke the students into groups to start their “make a company” exercise, journals open, laptops on, large paper and markers out. I was concerned at first that the laptops would distract the boys from their objective, but most of them actually began to research their ideas. Some jumped directly to sketching out a company logo. Other boys debated each partners’ brainstorming ideas. Turner and I moved around the room from one group to another. I did not say much; Turner reminded them that they needed to come up with a company that did something good for the community and their employees. More ideas. More web surfing.

I looked over the shoulder of one boy and saw his sketch of a guy guzzling booze from a bottle. And that was the only image on the large piece of paper. This could be trouble – had I inspired an alcohol based over indulgence? The artist later explained that he wanted to create a company that delivered alcohol to people’s homes so that they did not need to drink and drive, and he cited Texas alcohol related traffic fatalities.

Two eager boys approached Turner and me excitedly saying that they needed to survey us – Turner had mentioned extra credit for the use of charts. “Would you living in Virginia use a device that was an underwater google, sunglasses, computer, virtual reality, everything kind of shades?” “Yes,” I replied. “Excellent: that’s 50% adoption. Would you in Texas use a ….?” “Yes.” “Excellent. That’s 100% adoption.” The boys followed up in short order with a bar graph reflecting their market survey.

Next table. “Our company is called PHY – People Help You. We are a company that helps people who need help. For every $1,000 we make we give away $2,000.” Ok, I had not asked them to run a financial analysis of their business models, saving that for the next MBA presentation.

A question from another group: “Can we use the same logo that we found online? Is that a copyright problem? Oh, we have Mr. Mr. Willett to defend us.”

I passed out the Gold Fish snacks as Turner gave them the two-minute warning – this was like Cut Throat Kitchen or some similar time restricted competition on TV. Turner had two boys lead off presenting their company by moving to the performance corner of the room. Yes, Turner had his students doing presentations on a regular basis. “It takes time away from prep for the standardized tests but they are actually learning something and that will pay off.”

The first group was describing an electronic equipment manufacturing company: “We make one microwave and then give away one…” The fire alarm sounded and that was the end of the presentations.

We filed outside of the school in a fairly orderly manner, and I actually had time to interact with some of the students before the administrators dismissed them for the day. I liked their smiles. I liked their eagerness to learn. But I could not help but wonder what was next for these boys. How many of them were recent immigrants? At least several in Turner’s classes, and I noticed those students still speaking mostly Spanish to each other during the make a company exercise. How many of these students were living at or close to the poverty line? According to Turner, many of the students depended on the school breakfast and lunch as their only real meals of the day. How many of these students would finish high school or have any shot at college? I could have checked the statistical averages, but I preferred to maintain my optimism that the students’ enthusiasm for being here actually would carry them further.

Rodney Willet, Senior VP Business Strategy