From the mean streets to the Ivy League: Young entrepreneur shares life story
At first glance Rodney Walker looks like any other forward-thinking, upwardly mobile young man. From his Yale sweatshirt to his easy-going, confident manner, Walker is at once poised and accessible. Now 23,Walker is in his first year of graduate school at Yale University. He has a clear vision and pronounced goals, and the confidence and wherewithal to achieve them.
But just a few years ago, he was struggling to just find enough to eat. Graduating from high school was barely on the radar; college wasn’t even an entertainable dream, much less an option.
Walker was recently in town, courtesy of YES Carolina, an organization dedicated to teaching and encouraging entrepreneurship to high school students, to share his story with students at Summerville High School and hopefully inspire them to get on the path to success and achieve their dreams.
Walker’s story may well be a modern day Horatio Alger tale, except it is real, gritty, and one that too often does not end very well.
“From the time I was five until I was seventeen, I was in the foster care system,” Walker told the group of students gathered in Summerville High School auditorium. “Toward the end, I was actually homeless.”
Walker grew up on the South and West sides of Chicago. One of twelve brothers and sisters, Walker spent most of those years bouncing from foster home to foster home. His mother became a mother at age 13, as did her mother before her, he said.
His father was a high school drop out; he joined the military and fought in Vietnam, but when he returned stateside he had no education and little future, and he, too, succumbed to the ravages of drug addiction and crime.
Once Rodney went into foster care, he would not see his parents again for 13 years. When he did finally find them again his mother did not recognize him at all and his father only realized Rodney was his son because Rodney looked like the man.
Still, he wanted to try to salvage their lives. That, too, did not work out. He would work odd jobs, pay the bills, buy groceries, even give them money, only to see them spend everything on drugs.
“My dream was to help out my parents – I wanted my family back,” he said. “But by the time I found my parents, they were so ravaged that nothing I did would ever get them out of that. Sadly, as much as I didn’t like it and as bad as it had been sometimes, I had to see that for myself to see how valuable foster care actually was. I just couldn’t live like that.”
Rodney left; he would live homeless for the next four months.
Needless to say, Rodney’s school performance, never particularly stellar, worsened, as did his attitude. He would spend a good deal of time in detention that year. Then one evening, while he was literally walking around the streets late one school night, he ran into the man who would become his mentor: His high school principal.
The principal realized something was going on in Rodney’s life. He invited the youth into a coffee shop, bought him something to eat, and bit by bit coaxed the story out of Rodney.
“He took the initiative – found it in his heart to help me,” Rodney said. “He invited me to live in his home with his family. He provided me with what I needed. Most importantly, he provided structure. Where I had been stealing food from the school cafeteria just to have something to eat at night, I had regular nourishment here. I had set times to study, set chores to do, a set bedtime. He made sure I was where I was supposed to be and doing what I was supposed to do.”
Rodney’s GPA improved. It was also around this time that his mentor introduced Rodney to a school entrepreneurship class. The class taught students how to develop business plans and start their own businesses.
Rodney hit upon an idea to provide quality video productions of major family events such as weddings and birthdays at affordable prices and his business Forever Life Music and Video Production was born.
He entered his business plan in a national competition held by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). Soon after, his business was profiled in a documentary shown on Black Entertainment Television.
Despite his poor grades, that success gave him confidence to apply to college. He entered Morehouse College on academic probation; he dug in, applied himself and made his grades. This led to scholarships, fellowships, and other great opportunities, he said.
He graduated Morehouse with honors and is now in his first year of a masters program at Yale. Currently his business is doing well and in fact his life’s successes have led him to even more opportunities, such as being able to share his story with high school students across the country.
But he also admitted that while hard work and making good choices are key, he received help along the way. In fact, he notes that his siblings didn’t have the same opportunities and sadly, many of them made poor choices.
“Where I was you don’t just get out of – you have to have help,” he said. “The cycle of poverty and ignorance is powerful. I can’t say enough good things about education.
Most of all, he thanks his mentor and urged students to seek out a strong mentor.
“The fact that he did what he did is why you’re seeing what you see before you here today,” he said. “If you’ve never been inspired to take advantage of your educational opportunities, now is the time to do it.”