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Rodney’s Story

How NFTE class, bizplan competitions and mentorship helped a young man find his passion for learning and empowering others.

  • Entered the foster system at age 5 and over the next 13 years cycled through 15 different foster homes, even living on the streets for a brief period.
  • Struggled in school as a child and had a 1.3 GPA in high school.
  • His NFTE class engaged him, and with the help of teachers and mentors Rodney not only won $6,000 in a NFTE competition but was able to graduate high school and attend college.
  • Rodney’s new-found confidence enabled him to excel at Morehouse College and he went on to earn masters degrees at Yale and Harvard.
  • He’s now a published author and public speaker.

After losing his home and a sibling in a fire, Rodney entered the foster system at the age of 5. His parents struggled with drug abuse and his family members had been in and out of prison multiple times. By the time he encountered the NFTE program in high school, Rodney had cycled through more than a dozen different foster care homes on Chicago’s violent South Side and, with a 1.3 GPA, he was failing academically. No one at school knew of Rodney’s troubled situation and inner turmoil. Rodney felt trapped—both by his circumstances and by the system. That is, until he took his first NFTE class.

It was not just the robust and engaging curriculum, which equipped him with the tools to succeed and restore his confidence, but it was also his mentors—a vital ingredient in NFTE’s secret sauce—who helped him to really believe in himself and to see the possibilities that lay in front of him. With the wind now behind him for the first time, Rodney entered the NFTE Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge pitch competition that year. He made it all the way to final round and was a runner up at Nationals, earning himself a $6,000 prize in the process.  More importantly, Rodney’s belief in himself and in his abilities had been ignited. With renewed energy and confidence, he applied himself to his studies and graduated from high school, earning himself a provisional acceptance to Morehouse College and using his NFTE competition winnings to pay for his first year.

At the end of that first year, Rodney—who had been the voiceover for a NFTE documentary in which he was featured—was asked to speak about his NFTE experience at an Aspen Institute event.  At dinner that night, when the guests at his table asked him what he was doing, he mentioned that he was trying to afford the next 3 years of college.  By the time dinner had ended, one of the donors at the table had offered to cover those entire college expenses, provided he maintain a good GPA. Not only did Rodney maintain his GPA, but he excelled and went on to earn Master’s degrees from Harvard and Yale, where—enhanced by his NFTE public speaking training—he would deliver an inspiring TED Talk.

Rodney’s book, A New Day One, describes his incredible journey and is available on Amazon.

“NFTE’s ability the bridge the relationship gap between at-risk youth and positive mentors is unlike any other. This bridge is essential to changing lives.”
— Rodney Walker

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NFTE drives student success in many ways


Here are just a few of the businesses that NFTE students have gone on to build

Keegan Bond Harmon

Laura Martinelli

Ehfar Films

Dylan Martin

Mill Brook Honey, LLC

Mathew Galvez

Lotta Worldwide

Carlos Feitosa

Shine Soaps

Arti Shala

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