It all started with chewing gum in second grade. Juicy Fruit, Wrigley’s Spearmint, and Fruit Stripe, the three flavors available in bulk packages of ten at the local discount store. $.39 for ten-packs and I sold single packs to classmates for the going rate in 1962, $.05. For the first pack. To purchase a second pack, customers had to return the five gum wrappers in their original packaging. I drove a hard bargain, but never underestimate the motivational force of seven-year-olds desperate for chewing gum. The pleas of those who ‘forgot’ to return wrappers (usually girls secretly determined to make their own chains) landed on deaf ears, and they soon fell into line. Conflicts dissipated as they accepted my terms and I became the Gum Chain Queen as the coffers swelled (by seven-year-old standards). I’m not sure in what year making ‘gum chains’ from wrappers folded thin and flat woven into a chevron chain lost their cachet, but at Thomas Edison Elementary, it was the source of female prestige in 1962. I retired from my gum empire when the school year ended; I know my mother was relieved to be free of my nagging her for rides to Twin Fair. I have no idea what I did with all those $.11s I made from each sale. Maybe into my bank account.
Mother’s life became easier with my next enterprise – craps, a game my father taught me, never suspecting where that knowledge would lead. I ran a craps game in fifth grade. Whereas my second-grade business appealed more to girls, gambling was a huge draw for boys. Edison Elementary didn’t have recess, so I held games after school, using the school building itself as the wall against which dice were thrown. The maximum bet was $.25 in the day when school lunches were $.30, and games didn’t last long. The lure of winning kept even sixth graders coming back.
My teacher, Mr. Eberhardt, the heart throb of Edison Elementary, caught me one afternoon in the spring after my private casino had been in operation for more than eight months. Fledgling gamblers scattered across the playground. Mr. E was the school’s hot, eligible bachelor who drove a red Pontiac GTO convertible and was a former student, and subsequently friend, of my father. He tried unsuccessfully to suppress his delight at my initiative – betrayed by the twinkle in his eye – and told me that gambling on public property was illegal and he’d have to report me if I continued. Since I, like most of the girls in my class, would have gone over nearby Niagara Falls in a barrel if handsome, charming Mr. E had so instructed, I abandoned my ad hoc casino. I’ve sometimes wondered if I triggered detrimental habits on the part of my classmates and if any of those boys wound up as members of Gamblers’ Anonymous as a result.
My parents never found out about this business, and it was hard figuring out what to do with the money I made. I couldn’t take it to the bank alone, so I kept it – all change – in two shoeboxes at the back of my closet and spent the money in dribs and drabs – at Dairy Queen and bookstores, mostly – over a period of years.
They did find out about my high school side hustle, however. One May day, when I was in 11th grade (my last year, since I went to college without graduating), my father walked into my English class. He was the district administrator in charge of K-12 English language programs, and he occasionally turned up in classes, but usually his visits were announced in advance and entailed his giving advice about writing or modeling textual analysis. But this time, he opened the door, marched directly to my desk, grabbed my upper arm with a power that later resulted in a bruise (I do bruise easily) and said, “we have to go now.”
I mustered my nerve to look him in the eye and then wished I hadn’t. I gathered my books and followed him in silence to the parking lot and climbed into the car. During the intolerably tense, five-minute drive home, I knew the reason for his visit was one of two things: 1) they’d discovered my stash or 2) my beloved grandfather, who’d been suffering from bone cancer for almost a decade, had died. I selfishly hoped it was the latter, although my father’s comportment would have been vastly different had that been the case. The silence was nerve-wracking.
We pulled into the driveway. Nana the Newfoundland, all 160 pounds of her, lazed carefree in the garden. The air was fragrant. When I got to the screen side door, I saw into the kitchen. My mother sat crying at the table. On it, newspapers were spread out and on them, a mountain of marijuana. A two-pound mountain. I’d just replenished my supply, which I kept, tidily, in one-ounce sandwich bags (it was the pre-Ziplock-bags era), rolled up and stored in Fluffo tins. My mother used Fluffo to make her sublime, flakey pie crusts, and each tin fit exactly 16, one-ounce, weed-filled baggies. I kept the tins in the file drawer of my desk, which means Mother was snooping. Part of me felt ‘serves her right’ but the evident distress wracking my parents meant choosing the contrite, reassuring, response route.
Following a short discussion during which I was notified of my being grounded for a month, my father rolled the weed mountain up in the newspapers and carried it determinedly into the living room, where he placed it on the fireplace grate. My mother sat in the wing chair beside it, her helpless, tear-stained face shocking me suddenly, if briefly, into sadness. My father got out the matches and lit the bundle. It was a solemn moment. I didn’t care about the money – at that time marijuana (complete with stems and leaves) sold for $180 per pound – because I’d already made enough and encountered the same problem as in fifth grade, since my only bank account was a joint one with my mother.
In his haste, Daddy forgot to open the flue. Smoke billowed into the living room. We sprang into action. Daddy opened the flue while Mother and I threw open the living room windows and rushed to open the front door. I inhaled deeply and prayed that a squad car – they patrolled regularly in our neighborhood of doctors, lawyers, and business owners – didn’t drive by. That might have caused a problem. But the universe smiled, and none did. I wanted so desperately to laugh knowing how funny this unfortunate situation would be in retrospect, but managed to exercise self-control, not my forte.
The illegality of my youthful enterprises didn’t bother me because I considered myself the proud descendent of entrepreneurial women. My great grandmother Barbara started a moving company that made its money during Prohibition smuggling hootch over the border from Canada. She kept the details secret from even her children. It did well enough that the three sons who inherited it (the two daughters were on their own), sold it in 1938 and bought Pepsi stock with the proceeds. They never needed to work again. One of the daughters, Grandmother Irene, followed in her footsteps and bought a moving and storage company in the late 1940s, whose original headquarters occupied the first floor of the home she shared with my grandfather. By the time she died in 1989, there were several branches in two states. My mother hated being a latchkey kid and resolved to be a stay-at-home mom. Then came me.
After a long, career-building hiatus, I again felt the entrepreneurial pull in the early 2000s. I started NordArtDesign, an internet business that combined my love of winter with my appreciation of exquisitely-executed, innovative handicraft. I sold mainly jewelry, capes, and mittens made by talented, reindeer-herding Sami artisans who’ve found creative uses for reindeer horn and leather and the fur of the wild animals whose meat feeds their shepherd dogs. My favorite part was attending the Sami market fair held annually during the second weekend in February since the seventeenth century in Jokkmokk, a quiet Swedish village in Sampi (Lapland). It was a magical, energizing weekend of building friendships, learning about craft, listening to joik, watching reindeer races, eating reindeer gyros and a local cheese that squeaks when you chew it, and reveling in sunshine and daytime temperatures that often hovered around -35F. It was a great learning experience that I abandoned before departing for a two-year stay in Germany.
In 2015, I started two very different companies together with a friend – German Global Education Summer School and MooseBooties, each of which required new skill sets. MooseBooties was stimulated by visits to Jokkmokk, where I learned that the process for tanning moose leather (otherwise very stretchy) first emerged in Finland in the 1990s, making moose leather a new, luxurious, and sustainably sourced material. Its buttery softness suggested baby booties. I befriended the owner of Finland’s largest tannery and then needed to find fleece, ties, gift boxes, and someone to make them. An internet search turned up a Chinese manufacturer that could produce boxes in the moss green/white colors I wanted with satin linings and the logo we designed printed on the top. Polish friends in the U.S. introduced me to their friends in Warsaw, whom I met in summer 2014 while teaching there. One of them located three willing companies; the samples produced by the one near Krakow were superior, with the owner making helpful design improvements. When the interests of my partners led them elsewhere, we shifted sales to Etsy, where MooseBooties are now sold.
German Global Education Summer School was a month-long, immersive, pre-college program for teens in Greifswald, a walled, medieval town on the shore of the Baltic Sea. It is a perfect, idyllic location for teenagers; they can have a lot of fun, but not get into much trouble. Participants took German and a full, freshman-level International Studies course with a fabulous professor from George Mason University. In addition, they participating in sports, a local youth group, internships (physics labs, stables, refugee centers), and a behind-the-scenes-filled weekend in Berlin. I envisioned replicating this elsewhere – Girona in Catalonia, Nevers in France – because of the extraordinarily positive impact the experience had.
With a small cohort of around 30 students from more than a dozen countries over its two-year run, participants later attended Georgetown, Harvard, Pomona, Oxford, Yale, and are becoming diplomats, doctors, entrepreneurs, and teachers. They maintain their friendships via Facebook. The program’s most important aspect was its status as the only summer program for teens that gave scholarships, enabling the haves to subsidize the have-nots. This created a truly international, socio-economically and culturally diverse cohort. I chose a location that minimized economic differences – no designer shops, no pricey bars – that placed students on equal footing. When FB changed its algorithms in May 2017 we were no longer able to reach our audience. For 2018, having spent the same amount of advertising dollars and following a similar strategy as previous years, we received three applications compared with more than 150 in 2016 and 2017. I wanted to find either an angel investor or sell this to a company specializing in summer programs, but other time demands interfered and I was demoralized.
Now, in the Internet Age, I’m planning to keep it legal and thinking more about services than goods. Hawking wisdom and experience. Older and wiser. Sounds like a plan, no?