Entrepreneurial Mentoring and a Vital Community Institution in North Minneapolis

Here’s a potentially great-paying occupation that doesn’t necessarily require a four-year degree that I started giving concentrated thought to recently: Successful entrepreneur.  I started focusing on it after interviewing a brilliant entrepreneur, Houston White, for a new book I’m writing, tentatively titled (I keep noodling), Educational Roads Less Travelled: How America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees Limits Careers and Economic Prosperity.  Not only doesn’t Houston have a baccalaureate, but he graduated from what he affectionately calls a “trade school,” despite how a few others I’ve met with prefer names such as “technical school” or “professional school,” given that they see trade schools as a dated and perhaps damaged brand for whatever reason.

I’m thinking of two, non-four-year routes to becoming an entrepreneur.

The first one has come up on several occasions, especially a couple of months ago in a conversation with two people in the construction industry, not that the idea is limited to construction.  We talked about how people in the trades, if they are so inclined, can plausibly conceive and create their own businesses, be they plumbers owning plumbing services, carpenters owning cabinet-making shops, or painters employing other painters rather than being employed by other firms.  Obviously, great numbers of people without mountains of formal education do this all the time.

For example, I’ve been known to call Roto-Rooter on occasion, but just now was the first time I ever Googled it to see how it got started.  Seems that in 1933, a man by the names of Samuel Blanc “created a funny-looking sewer cleaning machine from a 1/6 HP Maytag washing machine motor, roller skate wheels and 3/8’’ cable to turn the blades.  The device used a combination of special blades or ‘knives’ to cut tree roots out of sewer lines.  No digging required.  A year later, Sam’s wife Lettie christened the prototype the ‘Roto-Rooter.’”

For our purposes, was Mr. Blanc a tradesman, much less a licensed plumber?  I don’t know.  But I do know he was born in Menominee Falls, WI and “received a public education only through the fifth grade,” as the death of his father caused him to “drop out of school to help support his widowed mother and his siblings.”  This is a great and pertinent story, particularly since a formal education “only through the fifth grade” qualifies as less-than-a-four-year degree.

The second such route to becoming an entrepreneur has aspects of apprenticeships, albeit not traditional or “official” ones.  They are more informal than structured, having to do with mentoring relationships between different-aged friends and relatives rather than ties between relative strangers originating at worksites.  My friend Houston was fortunate to be the student in several friend-to-friend mentorships.  Also, an early grandmother to grandson one.  Here’s an abbreviated excerpt from our more than 90-minute conversation. His “trade school,” by the way, were barber schools in Mississippi and Minnesota.

“I remember going up to ‘Dimensions in Hair.’  Mike Spicer owned it and he’s a legendary figure in barbering in Minneapolis.  He’s the guy who really created the resurgence in barbering in North Minneapolis.  I would go to his shop at least once a week, sometimes every day, because I was just fascinated by the environment.  He took me outside and showed me around.  He said, ‘Houston, I figured out late in life what I really wanted to do, and I told myself I never want to work for anybody again because they would control my destiny.  And as a black man you need your own.’

“He said, ‘This building, I’ve got two more years and it’s paid off.  Whatever you do, if you get in this field, make sure your own the real estate you occupy.  Land ownership is key to your future, your family’s future, and your legacy.’  It was people like that.  I have so many stories of folks who poured so much into me.”

Suffice it to say, Houston learned well, especially when it comes to owning real estate, and not just when it comes to the building that houses “H. White Men’s Room.”  Which is far more than “just” a barbershop, but a vitally engaged community institution in North Minneapolis.