Turning Corners: The Impact of Mentorship in a Troubled Youth
A few years ago, at a holiday party late at night, we ended up talking about all the things that adults like to talk about after a few cocktails. We were talking about growth, our kids, and how we’re going to change the world. For the first time in a long time, I felt helpless for ideas on how to make the world a better place. This made me sad, but I brushed it off because we were all having a great time, just talking and stuff. As the party wound down and it was just a couple of closer friends, we ended up talking about my real-life experiences and how they shaped me into the person I am today.
I started reminiscing about my childhood. Generally, when I think about my childhood, it’s never with a positive outlook. I grew up in a town called Lower Arnold with three stepbrothers, a stepsister, a drunk, abusive stepfather, and a mother who suffered from PTSD and had her own addiction issues but always showed me love. So, I was surprised when I started reminiscing about my childhood and my jobs and how much of a smile it put on my face. See, I didn’t have many role models growing up who would show me how to do anything other than factory work or be a criminal. I’ve had lots of mentors in my life, and I’m going to focus on four of them specifically now, starting as early as when I was 9 years old.
Don, the slot car track owner.
In Lower Arnold in 1983 or 1984, it was a fun place to grow up and learn a lot about life at an early age. You have to remember, this was a different time, and it seems like a different universe today. My dad, or rather, my stepdad Ron, figured out that he could get me to run almost any errand he wanted in exchange for a couple sips of beer and a couple of missing cigarettes from his pack. When I got home, it wasn’t uncommon for Ron to send me to the gas station on my pedal bike to pick him up cigarettes or a six-pack of beer. I would always get to keep the change, which meant that for a 9-year-old, I definitely had a little more pocket cash than most kids my age. I would also clean up the kitchen floor in the morning for lost quarters, nickels, and dimes from the poker game that my parents had the night before.
One day, on my way to Magic Market, a little store up the road from our house to get my dad some cigarettes, I looked across the street and next to the Spandisco, a little gentleman’s club across the street from my house, and saw a slot car track. I had no idea what a slot car track was, but I knew I needed to figure it out. So, I rode my bike across the street and walked into this really small little storefront, looking back now, maybe 500 sq ft. There was nobody in there but an old guy with ratty, white hair, working on what I later found out was a slot car chassis. You could smell the flux in the air from the soldering irons. It was hot, with no air conditioning, and it smelled like burnt electronics as soon as I walked in.
I asked him how I could get into this. He said, “Do you have $8 to buy yourself a car?” I said I did. He took my $8 and gave me a used slot car, put it on the track, and gave me like 10 or 15 minutes of track time that day, and I was instantly in love. At the time, I had no idea what Don was doing for me, and I don’t think he had any clue about the impact he would have on me long term. Don was the first adult that treated me with any kind of respect. We became friends. I would go to the slot car track as often as I could. I would hustle money to rent track time, and when I didn’t have money for track time, I would fix people’s cars inside the shop for cash to buy more track time. I would compete and place bets to earn more money, car against car. Anything that I could do to get better, faster cars and spend more time in the slot car track and less time at home. I remember many fights with my parents about them not supporting me financially in my hobbies. I was always so frustrated with them because they would tell me to find stuff to do, but they would never help me figure out how to get the money to do the things I wanted to do. I suppose I should thank them now for that.
I spent the next couple of years in this slot car track room, racing, learning how to solder, learning the basics of electricity and electronics, and learning a lot in that little room. I think this is where I also learned how to be comfortable in uncomfortable positions. See, I’m not even 10 years old, and I’m going to the slot car track, clearly the youngest boy there by far, stuck between a strip club and a tattoo parlor. I learned a lot in the slot car track from Don and learned a lot more on the front sidewalk from the patrons of the other establishments, again, not great role models. Over the years, the slot car track didn’t make enough money. It was clear Don was running the business because he loved it, but he thought he’d be able to help kids in a screwed-up neighborhood. It just wasn’t a great business model, but I think it’s a testament to the universe that Don was able to have that little slot car track up and running in Lower Arnold in the late 80s for a young, lost boy to find a passion and learn skills.
Most of my young life, I was always the youngest person at any job I ever had. This was the case until I was probably 22 years old. At the age of 11, I was entering the 6th grade. Due to my dyslexia, I was placed in an SSD (Special School District) program. This meant that I didn’t take regular classes with my grade. I would show up, go to attendance or homeroom, get marked as present, and then leave for an SSD room for most of the day. I participated in gym, music, and recess with the “normal” kids, and for all my main subjects, I went to the SSD classroom. By the time I hit 6th grade, I was older than my classmates because I had been held back in the 4th grade, and my classes didn’t line up properly. So, the last two hours of my day, there was literally nothing for me to do. The SSD program didn’t have classes for me, and my homeroom was participating in classes that I couldn’t participate in at the time. So, I worked with my mother to get a note from the school that would allow me to leave school in 6th grade after the 5th hour to go to work. Even in 1986, this was not legal, but there was a local restaurant called Baker’s Restaurant that hired young boys and put them to work in the kitchen. This was not legal without a worker’s permit, but everyone turned a blind eye because the boys working at Baker’s didn’t need to be anywhere other than doing something productive. I wish there was more of that nowadays.
I was hired to bus tables and do salad prep. The advantage that I had over some of the other boys in the kitchen was that I could get out of school super early to help with the nightly rush, bus tables, and do prep. I think I got 50 cents an hour plus tips, which never amounted to much. Ray taught me that not all adults are uptight. He taught me to always carry cash and to have a habit of keeping it in multiple places on your body just in case. He taught me how to properly clean a kitchen and do basic inventory. He taught me how to pop a tap and countless other things that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
Ray has passed away, and that little restaurant has been destroyed. Now it’s part of a neighborhood. Ray helped me and countless other young men on their journey, teaching them a good work ethic and basic business skills.
At this time, things in my life aren’t that bad. I’ve got some cash in my pocket and plenty of things to do outside of home that are productive. At this time in my life, my home life isn’t great. I’m struggling a lot. My stepdad, Ron, is going through the process of adopting me and changing my name from Kenny Schneider to Kenny Cox. I feel pretty indifferent about this, but it’s something that’s going on in my life, and part of the reason I just like to work and not be home. So, while I’m working at Baker’s, a little pool hall opens in the strip mall next door called the Arnold Pool Hall. It had maybe 10 pool tables, a jukebox, and four foosball tables, along with candy bars and potato chips. Every now and then, the older boys would sneak in some beer and pot. Tom acted like he cared, but I’m pretty sure we all knew that it was a front because he just didn’t want to get in trouble.
My allowance for the school year for clothes was $100. I would get this money a couple of weeks before the school year would start and do my school clothes shopping. I remember what I would get like it was yesterday. Pro Wings would cost me $15. That’s my shoes for the year. I’d get five concert t-shirts for $10 each and two pairs of Levi’s for $20 each. I always had to use my own cash to get everything I needed, and my sister would always get me socks and underwear for Christmas so I didn’t have to worry about budgeting for those. The money I made at Baker’s was enough to help me get an extra shirt or an extra pair of jeans, but it wasn’t enough money to upgrade me from Pro Wings to Adidas. I figured out at this time that I was earning my money at Baker’s and spending it at the pool hall. So, I asked the pool hall owner, Tom, what I could do to earn money there or earn pool time there. We struck up a deal. I would leave school on my way to Baker’s to start prepping for the night shift. I would stop by the pool hall and clean all the pool tables. Every pool table that I cleaned would earn me 20 minutes of playtime, so I never paid for pool again.
Tom started to show me more tricks because if I’m not at Baker’s, I’m not at school, and I don’t want to go home. So, where can you find me? The pool hall. I learned some basic hustling tricks, got pretty damn good at foosball, and learned how to manipulate drunk old men out of their hard-earned money at the factory. I don’t recommend any of these tricks today, but they were fun to learn, and I’m sure I still use some of these tactics in my marketing strategies.
Everything in my life at this point is going pretty well, from my perspective. I’m now in junior high, and I have cash in my pocket. It’s never enough, though. I’m always trying to find new ways to make more money so that I can do more things and spend less time at home, which makes me happier. By the time I was 13 years old, I was running with a group of boys and girls who felt like family to me. But these boys and girls came from equal or less means than I did. Many of them didn’t seem to have any fear of consequences at all. In fact, I don’t think some of those boys and girls even understood that there might be consequences.
In 1988, I was 13 years old and working at the pool hall. I had plenty of ways to make money and fun places and spend it. However, I was running around with the wrong crowd. The adoption had gone through, and my name was now officially Kenny Cox. I got arrested in a stolen car with approximately one pound of marijuana. At the time, one pound of marijuana was a significantly big deal. If I hadn’t been only 13 years old, I would have gone to prison for a very long time. Not only was I hiding from my family by working as much as I possibly could, I was also drinking daily at this point. It turns out that alcohol will be a lifelong battle for me, but one that I can mostly maintain control of in my late 40s 🙂
This puts me in some holding time and some court time, and I lose my job at Baker’s and the pool hall. This is where I met the kids I was running around with. Life really sucks now. I’ve lost almost all of my escapes. I can’t work at Baker’s, I can’t even look at the pool hall, and I can’t go to the pool hall because I can’t leave my house. I got off pretty lucky in that scenario, though, since there were multiple people in the car and the marijuana was in the trunk, and the car was stolen. It was really hard to prove whose marijuana it was. I happened to be in the back seat when we got pulled over, so I wasn’t the one driving. My charges got reduced to tampering in the second degree, and I got 5 years of probation.
What feels like an eternity for me, but is less than 1 year in reality, goes by, and I turn 14 years old. I can apply for a worker’s permit and get a so-called “real job.” It turns out that a restaurant that hires underage kids, a pool hall, and a low-income environment aren’t considered the best places for children to be hanging out in. I go to the counselor at school and ask for a workers’ permit application. Carol was my counselor. She was a little concerned because she knew my past, and we met every day to make sure I was staying on task and not getting in trouble and hanging around the right kinds of students, which really meant I didn’t have many friends at this age of my life. Carol gave me the workers permit. Anyway, I don’t think she thought I would end up getting a job. I applied to all the places in town that I thought would hire kids my age, with very little luck. I even applied at McDonald’s and got turned down. I didn’t think anyone ever got turned down from working at McDonald’s. Anyway, the closest restaurant to my house was Imo’s Pizza, so it wasn’t a big deal for me to stop by and fill out an application every couple of days. I finally got an interview. I didn’t get the job on the first interview. My hair was long, and they told me I would have to wear a hair net, and I was way too cool for that, so that wasn’t going to happen. Another week or two goes by. I’m applying all over town, but there’s really not a lot of places to work for a kid my age. So I go back to Imo’s and I apply again, and I get another interview. Ben asks me what’s changed, and I asked him if I wear a ponytail and put my hair up behind in a hat, would that work? I don’t know why, but he agreed to bring me on as a dishwasher if I put my hair in a ponytail and put it up in a hat. It was only a couple of shifts before I ended up cutting my hair a little and then letting me work on the pizza table cutting table. I end up doing every job at that store, and end up running two different stores for him by the time I hit 22 years old.
Ben was the first man to ever talk to me about religion or spirituality. Ben was a born-again Christian, and at the time, I was a devout atheist, so our conversations were always littered with jabs at each other’s beliefs. I think we always did it with the utmost respect and in the nature of we’re both searching for something. The difference was that he was absolutely sure he found it in Jesus Christ, and I was absolutely sure that I found it in mother nature. I’m not sure if either one of us is right or wrong at this point in my life. However, today I’m a product agnostic and will probably maintain that stance for the rest of my time in this existence.
Ben taught me so many things. He taught me that people could disagree on topics, fundamentally disagree on topics, but still be friendly and kind to each other. He taught me the importance of forgiveness and how to paint, although he didn’t do a good job of teaching me how to paint. He did teach me how to paint. We went through a lot of hard times and great times in that little pizza joint.
The one story that I’m going to tell you about is how Ben showed me the importance of forgiveness and a second chance. Remember, I grew up in a house of thieves, so I felt guilty when I wasn’t being a thief. All my time and counseling had taught me that it was wrong and I shouldn’t do it, and I was dead set on that path until one day, two co-workers of mine, tell me that they’re stealing from the pizza place and ask me to be there as a lookout. I declined, but the environment that I grew up in made it very clear that I couldn’t be the snitch either. So here I am, stuck in a very challenging position. I’ve now been working at this pizza place for more than two years. This is like family to me, as much family as I’ve ever had, and two of what I would consider to be brothers at the time are getting ready to steal from Ben, a man who has let me into his home, taught me so much about life, and I’m conflicted as hell.
The robbery goes off, and I think they got just under $1,000. In the investigation, One of them broke down and told the police everything. Obviously, my name came up as someone who knew that it was happening, and I went to Ben and explained my position to him about how much of an impossible situation I was in. He thanked me for coming to him and being so honest. He understood the position I was in and probably should not have trusted me again, but he did, and I ended up being a general manager for him and running a very profitable business for a very long time with him. Outside of giving away free drinks as a bartender, this is the last time that I dabble in criminal activity of any kind. I think Ben forgiving me that day and keeping me on was a huge part of that change for me.
Today, I own and operate companies. I have partners in every company I own, but I am at least a part owner in every company I work for. I also own shares in other companies, but my favorite ones are the ones where I actively participate in the daily activities. At my tech companies, I get to bring in young men and women and teach them about technology and sales. I always want to maintain our entry-level staff, but more often than not they gain the tech knowledge and go off to great careers. It makes me extremely proud to be part of that journey in someone’s life.
At my boxing school, which my wife Sarah and I own and operate together, we get to experience the same thing with our young staff. But we also get to help adults with their fitness and mindset goals. I have found that what truly gives me joy in life as an adult business owner is that with my youth boxing team, I get to be the man/men I needed from small businesses when I was growing up. I get to help them go through major life issues, like bullying, parents passing, struggling with family life, religion, and politics. I get to create a safe place for these young adults to come, hang out, learn a skill, learn discipline, and experience the rewards of hard work. When I think about how these kids will talk about our relationship in 10 to 30 years from today, I know that I am doing my part to change the world for the better!
Running a small business within any community is a privilege that we Americans get to have. The impact you have is profound in so many ways that you probably don’t even recognize. It took a conversation at a holiday party for me to realize the impact my businesses will have on the world. By no means am I saying that I turned out to be a stellar human being or that the world is a better place because I am in it, but I can say that I am a better person in this world largely in part to the mentors I found running small businesses as a child.