From Stephen Jackson CEO of WIBO – I was deeply honored when Ted Geier, Walter Geier’s son gave me Walter’s documents. I remember after we met and I lugged the boxes upstairs I started going through the boxes like I was unwrapping Xmas presents. Walter kept a lot of WIBO materials including the story of how WIBO began in his words that was typed out. Once I read how WIBO began and all that WIBO accomplished I knew that the best thing is to share this story on our website. Here is the story of WIBO by Walter Geier.
From time to time, I am asked how the Workshop in Business Opportunities got started and became what, to the best of my knowledge, the first, the largest and what many people believe it to be, the most comprehensive and effective entrepreneurial training program in New York City and, perhaps in the world.
It was The Sixties, a time when, as Todd Gitlin in his book on The Sixties, put it “millions of young Americans thought they could change the world – either through music, drugs and universal love or by ‘putting their bodies on the line’ against injustice and war.” The war, of course, was the Vietnamese War. The most blatant form of injustice was the racial segregation and deprivation that was still advocated and enforced by violent and ugly recrimination, openly in the south and covertly in much of the north.
My wife, Joan, and I were deeply disturbed by all forms of racism. Joan had good friends among blacks since she was a kid in Staten Island. In The Sixties, she was taking courses in sociology working toward a baccalaureate at Hunter College which brought out the disturbing practices of racism and the unjust and bloody consequences to the blacks who tried to do something about them. Joan was convinced that we ought to be doing something, too; if nothing else, we ought to participate in some of the demonstrations that were taking place in order to show that white people were concerned about racism as much as black people. But I had my hands full at the time trying to support our family of five by operating a business during the day and, in the evenings, teaching at Baruch College and taking graduate courses toward earning a Ph.D. While, like Joan, I would have liked to do something to help, I didn’t think it was a good use of our time to stand around in the middle of a crowd holding up a sign. Besides, I didn’t think that holding up signs was the most effective way to address the real problem.
The real problem, I told Joan, was not skin color; it was more that African-Americans were at the bottom of the economic ladder. They would only achieve social and political equality when, like the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, and other minorities, they developed economic power by starting businesses that developed into large corporations, buying in carload lots, owning valuable parcels of real estate, managing wealth and providing jobs for hundreds of people. Men and women in that position can sit wherever they want on the bus no matter what color their skin is. African-Americans found it hard, if not impossible, to achieve that, having been snatched from primitive villages and brought here against their will They had no exposure to private businesses no less heritage in running them, no one to emulate, no one to inspire them, to show them how to do it or to answer their questions.
Joan seemed to think that made sense. “What do you think should be done about that?” she asked.
“The government is doing what the government always does; they are throwing money at the problem. They are currently providing low-interest loans for members of minorities to start businesses” I replied. “The problem is the money isn’t being used properly, the businesses don’t do well and the monies aren’t being paid back. They ought to train the people who receive these loans in how to use the money to run the business properly before giving it to them.”
“Who ought to train them? The government?”
I laughed at that. “The government would botch up it up just like they’re botching up the loan program,” I said.
“Then who should do the training? Who is ‘they’?”
I had been married to Joan for nine years. She didn’t talk just for the sake of saying words. When she asked, “Who is they?” I began to suspect what she might be driving at. My company produced sales training programs for Fortune 500 corporations. My letterhead read WALTER GEIER COMPANY: Sales Research, Counseling, Training and Promotion.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re not suggesting I train these people, are you?” “You’re in the training business, aren’t you?” she replied. “And you wanted to do something more constructive than standing around holding a sign.” “I’ve never trained anyone to run a business in my life,” I said.
“You’ve been running a business for ten years,” she countered. “You must know something about how to do it.” Then she went on at length and this is essentially what she said. “The facts are that there are millions of people who are being subjected to unspeakable injustice and suffering because they have no economic power. You’re saying they might develop economic power if enough of them started successful businesses and some of them developed their businesses into major corporations. These people are not being given the opportunity to learn how to do this. You, Walter Geier, are in the training business. You have researched, planned, designed, written and produced more than thirty successful training programs for about twenty different corporations selling hundreds of different products and services. Why can’t you do it?”
I put forth every argument I could think of for why I couldn’t or shouldn’t do it, but Joan, with her impeccable logic, overcame every one of them. Despite my misgivings, with much reluctance, I agreed to give it a try. And I realized Joan knew enough about me that I couldn’t get away with trying to fake it. So, I had to give it a real try. And I knew she would help me in every way she could.
I began by trying to do some basic research. I scoured the vast card catalog of the New York Public only’ to discover that they had absolutely no books on How to Start and Run a Business. There were tons of books and papers about individual aspects of running a business — financing, bookkeeping, business law, advertising — but of the totality of tasks involved in starting and running a successful business, there was nothing! I also checked the catalog in the college where I was teaching, Baruch College of the City University of New York, a well-respected and substantial business school and I found that there were no courses listed on how to start and run a successful business.
So, I sat down and wrote a curriculum based solely on my own experience as a business owner. I didn’t know if it came anywhere near being complete or accurate, so I made a list of clear-thinking friends, neighbors, clients, and colleagues who owned businesses or had experience in one or more phases of running a business to review it to be sure it was complete and accurate. There were some formidable names on that list, and it occurred to me that I might want to call on some of them for other help, too, somewhere along the line. So I sent them a letter explaining what I was attempting to do and why, attaching a copy of the curriculum and a description of the training method I was planning to use (an adaptation of the Harvard Case method which worked beautifully in all my sales training programs) and asked them if they would like to help me. I added, “Call me if you really want to get involved with this. If you don’t call, I’ll assume you have a good reason and I won’t mention the subject again unless you bring it up.” There were twelve names on the list. I figured three or four might call. All twelve called within a couple of days. One of them told me he didn’t think it would work. The other eleven were not only willing; they were enthusiastic. They wanted to participate in every phase of the project and they couldn’t wait to get started.
They became the first faculty and the first board members of what eventually became The Workshop in Business Opportunities (WIBO, pronounced WEEBO, by the students). With their help and the help of two African-Americans, St. Clair Clement, the only African-American in my marketing class, and a man he introduced
me to, Dr. Mallalieu Woolfolk, an African-American attorney who was the Executive Director of the Upper Manhattan Small Business Development and Opportunities Corporation, the Federal Agency that granted loans to minority entrepreneurs, the very agency I had been criticizing, who told me before we started, “Walter, if you’re going to restrict these classes to Negroes [the critically correct term in those days] count me out. I’ve been subjected to too much racial discrimination in my time to want to get involved with a program that discriminates against anyone.” we opened, on March l, 1966 at the YWCA on 125th Street in Harlem, the first comprehensive course on How to Run a Growing Profitable Business ever conducted anywhere with 15 students (7 African- American men, 5 African-American women, 2 white men and 1 Hispanic was a grueling course — three hours in the classroom and six to twenty hours a week homework for sixteen weeks while completing a 20-page workbook which would tum out to be a detailed set of directions for conducting every aspect of their businesses. Fourteen of the fifteen enrollees attended every session and completed every assignment. At the formal graduation ceremony, as they proudly accepted their certificates, Mal Woolfolk, whispered to me, “You know, Walter, some of these people never graduated from anything in their lives.” On the course evaluation sheets, we asked the students to fill out, we received all 10s (on a scale of 1- 10) with some very nice things to say about the faculty under Remarks. The remark I got the greatest charge out of was: “For years, I’ve been asking myself ‘Where are the statesmen?’ I’ve finally found them.”
We ran another course for fifteen in the fall of 1966. Eleven graduated. Word of the Workshop began to get around Harlem. Thirty-five students applied for admission to the spring, 1967 session. We admitted twenty-five and all twenty-five graduated. For all three courses, tuition and all materials were absolutely free.
In May of 1967, the faculty, the graduates, the students and members of the Harlem business and political community gave me a surprise testimonial dinner MC by then State Assemblyman Charlie Rangel at the Harlem YMCA.
In 1968, we started classes at a site in Brooklyn; in 1969, at a site in Queens and, because people were asking us to do it, we just kept adding new sites until we were running at ten locations simultaneously in New York City. We also developed WIBOs outside of New York City when we were made aware of a need. Over the past 43 years, WIBO has started free workshops in How to Run a Growing Profitable Business at fifteen different locations in New York City and from time-to-time at locations in eight other states, including WIBOs for Native Americans in South Dakota, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona. We’ve enrolled about 12,000 students, almost all of whom heard about us through word-of-mouth. (We’ve often been called New York’s best-kept secret.) However, we did get some press. Dick Schaap devoted his last column for the New York Herald Tribune to WIBO in February 1967. In June of that year, The New York Times devoted most of the first page of the Business Section to WIBO’s graduation. The Wall Street Journal gave us a column on two separate occasions, the Daily News and Newsday gave us at least a half a dozen stories over the years. Crain’s New York Business gave us a full-color front page and Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) sent out a full-page wire story in 1970. CBSTV produced a one-hour special about us and NBCTV featured WIBO on the Tom Brokaw News Hour. I was also a guest on a number of radio talk) shows. And our graduates got publicity on their own where they never failed to mention getting their basic training at WIBO. Interestingly, one of the Wall Street Journal writers enrolled in and graduated from WIBO after writing his article. The other WSJ writer graduated from WIBO before he wrote his column. One Daily News writer also enrolled in and graduated from WIBO as did the Managing Editor of Crain’s and one of the cameramen on the Tom Brokaw show.
After the first Wall Street Journal article appeared, colleges and universities across the country asked for information and copies of our workbook. We gladly acceded to their requests (we charged them for the workbooks). We were always pleased to see the academic community and others get involved in entrepreneurial training.
In the 1990s, the Trace Foundation, with our permission, translated the Workbook into Chinese and Tibetan and used it to train Chinese and Tibetan entrepreneurs. I often wonder how much influence, if any, that had on China’s successful moves toward the free enterprise system.
Many of the graduates come back to serve on our all-volunteer faculty of almost 900 business owners and executives who’ve served over the years, some of them cheerfully giving as much as five hours a week, thirty-two weeks a year, year in and year out. One of them has been doing it for over thirty-five years. One reason we get so many volunteers and they serve so long is because they, like me, thoroughly enjoy doing it. WIBO is exciting and much fun. At our graduations, the graduates exhibit and sell their goods and services in the aisles of the graduation hall which takes on a Kasbah-like atmosphere until the graduation ceremonies commence. Then the laughing and cheering take place as the members of each class, with their class speaker, step up to receive their certificates.
Some prominent people and organizations have acknowledged WIBO’s efforts in different ways. Bobby Kennedy sent personal letters of congratulations to our early graduates. WIBO and its graduates as a whole were congratulated in letters from Presidents Reagan and Clinton, Governor Mario Cuomo of New York and Mayor Rudy Giuliani of NYC.
NYC Mayor John Lindsay was a guest speaker at our Fall 1968 graduation ceremonies. A few months later, he announced the formation of a city program to assist new businesses.
I ran WIBO for 32 years as a volunteer without any paid staff or any outside funding, getting everything free from office space, classroom space and graduation facilities to printing, telephone, and stationery. Over those thirty-two years, I also developed and conducted a number of other programs which I’ve listed briefly on the attached page.
I was named Entrepreneurial Supporter of the Year in 1998 by the Entrepreneur of the Year Institute. ‘-
Also, in 1998, the Edwin Gould Foundation, which had been granting WIBO free office space and services since 1969, gave WIBO a substantial grant, the first outside funding it had ever received to hire and train a salaried Executive Director to succeed me.
Five years later, on June 30, 2003, I retired. I still conduct some classes as a volunteer. On May 8, 2008, I was honored in ceremonies at the Yonkers Public Library by the Governor of New York, the Mayor and City Council of the City of Yonkers, the New York State Assembly, the New York State Senate and U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
As for WIBO, it is better than ever. With a paid staff of five, it still attracts top quality volunteers and has an up-to-date attitude and agenda. It is currently conducting filled-to-capacity classes at ten locations in the tri-State area. You can check out some of the other things it is currently doing by visiting its website@ www.wibo.works.