You would never know what Yale MBA and divinity graduate student Rodney Walker had to go through to get to where he is now. That is why Walker, a native of Chicago, devotes time to telling his story of overcoming challenges to encourage other students.

Walker attributes his success mostly to the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. He was invited to speak at several Lowcountry schools by YEScarolina founder and president Jimmy Bailey after Bailey heard Walker speak at an NFTE conference years ago.

His story

As a child, Walker grew up on the Southside of Chicago, going in and out of 15 different foster homes because his parents were on drugs. In his presentation, Walker showed images of the violence in his neighborhood and the physical abuse he suffered in foster homes.

“Those powerful images resonate with students the most,” he said.

Walker had a 1.3 GPA at the end of his freshman year in high school. But in his junior year, he found NFTE. He took an entrepreneurship class, where he started a video production and photography business for only $200.

Then after 13 years apart, with help from the state, he found his parents. He is one of 10 children. He said his parents didn’t even recognize him.

But because Walker decided to stay with his family, he did not receive the benefits foster children have when they age out of the system. So when he left home because he could not bear seeing his parents abuse drugs, he was homeless for four months. Then his NFTE mentor in Chicago, Michael McGrone, stepped in.

“He opened up his home to me,” Walker said.

Overcoming it all

Walker’s business plan placed second in the national NFTE competition. He also was featured in a documentary about his experience with NFTE that aired on BET.

Walker pulled his grades up and graduated from high school with a 2.4 GPA. He applied to 13 colleges and got into Morehouse College in Atlanta, which accepted him on academic probation. His NFTE mentor made some calls and found a place for him to live. He graduated in May 2012 with a degree in philosophy, a 3.7 GPA and a full scholarship to Yale for graduate school.

On March 19, after Walker shared his story with students at the College of Charleston and Charleston Charter School for Math and Science, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley proclaimed it Rodney Walker Day. The event was a barbecue celebrating entrepreneurship that was held at the home of Ron Motley, a YEScarolina supporter.

“I’m going to show my mom. She’s going to flip out,” Walker said when he was surprised with the award.

Walker said he has a good relationship with his family today. He lets them know where he is and shares photos of his travels. When he goes back home to Chicago, which is about four times a year, he picks up all of his brothers and sisters to spend time at his mother’s house.

Why it matters

Math and Science founder and Assistant Principal Jason Allen said entrepreneurship is important because it “fosters innovation.” He said his school even offers a business major for students with classes taught by YEScarolina trained teachers, like Micki Boulineau.

“Business skills are something they need in everyday life. Every place you’re working for is going to be a business,” Boulineau said.

Math and Science business students Ryan Harken, a sophomore, and Andre Moore, a freshman, said they enjoy learning about business because it’s fun and they get to be their own boss.

“It teaches you how to be smart with your money,” Moore said.

Charleston Collegiate Head of School Hacker Burr took three of his advanced entrepreneurship students to the event and hosted Walker at the school.

“Energy matters with a speaker. People closer to our age are more inspiring,” said Charleston Collegiate sophomore Evan Knox.

Both Walker and Motley told students at the celebration that staying in school and getting an education is the most important thing they can do.

Walker said he understands when students credit their environment for low achievement. “I know that’s not the true them. That’s what they’ve been conditioned to think,” he said.

He said it’s not a person’s environment that makes him who he is — it’s education.

“I hope there’s a Rodney in those classes who will be inspired to overcome their challenges,” Bailey said.

When asked what drives him, Walker recited a quote his NFTE mentor shared with him: “The moment you stop fighting for what you want, is the moment what you don’t want will take over.”

Reach Jade McDuffie at 937-5560 or