3 Ways The Ghetto Helped Me Be a Better Entrepreneur

I grew up poor and in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. It might be cliché to say I had lots of friends who were either killed or in jail at some point, but it’s true. And being cliché doesn’t make it any less f#@ked up.

While growing up in the ghetto was tough, and I feel incredibly lucky to have made it “out”, there were three really valuable things it taught me that have made me a better entrepreneur. 


Do More With Less

After my parents separated, we were poor. I’m talking public assistance-food stamp-type poor. I remember being in the 6th or 7th grade and only having two pairs of jeans to wear to school and getting teased by other kids because of it.

Since there was a lack of “resources” we (my family and I) became accustomed to doing more with less. For example, we ate bologna sandwiches for dinner and made grilled cheese sandwiches out of that nasty a$$, thick ‘gubmint cheese.

Knowing how to do more with less is helpful as an entrepreneur because sometimes you just gotta squeeze every penny out of every dollar you have.

Lord knows I’ve had lots of practice doing this the last six months.


Creative Hustle 

I’m all about the hustle. I LOVE this “grimey” image.


Part of successfully doing more with less is learning how to hustle, and doing so very creatively. People who grow up in the ghetto are not expected to amount to much in life. And there weren’t many positive role models around when I was a kid. Luckily, my mom was über protective and “kept on me” to do the “right thing” and stay out of trouble.

Learning how to hustle is survival 101 for any kid growing up in the ghetto; this skill has served me well and I’m extremely thankful to know how to get my hustle on.


Skate To Where The Puck Is Going To Be


I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. – Wayne Gretzky


You’re probably like, “What the heck does hockey and Wayne Gretzky have to do with the ghetto and being an entrepreneur,” right?

I think about the myriad times in the 80s I was at a house party in the ghetto, most likely in someone’s basement (thumping bass and sweaty walls to boot), then out of the corner of my eye I’d see an argument or suspicious behavior by a group of guys.

It wasn’t hard to guess what was going to happen next. So before the fighting, or sometimes, the shooting would ensue, I’d vacate the scene quickly!

The ability to know what’s coming next is a great skill to have as an entrepreneur. Think Steve Jobs.

Offering a product or service that people don’t know they want yet (i.e., innovating and creating a whole new category) is hard because of the lag in time before mass-market adoption takes hold.

Geoffrey Moore talks about this phenomenon in his book, Crossing The Chasm. This is a great curve that illustrates Geoffrey’s point about the mass-market product adoption lag:




I love the idea of creating a whole new category because it’s exactly what I’ve done with my company. Being ahead of the curve is thrilling, but it’s also challenging because the timing of mass-market consumer adoption affects cash flow in a BIG way. And in my case it’s taken a bit longer than expected (I know, I know, it takes twice as long and costs twice as much. Ha!).


So, yep, growing up in the ghetto can be brutal, but it definitely has some benefits. And I feel lucky to have these ghetto-forged skills; they serve me well and will hopefully continue to do so.



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Feature image credit: jimbobtheboss mahoning_ghetto_fs3200
Ghetto image credit: Alonzo IMG_8290


  1. Our childhood prepares us for the future even though we may have never thought of it as lessons for adult hood. Regardless of where we are from we can become whatever we want.

  2. Some of the smartest people I ever met were from the ghetto. However, they never made it out 🙁
    The fact that you made it out and are currently utilizing the survival and success skills you learned is great.

  3. Great points, James, and so glad you connected these particular dots, because we can also create jumping off points for the lives our kids create for themselves. My abuse as a child has impacted my entrepreneurial and parenting lives greatly, and I ask myself daily what resources, and experiences I am giving my kids so their lives are better, but at the same time challenged.

    Thanks for making me think even harder about that!

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