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How Lessons From the Classroom Translate to Starting a Business

Keneisha Malone (Memphis '14) shares how teaching prepared her for a new role as a business owner and how her entrepreneurship sends an important message to her students. 

A woman wearing a blue shirt stocking a wooden shelf with jars.

March 18, 2021

In 2014, when I moved to Memphis to start my two-year commitment with Teach For America Memphis my plan was to complete my two years and then figure out my next move in life. Little did I know I was going to turn into somewhat of a lifer in the field of teaching. This year marks seven years in education and I don’t see myself ever completely severing my relationship with the school system.

I know some people join Teach For America with some kind of plan for what their life will look like after their two-year commitment, and I think most of us get it wrong. We get it wrong in a good way—we think we’ll teach for two years and go back to whatever path we chose before we joined. Teaching humbles you. It’s more difficult than any of us could ever imagine. It takes passion, a strong support system, and a pastime (or two) to get through it. It’s vitally necessary, to be honest.

Everyone knows that teaching isn’t something you do for the money. It’s something you do because you care and hope to make a difference in the lives of the children you teach each day. Over the past few years, I’ve become really good at coming up with pastimes and turning them into side hustles. Teaching in Memphis and seeing the inequity that exists has made me passionate about the idea that everyone deserves a chance, and this idea transcends education.

I love how much Memphis supports small business owners. See Cooper Young and Overton Square for proof. That is why these two locales have become my favorite hangout spots. Both makers at the farmer’s market and makers who own brick and mortar shops were inspiring. The Memphis community goes hard for shopping local and loves supporting makers. That’s part of what made starting my business so easy. There wasn’t too much fear behind taking the leap to get my business started because I knew I just had to go for it.

“I think our students need to see that we are real people, with multiple goals, and in doing so we allow them to see themselves exist in various avenues.”

Keneisha Malone

Memphis Corps Member 2014

Beginning was easy. Getting my business off the ground wasn’t. I quickly learned that inequity doesn’t just exist in the classroom, but I think teaching has definitely helped me become more patient and solution-oriented. 

I own a skin care company and after a year and a half, I was having a hard time getting my product into stores. I pitched my brand to all my favorite local stores. I dropped off sample boxes, and even met a few storeowners in person. After months, I become very frustrated at hearing the word “no.”

That’s when a friend and I decided that it shouldn’t be this hard. We wanted a space where people didn’t have to beg for someone to let them in. We decided to create the space I so desperately was searching for and make it accessible to other people who may be facing the same problem, or even catch new business owners who hadn’t faced these issues yet. We began curating maker’s markets tailored to business owners who hadn’t made it into stores yet. After about a year, our market evolved into Terra Cotta. Terra Cotta is an extension of that maker’s market, and it’s turned into a pretty dope plant shop that offers shelf space to small business owners. 

I don’t tell my students about my small businesses, but I love when they find out. I love how excited they get when they see me at the farmer’s market. I’m honored when they pull me aside and pitch their business ideas to me. I think when I began teaching, my time with my students inside the classroom was most important to me. Now, I think the idea that I may inspire them outside the classroom is much more rewarding. I think our students need to see that we are real people, with multiple goals, and in doing so we allow them to see themselves exist in various avenues.

Keneisha Malone is a 2014 Teach For America Memphis alumna who currently teaches fifth grade at Macon-Hall Elementary School. Keneisha is also the owner of Terra Cotta Nursery located at 3032 Summer Ave, Memphis TN 38112.