I was born in Orlando and raised by my mother, Ann, and my grandmother, Edna – who we called “Sitto.” My father had some issues – his whole life he had a struggle with alcohol, sadly, and it was always a demon that came and went in his life. So my parents separated when I was 10 and my mother, my two younger sisters, Paula and Chris, and myself moved in with my grandmother. We didn't really have any real relationship with my dad after that. It's a point of sadness, but he passed away some years ago and since then I've blessed and forgiven him.
Our heritage is Lebanese, and we're very close, loving family so we all worked hard to bring the money in. Like a lot of people who grow up in homes where there is alcoholism or addiction, you grow up early. Particularly the oldest child. I guess I worked hard because I saw how hard my mom and my grandmother worked.
I started working when I was 10. I washed cars, mowed lawns for $3, weeded lakes for 50 cents and hour, and I had stencils and I'd charge people to paint their house numbers on the sidewalk. I delivered the Sentinel Star and got 3 cents for each 10-cent paper.
But I'd never throw two houses, I'd sell them in front of grocery stores and at businesses, and I got an award for having the largest route of its kind.
In 1970, when I was 15, I wanted to work at Winn-Dixie at Fairvilla Center. Legally, I was too young to work, but I became friends with L.C. Thomas, an African-American gentleman who worked in the produce section. We liked each other. And while I made it a practice never to lie, I bent the truth just enough so Winn-Dixie would hire me as 15-year-old bagboy.
An alcoholic father, a broken home, and a household lingering near the poverty line. On a scorecard, it seemed as if young Mark NeJame had already taken three strikes. But his inner drive to succeed was complemented by two loving role models: his mother and grandmother. And when, in his teens, necessity triggered and entrepreneurial instinct, NeJame began to establish a financial foundation on which he built a career in law. A graduate of the University of Florida, NeJame, 51, is now a criminal defense attorney and the founder and principal of NeJame, LaFay, Jancha, Barker and Tumarkin, P.A. Practicing law in 15 states across America as well as in the Caribbean, NeJame has served as vice president and president of the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Married to Josie NeJame, the first-time father calls infant daughter Valentina Gabrielle "the joy of my life."
I loved being a bagboy. I loved it. I was so good I ended up making more money than all the other bagboys combined. I would make it point to talk to all my customers on the way to their car and be nice and look them in the eye, and no matter what kind of mood they were in, I'd usually get a quarter tip.
I just knew I had to go to college, and since there was still no money at home - zero - I had to collect enough loans, small scholarships and grants to get into the University of Florida. When I got there, I got a job working in the office at the Hume Hall dormitory.
After my freshman year, I came home to work at Winn-Dixie, and I remember wanting to buy a Mother's Day gift. I could hardly afford anything. This is when houseplants were becoming all the rage, and I saw a little cactus for sale. So I bought it and some colored stones and a glass vase. All of that was about five bucks, and I was able to make my mother a cactus terrarium. Everybody loved it, and I thought, "There's money in them thar hills." So I met with the district supervisor at Winn-Dixie and asked if I could sell terrariums in the stores on consignment, and pretty soon I was making $200 a week making "Cactus Gardens by Mark NeJame" in my grandmother's garage. That was a fortune. Then all these little local newspapers started doing stories about me, and I began driving my VW out to Apopka to go to all these nurseries and buy cactus. I rented part of a building on Edgewater Drive and I filled it up with these little glass terrariums and recruited my sister Paula to run it. Involuntary servitude, really. I was 19 at that point, and working 80 to 100 hours a week was normal. I probably thought I was going to corner the world's cactus market.
Now I had all these connections in Apopka, so when I went back to Gainesville I loaded up these trucks and parked outside apartments so when kids came back to school we'd sell plats from the side of the road. I made about $2,400, which was a fortune to me at the time. I made enough money that I could afford to open a retail store there - and I did.
Then here comes John Morgan.
He was dating a girl from Apopka whose family owned a nursery, and he sees all the business I was doing. So he says, "I can do that," and he stole my idea. He starts bringing in his own houseplants and starts selling them! Of course, now I'm a legitimate businessman with a retail store and, of course, I'm outraged. What is this gypsy doing going around town selling plants and taking my business away?
Well, John and I were frat brothers at Alpha Tau Omega and we're both entrepreneurs. I ask him to stop, but he tells me he is going to continue selling. So that's when I call code enforcement and tell them he doesn't have a peddler's permit. They show up at John's truck and he knows why they're there and he whips out his peddler's permit. Damn. So I say two can play at that game, and I call my old contacts and load up some trucks and set up on the roadside and that's when John calls the county on me. But when they show up, I'm the one who doesn't have a peddler's permit. I get shut down. We're dear friends now, but as John's version continues to get more and more embellished over the tears, mine is still the truth.
When I was 22, I sold my plant business and I ended up netting about $64,000 - and that's how I put myself through law school. Because I grew up with the family situation we had, I wasn't able to do a lot of things the other kids were doing. And since I knew I had a lot of drive and also I wasn't a good employee, a lot of times business became creative outlet for me.
I feel blessed. It sounds cliché, but I feel blessed in that I've had a spectacular life. From a monetary standpoint, I've made a lot of mistakes, but I think I'm a hard, hard worker and I really do learn from life's lessons. I've learn that every single thing is a blessing or an opportunity. And because the universe is perfectly balanced, I can't think of an event in my life where, if I was patient and allowed the process to work, at some point later - whether it was a week, a month or a decade later - that event which I bemoaned at the time happened for a greater good. Without exception.
Another thing I've learned is that I used to mistake ego for confidence. I even fooled other people into thinking it was confidence when It was really overcompensation for a lack of confidence. As I've grown older and, God willing, wiser, I believe I'm now a far more confident person. It's a matter of coming to the place where you realize that what you put out into the universe comes back to you. And I'd like to think I put a lot more good stuff out there.
One of my favorite sayings is, "Adversity introduces a person to themselves." Only in challenging times do you grow. If you face a challenge and succumb, I really think that's a mistake against the universe, because if it wasn't meant to have happened, it would not have happened.