From a crime-ridden neighborhood to the Empire State Building, the CEO of FUBU tells PEOPLE about his journey
Credit: Manny Hernandez/Getty

Daymond John recalls his earliest days, growing up in Hollis, Queens, fondly.

“It was the type of place where all of the kids played stickball and hopscotch in the streets,” he tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “If you got in trouble by another kid’s parent, then you really got in trouble when you got home.”

But by the time he had turned 12, his father, a computer programmer, and mother, who sold handmade goods at the local flea market, had split up, and his entire community was in crisis. “When crack hit,” John says of the drug epidemic that swept through many inner-city neighborhoods in the mid-eighties, “it changed the dynamic of the neighborhood.”

With crime on the rise, “a lot of of kids looked up to drug dealers because we didn’t have any other images,” John says. But he managed to overcome. “I had a great relationship with my mom,” he says, “I couldn’t let her down.”

His mom is also credited with teaching him a strong work ethic. “She held down two and three jobs at a time. I always saw her working and I wanted to work,” he says. “There was never a job I didn’t like.”

Even as a youngster he had the makings of an entrepreneur. “My first business was selling painted pencils to boys to give to girls when I was 6,” he recalls.

Foregoing college, he worked odd jobs, from messenger to waiter, before launching a line of handmade hats in 1989 under the name FUBU. “For Us By Us came to me after hearing how some brands didn’t want to make clothes for African Americans,” he says. “It was about a community.”

Spurred by the popularity of hip hop, FUBU took off, faster than he ever expected – or was prepared for. “I became known as this huge clothing company,” says John, who expanded the line to include other apparel. “But I was just a waiter at Red Lobster with 10 shirts.”

Drowning in orders, he teamed up with Samsung for distribution and moved FUBU from his mother’s home to it’s first real offices inside New York City’s iconic Empire State Building in 1997. “I sat there every night for the first six months looking out over the city, thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m up here!’ ” says John.

Now, as CEO of the FUBU corporation and an investor on ABC’s hit shows Shark Tank and Beyond the Tank, the father of two is setting an example for the next generation of dreamers. “I get excited about their businesses,” says John, who tells young mentees to follow their passion. “They’ve allowed me to invest in their dream.”

As for his own dream position, that came recently when President Obama named him Presidential Ambassador of Global Entrepreneurship. “I just got back from Nairobi,” John says. “To go from not having a college education to running a successful company and being chosen by the President to inspire others, that’s the American Dream.”