Mohammed Islam: The boy who cried wolf on Wall Street

Mohammed Islam was teaching young adults the value of playing the market, but as it turns out his tale of financial fame was a lie. Now he is a cautionary tale for what kids should look for in a business leader.

Bebetp Matthews/AP
Traders work from handheld computers as they review stock information at the New York Stock Exchange during early trading, Monday, Dec. 15, 2014, in New York.

On Sunday, many parents may have wished their teens were more like Stuyvesant New York high school senior Mohammed Islam, who reportedly earned $72 million trading penny stocks during his lunch period.

However, today Mohammad is a cautionary tale of the teen who cried Wolf on Wall Street, since he has admitted that he made up the whole story. 

New York magazine heralded the Stuyvesant High senior as earning about $72 million playing the penny stock market.
 
Many people, myself included, were just as eager to buy Mohammad’s fiction as investors once were to purchase the often worthless penny stocks from the "Wolf of Wall Street," Jordan Belfort.

Then came the teenager’s very public crash today as the result of a story in the New York Observer debunking the myth of his success. In that story Mohammad admitted to their reporter that he’d made up the whole story.

According to the story, Mohammed said of his parents’ response to his lying: ”Honestly, my dad wanted to disown me. My mom basically said she’d never talk to me. Their morals are that if I lie about it and don’t own up to it then they can no longer trust me. … They knew it was false and they basically wanted to kill me and I haven’t spoken to them since."

Because the Mohammad myth was that the teenager had made mega-millions by trading in penny stocks, a la Jordan Belfort, the disreputable subject of a 2013 Martin Scorsese film, comparisons were made to him being the next Wolf of Wall Street.

In "The Wolf of Wall Street" Leonardo DiCaprio plays the utterly debauched Mr. Belfort who not only has no moral compass, but appears to be the kind of person who would gleefully smash one belonging to another, given half the chance.

While it is not a film you would ever want your teenager to watch (Rated "R" for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence), I imagine it’s still going to be viewed by teens and young adults without parental permission, perhaps as they seek insider tips and tricks to launch their careers.

Having recently seen the film and also having followed Mohammed’s exploits, I was moved to re-examine what messages my sons are getting from me and other sources regarding success in business and life.

As a parent, I thought about how it seems that, among the business world’s high-rollers, there are fewer headlines about a CEO who is nice, honest, or fosters a professional environment free of abuse, swearing, drugs, and other moral carnage the way Belfort did so infamously.

I just wrote a piece last week about how being a tyrant is not only popular as a management style, but frequently considered a mark of genius among CEOs in America.

As I do with most of my stories, I talked about the both the morals of business people and Mohammad’s alleged success with my teenage son Avery, 15, who is taking a class in personal finance at his high school.

“We learn about how to balance a checkbook in school,” Avery said. “Nobody ever talks about all this craziness among CEOs and whatnot. I’m glad I’ll be studying music theory in college!”

At that moment I was glad too – kinda. I was a little worried I wasn’t helping my son succeed as I read about the teenager making millions on his lunch break while my son was practicing to be an impoverished cellist.

Meanwhile, Mohammad told reporters his idol wasn’t so much Belfort as what he believes is the more morally correct stock trader Paul Tudor Jones, the fact is that’s like saying you’re only a little bit pregnant.

According to Business Insider, Mr. Jones is known for screaming and swearing throughout the 1987 PBS documentary on his life titled “Trader.”

In fact, Jones disliked the stark portrayal of his character so much he allegedly bought every available copy and had his lawyers block it from airing online, according to Business Insider, which wrote of his swearing sprees, “Traders do this all the time, but it doesn't mean they want it on tape. Plus, the man's got kids. No one wants them to hear dad drop the F-Bomb.” 

As the media makes puns about how Mohammad’s personal stock rose and fell, parents may want to take a long hard look at the business role models young adults see in the news and on film in order to impress upon them the fact that while many business people are financial successes, that still means they can fail to display core values and morals.

Sir. Richard Branson of the Virgin Group is one CEO I tend to talk to my kids about quite often because he is always creating remarkable innovations and explorations, but always with a positive attitude. In my opinion, Mr. Branson’s autobiography “Losing My Virginity” is inspirational and a great tale of resilience.

Branson writes in the book, “To be successful, you have to be out there, you have to hit the ground running, and if you have a good team around you and more than a fair share of luck, you might make something happen. But you certainly can’t guarantee it just by following someone else’s formula.”

Another mogul who has remained remarkably untarnished is investor Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, who is known for his integrity.

His are the words I most often quote to my sons.

Mr. Buffett once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and only five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you will do things differently.” 

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