Emily Feistritzer, a self-made businesswoman, came out of retirement to run her distance-education company, Teach-Now, which instructs teachers online. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Reporter

The former nun was in what was then Riggs Bank on 14th and F Street one Friday afternoon, begging the loan officer for $20,000 that she swore she would pay back in three months or, as she gestured with a grand wave, “I will work 14th Street.”

Fourteenth Street in 1979 was known as Washington’s seedy, red-light district.

“He knew I was an ex-nun,” said Emily Feistritzer, looking back on her chat with “Mr. Lane.”

Feistritzer got the money — and paid it back. The money helped her create a flourishing newsletter business, which made her financially independent. Decades later, Feistritzer is at it again. She runs a teacher-preparation business with more than 1,000 customers in 70 countries and 44 states.

Feistritzer is one of those encore entrepreneurs, the kind of person who goes through life, working one job after another, hitting their marks, starting companies, selling them, moving on — always looking at the next horizon.

It’s why I am impressed by her. (It didn’t hurt that she is an avid reader of The Washington Post print edition. “I would slice my wrists if I couldn’t read it,” she said.)

This woman never settles. From a sunlit corner office overlooking Farragut Square in downtown Washington, she could easily be kicking back with a novel in Tuscany. Instead, she runs a distance-learning business called Teach-Now.

“My definition of life is a series of experiences, and the more you have the better off you are.”

Teach-Now helps teachers around the world earn certification so they can get a job. It will gross $3.5 million this year and turn a 30 percent profit, a big chunk of which will go into Feistritzer’s bank account.

“I pay myself a $48,000 salary . . . the lowest-paid person in the company,” she said. “At the end of the year, I get a substantial bonus.”

Teach-Now has 15 full-time employees, including seven in Washington, one in India and the rest sprinkled around the United States. There are also 44 part-time instructors around the world. The company charges $6,000 per person to take its nine-month teacher-certification class. It charges $13,000 for its online master’s in education program.

“I’ve always chosen ‘private, for-profit’ because I believe in letting the consumer decide the value,” Feistritzer said.

The business owner has an iron fist under her velvet glove. She admits burning through several executives as she pushes her latest little project forward.

“I get the drive and ambition and change-the-world-and-dream-big-there-is-no-failure from both, but especially my mother. She told me from the day I was born that I would be able to do anything. I owe a lot to my mother.”

So do I. That’s another reason I like Feistritzer.

Her mother pushed her into a scholarship to an all-girls Catholic high school in Kentucky, which was run by the Benedictine sisters. She joined the convent out of high school.

“I liked the idea of the peace and quiet of the convent,” she said.

She wasn’t exactly cloistered. She went off the college and got a teaching degree. Feistritzer then taught high school math and science at nearby high schools staffed by the Benedictines.

“Teaching is really in my genes. My grandmother was a teacher and is still a legend in Kentucky. My mother was a teacher and her sister was a teacher. It’s in my blood.”

She and another nun decided the science curriculum was backward, so they together wrote a self-published textbook called “Giant Steps Through Science” that shook things up.

The National Science Foundation picked it up and used it as a guide in training teachers.

She picked up her master’s in Teaching of Science from the College of William and Mary in 1970.

At the time, women were beginning to assert themselves in society, becoming empowered, and she wanted to join the movement, so she left the convent in 1972 and a year later collected a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Indiana University.

After teaching at the University of South Carolina briefly, she traveled around the state training teachers as part of a federally funded project. At the same time, “this entrepreneurial thing kicked in and I decided to build a craft shop.”

She eventually sold the business and the building at a profit, and a series of jobs in the education sector followed, including stays in Washington and Ohio.

At one point, she was sent to fix a graduate school, where her mettle showed itself. She fired a third of the faculty after exposing its financial ills. She was only 35.

Feistritzer eventually made her way back to Washington in 1977, bought a house on Capitol Hill and began writing reports for the federal government on how to better train teachers and administrators.

In 1979, the entrepreneurial gene emerged once more and she created a newsletter called Teacher Education Reports, an eight-page biweekly for the sector’s decision-makers. Its subscribers were colleges, universities, professional organizations, legislators and unions.

Feistritzer eventually folded the newsletters into a clearinghouse she called the National Center of Education, a one-source stop for information where for $395 annually people could subscribe to a service allowing them to call and ask for information about laws, funding, grants and contracting opportunities in the education sector.

From 1979 through 2011, she published 45 studies, books and reports, all of which were well received.

Her net worth began to climb into the single-digit millions.

“My wealth chart is a roller coaster,” she said. “I lived really, really well” during those years, she said.

She liquidated about $500,000 of her net worth to start Teach-Now, which began at her dining-room table.

“I ate peanut butter and honey sandwiches for a while.”

Not anymore. She is a regular at the Prime Rib, Washington’s expensive account beef emporium just a short turn around the corner from Teach-Now’s offices. She lives in a leafy D.C. neighborhood overlooking Rock Creek Park. She drives a Lexus, too, albeit a 10-year-old one that is banged up.

What’s the endgame? Well, she had no plans to quit. But . . . who knows?

“My goal is to be a multi-millionairess, and to change the way teachers are trained all over the world,” said the entrepreneur.

She said she was joking about becoming a millionaire, but Feistritzer still plans to visit Tuscany and check out the real estate market.