New Jersey-born Zanker founded the Annex at the age of 24—purportedly backed by his Bar Mitzvah haul—when his parents told him they could no longer pay for film school. But after a decade in business, mounting losses forced him to file for bankruptcy and sell his stake. Undeterred, Zanker was soon off and running with a new idea, a retail massage chain called the Great American BackRub. Vowing the chain would be the "Starbucks of the year 2000," Zanker managed to raise $6.25 million in an IPO and open 15 locations before the company went belly up several years later. At that point he turned his attention back to the Annex and reacquired the company. He retooled its offerings, focusing on shorter courses and, more importantly, big boldface names. He's since established Annexes in LA, Minneapolis, San Diego, San Francisco, and Toronto.
The Learning Annex is best known for the big shots who have shown up to "teach" classes over the years. Lizzie Grubman taught a class on how to succeed in PR, Clive Davis listened to a room full of aspiring singers, and Barbara Corcoran delivered a course on entrepreneurship. Other famous "faculty members" over the years: Henry Kissinger, Donny Deutsch, Larry King, Sarah Jessica Parker, Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, and P. Diddy. Zanker's teaching talents don't come cheap. Donald Trump—the Annex's biggest draw—reportedly earns $1.5 million per class, or more than $20,000 a minute. And don't expect to get much out of the classes other than an opportunity to brush up against fame. "For about 50 bucks, students get the chance not only to be in the same room as one of their idols, but they can ask questions, and maybe give them a script, demo, or exchange a handshake," Zanker once said, explaining why people sign up for classes.
Zanker lives with his wife, Debbie, in Mamaroneck.