In his latest career, think of Don Samuels as kind of a venture capitalist to the working poor.
Samuels is the former 10-year City Council member from north Minneapolis who years before in his Jordan neighborhood, confronted drug dealers and troublemakers with a calm demeanor. He and his wife mentored kids, championed small business development along frayed-edge W. Broadway Avenue and advocated civility and personal responsibility — from troublemakers and the police.
In fact, Samuels’ roots are deeper in art, entrepreneurship and business than politics.
“I knew nothing about government until I ran for the City Council [in 2003],” recalled Samuels. “I did know the North Side and low-income communities needed more business connections.”
Samuels, after a year as chief operating officer, was named by the board of Microgrants to succeed founder Joe Selvaggio, 78, as CEO.
The private nonprofit gives several hundred small grants annually to mostly minority entrepreneurs and workers. They are referred by partner training agencies such as Goodwill, Project for Pride in Living (PPL), Twin Cities Rise, Emerge Community Development, Summit Academy and Neighborhood Development Center.
These recipients, usually low-income adults who have earned certification in health care, construction, building maintenance or otherwise, usually are high on motivation and low on the capital to afford a tool belt or used equipment for their fledgling business, or complete a course in nursing.
“I live with my family on the North Side, so I see the struggles,” said Samuels. “Microgrants allows me to engage in an activity that addresses their issues.
“We have a difficult time convincing some investors that as little as $1,000 can make a difference in a new business or the life of a person at a critical time. I’m familiar with the frustrations people have clearing the gravitational pull of poverty. You need boosters to get out of it. In fact, 5 percent of our recipients say they avoided disaster with our grant.”
Samuels proved early that he can raise money from individuals who will contribute at least $1 million combined this year. In January, a donor gave Samuels $10,000 toward the general fund, and topped it with a $100,000 grant toward a new competitive-grant fund that will award up to $5,000 grants. The investors, generally affluent Twin Citians, expect no return other than the satisfaction of seeing low-income people advance.
Samuels is a guy of varied interests and background with range.
Born in Jamaica, Samuels, 66, was a pianist and teen crooner whose tunes are still played on the radio. He immigrated to New York City in 1970 and earned a degree in industrial design from Pratt Institute, working up to 40 hours a week as a night-shift security guard and kitchen worker to pay his way.
For 20 years he was a toy designer and manager at companies such as Hasbro, Milton Bradley and Lakeside Games. He later had his own toy-design business.
Samuels moves easily among business, community and government circles. His new perch leverages his background and should benefit many nonprofits who work with under-skilled adults to bring them up to employment speed. Samuels also knows those who are willing to invest and hire.
“Don is a listener, he’s charismatic, he’s courageous and he’s passionate about his purpose,” said Steve Rothschild, the former General Mills executive who retired early to start Twin Cities Rise in the early 1990s. “He believes in second chances. He’s also a strong proponent of personal accountability. You cannot be a victim. You invest in people and they invest in themselves. His philosophy is consistent with mine and Twin Cities Rise.’’
Anthony Dahl, the recipient of two microgrants, in 2010 started Everest Cleaning Systems of St. Paul in 2010 and has grown to several employees and expects revenue of $500,000 this year.
“I started this business with nothing and it’s tough to come up with cash to pay the initial bills,” said Dahl, who went through small-business training at Neighborhood Development Center, another Microgrants partner. “It wasn’t a lot of money. But it made me feel like there were people out there who want to see people like me succeed. It meant a lot.”
Shantae Holmes, a Northside resident and owner of “All Washed Up” laundry since 2008, used her microgrant toward equipment at her business at Penn Avenue and Lowry Avenue N.
Selvaggio, who also founded PPL in 1972, has long advocated, with a growing list of supporters from business and community, the importance of investing in low-income people and nonprofits that help them work on the hard-and-soft skills required to climb the economic ladder.
Samuels is married to Sondra Samuels, who also has a business background. She runs the Northside Achievement Zone, the nonprofit that works with low-income Northside families to knit together educational and other services that help them achieve.
Don Samuels makes about $90,000 working days that often extend into nights and weekend community engagements that transcend community, business and philanthropy. Samuels, also a member of the Minneapolis school board, believes Microgrants and its partner nonprofits will be part of the achievement-and-income gap solutions that threaten the full economic and human potential of the city and region.
“To get a grant for a uniform or tools or a class or their small business is inspiring to our Microgrants,” said Samuels, recalling tears by many recipients at an awards event last fall. “Sixty five percent are black. Joe Selvaggio and I always have lived among the people most affected by inequities. We know the sustainable solution is not a handout but a hand up, through transformational investments … for work-related investments in people who want to do better for themselves and their families.’’