Joel Lebewitz, attorney and CPA at the Minneapolis accounting firm Lurie, has won numerous awards for community service, including for his 30 years as a board member and adviser to the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA), the growing adviser and lender to small minority businesses that is moving this year into the new Thor Cos. complex in north Minneapolis. In this interview, edited for length and clarity, Lebewitz, 64, talks about MEDA’s progress and the history that influences him and Lurie.
Q: You came to know MEDA, as well as the late Beck Horton, a black Twin Cities manufacturing entrepreneur who was a MEDA stalwart. And you and a senior Lurie partner decided to get involved in the 1980s?
A: We were introduced to MEDA by the late Matt Little, an African-American entrepreneur and head of the local chapter of the NAACP, and Willie Adams, an African-American banker who had helped my parents at their business, Rosenthal Furniture. We offered to provide 500 volunteer hours or more if they needed it. From that point on, we’ve honored that commitment to MEDA every year. We have been among MEDA’s largest volunteer group over the years.
Q: Lurie was started in 1940, when Jewish professionals were not welcome in most Twin Cities firms. Does the experience of your predecessors inform your commitment to MEDA and minority small business people?
A: This firm was started because very smart and talented people couldn’t get hired by public accounting firms. Same was true in some law firms. Even then when you were a doctor, you had to practice at Mount Sinai Hospital. Jewish business owners needed help doing business. They needed help with taxes and banking. Lurie started with a mission to help these businesses gain access to capital. When I tell Lurie people of the firm’s past, the history of this market’s anti-Semitism is foreign to them. We would like to believe that it doesn’t exist today. I also tell these stories to the [minority] entrepreneurs at MEDA. We know what they’re going through.
Q: Have things changed?
A: When Lurie was founded, there weren’t very many women business owners, and the minority population was very small in percentage to our total population. That’s changed. We would like it to get to the point where it has nothing to do with ethnicity or color. I don’t know if that can ever change. We can hope it becomes less of an issue or obstacle.
Q: What kind of job has MEDA CEO Gary Cunningham done?
A: In 1990 or 1991, after Lurie had been volunteering for six or seven years, I approached CEO Yvonne Chung Ho of MEDA about a board seat. The board didn’t have too many firms like Lurie. It was mostly representatives from large local companies. She guided MEDA through a very difficult time, when funding was challenging and it was difficult. But she always managed. She probably initiated the single biggest change in MEDA that allowed Gary to take it to the next step. At the time when Yvonne resigned, we loaned $2 million to $3 million a year. We did good things. We needed to do more good things.
Gary not only was energized by the possibility of change happening, he had ideas about what that looked like. He was ready to take it on at this level. Gary expanded our loan fund eight to 10 times over. We are way ahead of schedule. He has assisted the Minority Business Enterprise community by putting together an ecosystem that is basically geared to serve far more clients than MEDA alone can serve. And we’re working on a product online, a database-training application for financing so that we can go from serving what might be 600 to 800 clients in a year to 10,000 or maybe more. Gary also figured out how to work with national funders who shared our interests, an interest in what MEDA could create that would help the rest of the country. They are working with MEDA to make that happen.
Q: What will MEDA’s move to the new Thor building on the North Side mean?
A: It’s the perfect time for MEDA to move. We’ve outgrown our current downtown space. In the Thor building, we will be in the middle of one of the areas we want to serve. We’re not moving to the North Side because we’re becoming a North Side-centric organization, but it is where we would like to do more good. It will be easy to get to with plenty of parking. And it will be near a light rail stop. We will become more involved and even more embedded in the minority business community.
Q: Your mom and late dad owned Rosenthal Furniture for a long time in the Warehouse District. It’s now owned by your sister Rosie. That business has evolved and survived changing times going back to your grandfather.
A: My dad was a business major at the University of Minnesota. His lessons were life lessons and not so much business. He didn’t let people take advantage, but if the agreement is fair, it’s fair. If it’s not fair, move on because life is short and you need to enjoy every day. My dad believed you need to love the people you’re around. Whether they’re your peers in business or your clients and customers, or your friends. Rosenthal went through very stressful times. They had floods and fires and this was a business with two family owners that split apart and it survived. We ultimately settled our differences. The business has gone through ups and downs. It’s doing fine.