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Grover Jones is executive director of Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON).

Joey Mcleister, Special to the Star Tribune

HOW TO CONTACT NORTHSIDE ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY NETWORK

www.neon-mn.org • 612-302-1505

HOW TO CONTACT HUMOR TO FIGHT THE TUMOR www.humortofightthetumor.com

Grover Jones: A guiding NEON light

  • Article by: KATY READ
  • Star Tribune
  • November 6, 2012 - 12:53 PM
Large, enthusiastic crowds fill the room when Grover Jones holds one of his orientations on starting your own business. Plenty of people are eager to become entrepreneurs. But after they've heard what Jones has to say, most decide against it.

That's fine with Jones, executive director of Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON), though his organization was founded to develop small businesses in North Minneapolis.

"If I can talk you out of it, then you probably shouldn't have been in there," said Jones, with typically cheerful directness. "A lot of people want to open a restaurant because they know how to cook. Cooking's about 5 percent of running a restaurant."

Would-be entrepreneurs who aren't discouraged by the orientation can take further training through NEON. If they decide to go ahead with their idea, NEON helps them develop a business plan, secure financing, find pro-bono legal help. Once the business is open, NEON offers continuing technical assistance and support.

A group of community development organizations founded NEON in 2006, noting how few small-business loans in the metro area went to North Minneapolis, and hired Jones to direct it. The organization has grown from there. The first year, NEON presented two classes on running a business -- last year, seven. The staff has grown proportionately, from one full-time employee to three employees and an intern.

"NEON has mirrored a lot of what was going on in the business community," Jones said. "The first three or four years, we struggled to keep our doors open."

People often underestimate the challenge involved in running a business, Jones said. In North Minneapolis, hard hit by the recession as well as a destructive 2011 tornado, many don't have the credit or collateral to get a business off the ground. To Jones, discouraging people who aren't prepared is as important a part of his job as helping those who are.

"A lot of people have good ideas; they just don't have the banking criteria," he said.

A business failure can be devastating. To illustrate, Jones tells of a woman who wanted to open a coffee shop with $100,000 from her retirement savings and equity in her house. But problems cropped up with her chosen location: poor visibility, limited parking, and more remodeling than she'd anticipated. Eventually, the woman realized she would need another $100,000 to get off the ground, but by then "the hole was just too deep," Jones said. The business fizzled, along with the woman's nest egg.

"I'd rather spare you even $5,000 and a lot of sleepless nights," Jones said.

No doubt Jones, 62, has experienced his own share of sleepless nights. He and his wife, Wintize "Bunnie" Jones -- "She's my best friend, my girlfriend, my business partner" -- ran five successful businesses in the 28 years before NEON started, including telecommunications consulting for school districts and, most recently, packaging loans as an independent consultant for the Small Business Administration. He and his wife put in 60-hour weeks while raising five sons -- looking back now, even Jones isn't sure how they did it.

"They're grown [ages 31 to 41] so we laugh about it now," he said.

Running a nonprofit brings its own pressures, but the work is rewarding, Jones said. "It just takes one or two people you've helped to come back and say, 'I couldn't have kept my doors open if it weren't for you."

Laughter is the goal at Joelle Syverson's fundraising galas. But frankly, some years are more cheerful than others. Syverson is founder of Humor to Fight the Tumor, an annual event at which elegantly dressed guests gather for comedy, dinner, games, an auction and other festivities. Money raised goes primarily to the Chicago-based American Brain Tumor Association. This year's ninth annual gala, at The Depot in Minneapolis in September, was hosted by KARE-TV meteorologist Belinda Jensen, featured a speech by a Mayo Clinic radiation oncologist and a performance by standup comedian Henry Cho. Each year, the event also honors four people with brain tumors and includes a video in which the honorees and their families discuss their situations. Sounds sad, but the intention is to remain upbeat. "It's an evening to celebrate life," Syverson said. "My goal is that everybody who comes to the event, I want them to leave appreciating every day, whether they have cancer or not. Because life is a gift." Syverson knows firsthand. Her own brain tumor was diagnosed in 2001. Since then, she has undergone three surgeries and a round of chemotherapy. In May, doctors found signs the tumor was growing again. You'd never know this from meeting Syverson, whose perky energy belies her 46 years, not to mention her condition. "I feel so incredibly blessed for having the health that I have and for being an 11-year survivor," she said. "This is what I can do to give back to people not as fortunate as me." A stay-at-home mother who left a corporate career in 1997 after the second of her three children was born, Syverson started Humor to Fight the Tumor after attending a diabetes fundraiser and realizing that nobody was doing anything similar for brain cancer. She gathered her sister and friends, as well as several people she knew who'd been affected by tumors, either their own or those of loved ones. She obtained a list of possible donors from her banker husband, Leif. When someone mentioned knowing a comedian who might be willing to perform, the organizers decided to center the evening around humor. Someone asked her fundraising goal, she replied, "Goal? I'm a mom with three kids; I'm a simple person. I don't really have a goal. Maybe $10,000?" That first event, in 2004, raised more than nine times that much from its sellout crowd. Now in a bigger venue, Humor to Fight the Tumor generates around $200,000 a year. Though this year's figures aren't yet final, Syverson estimates they'll have raised more than $1.3 million altogether. Keeping the mood light presents a different sort of challenge. This year, one of the four honorees, 48-year-old dentist Michael Nanne of Edina, died the night before the event. Organizers struggled to decide how to handle the news. "The last thing we wanted to do was shout from the podium, 'Hey, Mike died last night,'" Syverson said. They managed a subdued presentation. Nanne's wife and four children all attended, later telling Syverson the experience was "very healing." Another of the honorees, a man who had entered hospice, died a couple of weeks later. Every year, the written program includes an "in memoriam" page for past honorees who have died. "Sadly, I've already realized that next year we'll have five more for that page," Syverson said.

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