Obituary: Wayne Atkins, co-founder of Habitat's Entrepreneurs House program
- Article by: Joy Powell
- Star Tribune
- March 20, 2014 - 9:40 PM
At a ceremony for a new home in north Minneapolis, Habitat for Humanity volunteer Wayne Atkins spoke of parallels between an entrepreneur and a family who would live in a Habitat house.
“He talked about how you need a community around you to support you, and you need funders, and you need creativity, and you need to work really hard, and you need to see the future,” recalled Nancy Brady of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity.
Atkins spoke of the obstacles that both must overcome. “He really got that there is this deep connection and that home is the foundation for everyone,” Brady said.
Years earlier, Atkins had joined with a colleague to co-found Twin Cities Habitat’s Entrepreneurs House program, which enables small businesses to pool resources to build one house each year for low-income families.
An investment banker from Stillwater, Atkins died of cancer March 11. He was 46.
He helped raise more than $1 million and recruit more than 3,000 volunteers since 2003 to build houses that low-income buyers can get with zero-interest mortgages.
Atkins was known as an extraordinary leader who also served on Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity’s board of directors and finance committee, among other civic contributions.
“He was a problem-solver,” said Brady, vice president of resource development and communication. “He was an inspirational man who just wanted to help his fellow entrepreneurs but also at the same time help families.”
Atkins grew up in London and moved to America when he was 17, planning to become a computer programmer and analyst. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., graduating as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
In addition to active alumni duties at Northwestern, he was a mentor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and was a member of Carlson’s Entrepreneurship Program.
He most recently served 14 years as managing director in the investment banking practice of Cherry Tree Companies, a financial advising firm in Minneapolis.
Twelve years ago, Atkins and colleague John Bergstrom, owner of Riverpoint Investments of St. Paul, came up with the idea of Entrepreneurs House.
The umbrella organization, Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, has built more than 1,000 homes for families in the seven-county metro area since 1986. Most have been sponsored financially and through volunteerism by Fortune 500 companies.
But thousands of small businesses also wanted to help, though it wasn’t as easy for them to get involved, Bergstrom said.
So each year, Atkins and Bergstrom gathered small businesses that would raise about $150,000 and recruit about 500 volunteers to jointly build one home in honor of the Twin Cities entrepreneurial community.
Atkins was an extremely competent, resourceful and thoughtful organizer, Bergstrom said.
“It was a really important part of who he was; he always had a heart for people who didn’t have homes,” said his wife, Stephani Atkins.
Since late 2010, Atkins had quietly fought cancer, trying to stay active to the end.
About two weeks before he died, he learned that the 12th home to be built, this summer in Crystal, will be named the Wayne Atkins Twin Cities Entrepreneurs House.
“He was touched and honored to hear that,” Bergstrom said.
In addition to Stephani, Atkins is survived by children Alexandra, Hannah, Jack and Emma; parents Colin and Diane Atkins; and brothers Colin Atkins and Steven Cole.
Services will be at 4 p.m. March 30 at Nazareth Chapel on the University of Northwestern’s St. Paul campus.
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