Steve Rothschild, a top executive at General Mills in 1991, retired at 45, and walked away from millions in compensation to take on a huge issue that continues to keep the Twin Cities from claiming its full economic and human potential.

“I was concerned with the issue of concentrated poverty, and the effect it has on families and communities,” Rothschild said the other day. 

The particular focus was black men, plagued disproportionately by high unemployment and low education-and-income achievement.

Rothschild, 73, retired this month from Twin Cities Rise after 25 years as founding chairman, including nine as the inaugural, unpaid CEO.

Rise has helped empower and train thousands of high school dropouts, ex-offenders and others, including women and whites.

Rise, since 1993, pioneered several initiatives that helped it eventually serve 1,400 unemployed and underemployed people annually. It has placed thousands in jobs that often start at $25,000-plus, with a career path.

An analytical MBA out of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Rothschild quickly became a rising star at General Mills in the 1970s. He presided over development of Yoplait, one of America’s hottest consumer foods.

Rothschild was promoted and grew bored during several years as executive vice president, overseeing several Mills businesses. He quit, turning heads in the business community.

Rothschild, the talented son of German and French immigrant parents who narrowly escaped the Holocaust, considered himself fortunate for his education, life and lucrative career. He wanted to take on a challenging social and economic issue.

“I like a challenge, but I was naive,” Rothschild said. “I didn’t know what I was doing at first. But I met people who did. The first model didn’t work so well. Only when we developed “personal-empowerment” development, integrated into our curriculum, did Rise start to work.”

By 2000, Rise was placing people and employers were retaining Rise graduates at above-average rates. Rise employees were in demand.

That whole ‘empowerment’ piece is the most important thing … especially for a person with low self-esteem,” Ralph Pruitt, a one-time drug dealer and Rise graduate, told me years ago. “The staff takes on almost a parental mission.”

Pruitt, 65, worked in industry for years before he joined the Rise management team.

Integrated into Rise training, which can run from weeks to months, including at partner community colleges and employer-training programs, is a focus on humility, listening, communication and decisionmaking.

Rise also has an “Empowerment Institute” that works in Minnesota prisons, schools and businesses. The lesson: we all can be better listeners, and more empathetic, responsible and collaborative.

I sat through a night of empowerment training in 2000 at Rise’s facility in north Minneapolis. It was taught by Bob Morris, a black former Air Force enlisted man who rose to be an officer. He also had worked for Hennepin County as a counselor for young adults.

Morris focused on channeling anger over discrimination, inhibitions, insecurities or other problems into ambition, choices, skills, dignity and success.

Thousands of minority men have entered Rise, making nothing to up to $10,000. They graduated after several weeks or months to jobs or on-the-job training as bus mechanics, drivers, accountants, customer-service representatives, bankers, laborers and IT support workers at wages that typically start at $15 to $20 an hour, with benefits. Those jobs can lead to $50,000-plus careers.

Rise generates most of its revenue from fees paid by employers after Rise trainees spend at least a year on the job. There also are foundation and individual grants and up to $800,000 a year from the state of Minnesota, depending upon Rise’s placement-and-retention rate over each year.

Rise invests more than $20,000 in each participant. That’s a bargain, considering it works disproportionately with former inmates who tend not reoffend. A year in a Minnesota prison costs taxpayers $40,000-plus per inmate.

“We have to earn it with results,” Rothschild said.

Years ago, Art Rolnick, the former research director and economist at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, calculated that Rise returned $7 in public benefits for every $1 invested. Less jail, fewer social services. More taxes paid by Rise graduates.

Rothschild and his wife, Marilyn, a retired small business owner and artist, have been Rise’s single biggest funders over the years. Their return has been seeing men and women find new purpose and earnings through accomplishment and the dignity of work.

“It’s a most marvelous thing to watch,” he said. “There’s a family, an employer and a community benefit. That is what I am most proud of. It’s a lot like throwing starfish back in the ocean. Every one has a positive ripple.

“Many of these people have kids. They get more engaged with their kids and their education. The kids do much better. There’s a lot of evidence. I always saw Rise as a family program.”

Rise is completing a $7 million capital campaign, including the funds to acquire a permanent home in north Minneapolis, long the lowest-income, highest-unemployment hub of the city. The transition will be overseen by Twin Cities businessman Craig Bentdahl, who was elected this month by the Rise board to succeed Rothschild as chairman.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at