I got a visit from Mark Schneider of the Northside Civic Development Council, which was creating public-private partnerships to revitalize neighborhoods.
Mark indicated Northside Civic was developing a business incubator in a refurbished brewery. Penn Brewery actually would produce beer, a new microbrew called Penn Pilsner. More importantly, the start-up businesses that would share the brewery’s office space until they could stand alone needed counsel from an experienced entrepreneur.
“Would you consider being our in-house mentor?” Mark asked. “You wouldn’t have to work more than one day a week. That’s all we could afford.”
“I know myself well enough to know that I could never limit my time to one day a week. No thanks.”
Mark kept after me and wore down my resistance. Before we formalized the arrangement, I needed the blessing of two other Northside Civic executives: Tom Cox, the Executive Director, and Linda LeFever, an organizer and developer.
We all gathered at a Northside restaurant. I figured that the deal was pretty much done and that this lunch meeting was a formality. I know Mark and Tom also thought that; somewhere along the line, they forgot to tell Linda.
“Jack,” she said, “what I’d really like to know is this: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?”
She was treating me like a job candidate, not a senior executive being urged to (largely) volunteer his time. I fumbled around for an answer, all the while thinking: It’s a good question. I’ll add it to my repertoire.
It was a bizarre meeting, but I signed on as in-house mentor and became great friends with Linda, Mark and Tom.
I worked with a variety of fledgling businesses. A few had just the right formula, quickly outgrew the incubator and became successful concerns employing many people. Most, however, were destined to fail. Successful entrepreneurship requires many attributes — vision, passion and determination chief among them. In most cases, at least one of those characteristics was missing.
I learned as much from these startups as they did from me. I remember counseling a young African-American woman who had launched a travel agency and was concerned that racism in the business world might stifle her chances for success. When other black entrepreneurs voiced the same concerns, I decided to give a little presentation for them.
“You may find racism in the world outside this incubator,” I lectured. “But when you’re in business, there’s only one color that matters: green. Show people you can make money for them and they won’t care what color you are.”
My young travel agency founder took me at my word and set out to conquer the business world. After a successful start, she thought she was ready to rent office space in Shadyside. The building owner agreed to the deal over the phone, but when he saw my friend in person, he advised her that the space had just been rented. Several days later, she drove by the building and noticed that the “For Rent” sign still was posted. Pretty clear what happened there.
Then, when she needed to staff up, she ran newspaper ads for help. She got a phone response from an enthusiastic candidate and set up an interview with her. When the candidate arrived and saw her prospective boss, she headed for the door.
“I would never work for a n****r,” she said.
When my friend related all this to me, I was ashamed of my lack of sensitivity. Green is not the only color that counts in business. How could I have been so naïve as to think otherwise?
I mentored for Northside Civic for about two years. Tom Cox left for a similar position in Cleveland but returned to Pittsburgh when his close friend, Tom Murphy, was elected the city’s mayor. Cox served as Murphy’s executive secretary and as chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh. We still meet regularly for lunch.
Mark Schneider transitioned to the private sector and played an important role in many real estate projects, including the redevelopment and rebranding of Washington’s Landing. He also served a stint as chairman of the Sports & Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. It pains me deeply to report that Mark and Linda LeFever died many decades prematurely. I lost a pair of good friends whom I loved dearly, and Pittsburgh lost a pair of its most committed, honorable developers.
By Jack Roseman
Business founder and operator, math professor, author — Jack Roseman is all these. In his adopted home of Pittsburgh, however, he’s best known as one of the most influential mentors of tech sector entrepreneurs. Along with co-author Evan Pattak, he’s captured those experiences in an autobiography titled “Jump! — How I Rose from Poverty and Anti-Semitism to Become a Tech Sector Pioneer and a Mensch” (Amazon). In the excerpt below, Roseman discusses what he taught — and what he learned — as a mentor.