Saratoga Springs-based philanthropist Ed Mitzen publishes book on Business for Good organization
Ed Mitzen is a Saratoga Springs-based entrepreneur and philanthropist, and author. In 2008, Mitzen founded Fingerpaint Marketing in Saratoga Springs, and in 2020 he and his wife Lisa founded the philanthropic organization Business for Good. His new book called “Wealthy and White: Why Guys Like Me Have to Show Up, Step Up, and Give Others a Hand Up” chronicles the early stages of Business for Good and its mission to build wealth in disadvantaged communities.
I spoke with Mitzen in the newly renovated Albany Black Chamber of Commerce & Social Club, but before our conversation, he gave me a tour of the historic building which he hopes will turn into a bustling space for local entrepreneurs. We stopped in the building’s basement, where two bowling lanes are being repaired.
Hopefully by August I think, we hired Brunswick to come in and put two sort of modernized, you know, electronic scoring and all that kind of stuff. And the plan that I see is that not only can the chamber use this for fundraising events, or just social events, but the thinking is, is that for a lot of the kids in downtown Albany, they can't necessarily afford a birthday party, like they can come here or a pizza, you know, and like have a place to raise a little hell as a kid. You know, I just think there's so many, so many things we can do with it.
Mitzen says Fingerpaint Marketing, while based in upstate New York, has grown to include about 800 employees around the world. A few years ago, part of the company was sold.
Back at the end of 2020, my wife and I made the decision that we were going to sell a big chunk of the company to a private equity firm primarily to fuel expansion. We wanted to add additional businesses, we didn't have the cash to do that, so it helped sort of accelerate our growth. And at that time, when we sold part of the business, we, to be perfectly candid, made more money than we ever dreamed of.
Mitzen calls himself and his wife “doers.” While the couple has been “very active” in philanthropy, as he puts it, the Mitzens wanted to use their newfound wealth to do more to help other people. At a time when poverty was exacerbated by the pandemic, Business for Good was created with a mission of helping others build their own business – starting with some of the most historically disadvantaged communities in New York’s Capital Region.
So, what we've tried to do is, is sort of a different type of nonprofit model where we're going in and we're finding people that either have started a business and want to help it grow or have wanted to start a business and just needed a little bit of help. So, we've been on this journey over the last couple of years meeting so many people in the community in Arbor Hill and downtown Albany and the South End, and Schenectady, and Troy and it's been an amazing experience. I, like many people a couple of years ago, was afraid to drive into Arbor Hill. You know, you watch the news and all you hear about is shootings and drugs and, and, you know, robberies and things like that. And, I will tell you that the people that I've met in this community are so incredibly loving, they're so they're the—they don't have a lot to give, but they're the first person that will buy a child a coat, or feed somebody who's hungry, and it's just been—we've gotten more out of this than I think we've been able to give. But it's just, it's just been so much fun.
Since Business for Good’s founding, the organization has supported over 150 businesses and community organizations. He says he wants the foundation to create a business “ecosystem” in disadvantaged communities.
As we start to build up these businesses there's a referral network that's created so if we're working with a flower shop, they're referring business to the funeral home, if the funeral home needs legal services, there's now a Black own law firm in downtown Albany that can do that work. And then if we need construction work, well, let's accelerate the Black contractor who has his own company, and create this sort of little business community inside that community. And it's been working.
This ecosystem is at the core of BFG’s working model. They’ve had to say no to several individuals for a variety of reasons, but for the most part they stay open to entrepreneurs from all fields. I asked Mitzen about the projects Business for Good has turned away.
Right? That's a great question. Well, with any business and a startup, most of them fail, right? I mean, that's just the nature of being an entrepreneur is it's, it's hard. So, we try to find business owners that A. Have a knowledge in the space that they're trying to either start or accelerate, you know, if they want to start a restaurant, do they have experience in the restaurant business? You know, I remember years ago, we had a woman that came to us, that wanted to open up a cigar bar and she didn't really have a lot of experience in doing that type of work, and while she was a lovely woman, we just felt like we have to sort of back the projects that we think have the highest degree of—highest chance of success. And we failed, you know, we've backed some that haven't worked, and that's okay. But I think it's trying to find people that are also passionate, they know how hard they have to work, and also that they share our mindset that once they get up the curve, that they're the type of people that are going to pay it forward. We see that all the time, I mean, it's been incredibly humbling to me to see a restaurant owner, I'll use Allie B's kitchen on Clinton Avenue in Albany with Kizzy William, she's the first person to—you know, she's got a small little cash and carry business food's amazing—but she's the first person that will sign up to work, donate and cook meals for the shelter's or for the kids that don't have meals during the summertime because they're not in school. And it's so heartwarming to be a part of that and to help her grow her company so she can ultimately make more money for her family, but also to help so many other people. It's just it's awesome.
Mitzen credits much of the success of Business for Good to the people he’s surrounded himself with—who have guided his efforts to being as impactful as possible, all while improving along the way.
If there's one thing I've learned in 30 years of being an entrepreneur is a big key is to have the courage to hire people smarter than you and then get out of their way. I always say that if I'm the smartest guy in the room, we're probably in trouble. So when we started the foundation, the first gentleman that we hired was a guy named Jahkeen Hoke, who went to Morehouse, worked at GE, has been very involved in the Albany community, went to Albany High School, and knows the players in the area. And he's helped us to introduce people. He's also told us, “Hey, this is somebody you may want to shy away from. This is somebody, this is a business we really should take a look at.” And also just navigating the waters down here I talked about in the book, how completely unintentionally, I offended people when I started just in the words that I used. And he really has helped to coach me on if I said something that was inappropriate, or could be perceived as offensive, you know, he's sort of tapping me on the shoulder and say, “hey, next time, you know, you may want to say it this way.” And I've learned a ton about that stuff.
So I guess, getting back to the content of the book itself, who is the intended audience of this book? Because I think there's a very specific group of people that you're trying to reach through this.
I'm trying to reach folks that, not necessarily have hundreds of millions of dollars, but have benefited and have, you know, pretty significant wealth from their work in the business community. You know, entrepreneurs, people that have sold their company for $20 million $30 million. Or folks that, for whatever reason, just find themselves in a very affluent position to look at—my feeling is, is that a lot of the societal challenges that we face, government can't fix it, nonprofits aren't going to be able to fix it. I think business is a really unique and interesting alternative to trying to get people up these income curves.
We control the jobs, the business community, the benefits, the salaries, the hiring practices, the referral networks, and, and I think that if you’re a successful business owner, and now you're in that second stage of your career, and you want to figure out what to do next, and you don't want to play golf every day, and you're—obviously you want to write checks and support causes that are important to you—but also I think there's a real fun and unique opportunity to be able to go into some of these underserved communities and apply your skills to be mentors and to help folks have the same success that you had.
As rewarding as the work is, Mitzen is the first to admit that it’s not always easy.
It's a lot of work, you have to get in to the communities and meet the leaders in the communities, whether or not it's the local politicians, the pastors at the churches, or the folks that are running the nonprofits, and really try to understand what the big issues are. And, you know, as opposed to just assuming you know, what people need, which is what I did initially, and it didn't work out. I had to, I had to go in and be much better listener.
And I would say that, the other thing, and I talked about this in the book is, you’re gonna make mistakes, you're gonna offend people, even by accident, you're going to feel uncomfortable at times. You know, I remember the first time I went to Allie B’s kitchen, you know, I was worried like, you know, I hope I don't get carjacked, I hope—and meanwhile, it's an irrational fear that's been created, because of what I hear on the news. But I tell you what, now when I go there, I walk around, and I feel incredibly comfortable. But it's a lot of work initially, to try to get involved and also to build credibility in the community. You know, I talked about some of the experiences I've had, where folks that we want to help, there's a perfectly normal lack of trust, you know, most people that look like me that have gone in to say they want to help them have screwed them over, or there's got to be an angle, “What's his angle? How's he going to make money on this?” You know, there's—and I get that, you know, because it's, it's born over years of experience.
Mitzen credits Jahkeen with a kernel of wisdom that struck me; the work BFG is doing is like “replacing the tires on a moving truck.” Throughout the book, it seems as though Mitzen wanted to encourage his readers to just start doing good work, no matter the size of the project, and to stay committed.
I would say, you know, start out with a single. You know find one company or one entrepreneur or one business that you feel like you might be able to help and get to know those people and see if there's a way that that—you know, you build relationships and trust over time, and then pick your spot. And let's say you owned a very successful automobile repair company, and you sold it for a bunch of money and now you're sitting around—well, maybe that's an opportunity to take your skills and go in and help some of these, you know, local automobile repair shops. Is there a way that are the things that they can be doing differently from a marketing perspective? From a—you know, are they taking advantage of all tax benefits that they can have? Are they properly insured? And things like that that, you know, if the company is receptive, and they'd love people to help, it's amazing, a lot of the stuff that we take for granted that we've known that these folks, you know, how to set people up on payroll, and there's just a lot of things that can be very challenging if you don't have access to the same level of resources that we had.
I talk in the book about this wonderful woman, Marie Campbell, who was a nurse at Albany Medical Center for 30 years. And I was able through some connections to get her in front of the folks that buy the flowers for the gift shop and their special events and things like that, and now she's more than doubled her business. And it didn't require $10 million. That was basically just making some connections. She's an amazing person, she was successful before she ever met me. But just by going in and helping, meeting her, getting to know her, allowing her to trust me, and then finding out what her goals were, and to try to help her achieve those goals, it's just so much fun. I was just there an hour ago, and she gives me a hug every time I go in the place and, and she's doing amazing now. I mean, she, you know, she's killing it.
Mitzen and is wife had been involved in funding a proposed homeless shelter in Saratoga Springs. While the permanent 24/hour shelter has still yet to come into place, we spoke about the shelter and other challenges Business for Good has faced.
Well, the homeless shelter that you're speaking of that's been like a six year project, Lisa, and I made a pledge to pay for the cost to build it about six years ago, and it's just been mired in challenges, you know, everybody sees the need for it, they just don't want it near them. There's issues around zoning, issues around you know just politically who's gonna be running things. And it's been a, it's been a very frustrating process. Lisa, and I thought that when we pledged the money, that would be it. Like we thought that was going to be the, you know, checkmate, we're going to get this thing built and it just hasn't worked out that way.
I would say in working with the folks in these underserved communities. Once we've established a reputation and they've gotten to know us, they're like, we'll take all the help you can get, and it's been a much easier process than, you know, doing these sort of larger projects that just get hung up with a lot of red tape. Yeah, the folks had been very receptive to our help. And the thing that's really sad is when we first started working with them, they honestly don't feel like anybody cares about them. Like they feel like they're on their own. And I tried to tell them, like, “Look, there's a lot of folks like us that drive through Arbor Hill, and they see the challenges and the struggles that so many have, and they want to help, they just don't know how.” So this, this gives us an ability to go in build credibility and do things a little bit differently.
Towards the end of the book, Mitzen makes a point to say that it is not enough to simply establish Black owned banks and businesses. Mitzen and his team aim to create self-sustaining, inter-connected webs of wealth that will foster a more equitable future.
Eventually we're going to run out of money, right? So, so we just got in the position where we're able to take grants and collect money to help some folks. We haven't asked for any yet because we really wanted to prove the model first, before I went to, you know, a Mackenzie Scott and said, “Hey, can I have $10 million? I think I can do this, this and this. And this is the data that shows that we could.” But I don't see this ending. Hopefully, it will continue to thrive and grow. I'm really hoping that the book inspires people in their own communities. I mean, Albany is such a large-small town, it feels like we can really make an impact here. You know, if we were in Manhattan, or Washington, DC would probably feel a lot more daunting. But I think this feels like the size of the city that we can really have a huge impact. And I hope that other people in their communities that are in a similar position, look at what we're doing, and possibly give them some inspiration to help in their local communities, because we're never going to be everywhere.
The other thing that we've done through the foundation, you know, I used to sit on the Double H Ranch and Lake Luzerne on their board, which was started by Charlie Wood and Paul Newman, it's a summer camp for kids that have critical illness. And Paul Newman started Newman's Own where you know, they basically donate all their profits from the from the sales of the food and the popcorn and the spaghetti sauce and all that and I always thought that was genius because he didn't need the money. He's like, people are gonna buy spaghetti sauce, why not create a line? So, what we've done on a much smaller scale is we've acquired some businesses like we acquired Hattie's in Saratoga, we're building a Hattie’s location in downtown Albany, we acquired the Bread Basket Bakery in Saratoga, and all of the money that we make, we're giving away to charity. Now, it's, you know, they don't make this kind of money Paul Newman—Newman's Own makes, but we're trying to create also sustainable vehicles for generating money to sort of keep this thing going.
What have you been able to learn about working on the local level versus trying to fix the astronomical issue that is the historic wealth inequalities in America? How much more effective have you come to understand your money to be at a scale, like you just mentioned, on the Albany scale versus on the Manhattan or national level?
It's a great question. I mean, if somebody gave me $100 million, and said, solve the homeless problem in Albany, I probably couldn't do it. You know, you build larger homeless shelters, but at the end of the day, that money will run out. And then where are you? Instead, now you've got, you know, three times as many homeless people, and because of the economic challenges we face. The one thing I would say is on a local level, it seems much more manageable. And our goal is to try to get people so they can own their own home, so that they can get off of food stamps, they can really start to create some long-term wealth for them and their families. And it's possible, we see that it's working. You know, we've only been doing this a little over two years. I think White businessmen have to realize that it's not a zero-sum game, if we get people up the curve, it doesn't mean that someone else is going to be going down the curve. And I think that is something that's sort of ingrained in people like, oh my gosh, if I help these folks, well, then suddenly, I'm not going to be taken care of, or I'm gonna get pushed back or marginalized, or, you know, “if they let this person into college, my kid’s not going to be able to go to college there.” And it's just—we have to figure out a way where we can talk about these issues, and find really tangible solutions to what seems like an incredibly overwhelming issue right now. And I think that, you know, all the money we spend on affordable housing, and Section Eight vouchers, and food stamps, and all that kind of stuff, imagine if we could spend that on other things, because we had, you know, at least in Albany, 20% fewer people needing you know, those benefits. I think that would be amazing thing, and, and great for everybody, not just great for them. Right?
Your father passed away as you were a freshman in college. As a businessman as and as the person that you are now how did that loss and dealing with that impact the way that you interact with the world?
You know, my father passed away when I was 18, he was only 41 years old, he had a he had a massive heart attack in downtown Albany and suddenly passed. I think that experience—first of all, I had to grow up pretty quickly. And, you know, when you, you know, when you lose a parent right before you're going away to college and really starting to find your wings. It was really challenging. And I had a four-year-old sister at the time, I felt like I was abandoning her and abandoning my mom. I don't know if it taught me or it just sort of was ingrained in me is that life is short. And when I saw, you know, when he died at 41, through the eyes of an 18-year-old, that's old, you know, like he had gray hair and the whole thing. And then, you know, I just turned yesterday, I turned 56. And, and I have this feeling that I'm now racing against the clock to try to do as much good as I can before I leave this place. And it could be tomorrow or it could be 20 years from now. But legacy’s important to me. I want my kids to, you know, help carry on the philosophy that we're doing and they're all very philanthropic and are wonderful kids. But I think losing a parent that young, it just taught me that life is short. And if I can help 10 people or 2000 people, it's worth it. And I feel so blessed Lisa and I both feel so blessed. We really found ourselves in a position that we never dreamed of.