When a neighbor asked Edward Lowe in 1947 for some sand so her cat could stay indoors, 27-year-old Lowe suggested she try a special clay that his father’s business was selling as an industrial absorbent. The neighbor fell in love with the clay. Unlike sand, she told Lowe, clay is more absorbent and her cat didn’t track dust around the house.
Ever the entrepreneur, Lowe saw an opportunity. He began bagging the clay, calling it “Kitty Litter,” and selling it from the back of his Chevy Coupe to any pet shop that would stock it. By the time he sold his company to Ralston Purina in 1992, Lowe’s Kitty Litter brand sold $210 million a year.
But in between his business’s beginning and its multi-million-dollar sale years were some difficult middle years-the “second stage,” as people say at the Edward Lowe Foundation in Michigan. “Lowe was somewhat isolated when he was doing his business,” explains Mark Lange, executive director of the foundation. “He had trouble finding other entrepreneurs to talk with.” So he decided to commit his later years to helping these second-stage business builders.
During the first stage, or start up, companies don’t have a lot of assets or employees, but they do at the second stage. Mistakes at this critical period of growth mean that not only the founders loses, but also numerous people who depend on them. Lowe saw lots of help for start-ups and for well-established companies, but nothing for people in between those two phases. So in 1985 he and his wife, Darlene, also a successful entrepreneur, started the Edward Lowe Foundation as an operating foundation to develop the information second-stage entrepreneurs would need to be successful. As chairman and CEO, Darlene Lowe remains closely involved with the foundation, which had assets of about $116 million in 2000.
In the foundation’s pre-Internet years (1985-92), Lowe envisioned a digital library that schools and entrepreneurs across the country could tap into. At the time of Lowe’s death in 1995, he saw his vision for sharing information coming alive on the rapidly expanding Web.
Just as Lowe never sat still, neither has Lange. And in true entrepreneurial fashion, the foundation has adopted a new approach to reaching entrepreneurs. Instead of approaching them directly, the Edward Lowe Foundation now works through nonprofit groups such as the Young Entrepreneurs Organization and CEO Resource Alliance to connect with young business-builders. “We believe entrepreneurs get along best with those organizations they belong to,” Lange says, “so we developed some new technology, services, and software tools that are distributed through local organizations designed to help entrepreneurs.”
The new tools are:
Peernet–A suite of products given free to organizations that support entrepreneurs. It allows these organizations to develop a member directory so that entrepreneurs can locate one another by place or business type, for example, and connect for peer-to-peer support. Currently, five communities and some 1,200 people use Peernet, with 15 more communities about to come on line.
Experience Exchange–Another online tool, keyed by topic, that delivers pop-up information on line and the names of people who can offer assistance.
Survey Tool–Allows local organizations to survey their members, enabling them to improve the services they deliver.
Electronic Newsletters–The foundation provides technology that allows each community to develop its own newsletters to keep members in touch. This replaces the foundation’s Peerspectives, which will produce its last hardcopy version in June.
The toughest challenge facing an entrepreneur moving from the first stage into the second is learning how to “work on their company, not in their company,” says Lange. Creating communities of entrepreneurs with Edward Lowe Foundation communication tools is one way the foundation wants to help make this happen.
Another way is to bring people together, face to face, to discuss their experiences and learn from one another. “Lowe believed in roundtables,” Lange tells Philanthropy. Darlene and Ed Lowe also planned for this by donating their 2,500-acre estate in Cassopolis, Michigan, to be used as the foundation’s headquarters. Today, entrepreneurs from around the world gather to look afresh at their companies in the woods of Cassopolis. “We create an environment of cognitive dissonance,” says Lange, “The idea is to allow people to think differently.”
No doubt more than a few of the 500-plus people who take part over the past two to three years were surprised to learn that their accommodations for the retreat are in boxcars—“nicely decorated, to be sure,” adds Lange.
It’s a heady time for the foundation. “We’re just at the stage of getting these products and services out there,” says Lange. “The next test is, ‘How well are these products doing what they’re supposed to be doing?’” Where the foundation goes from here will depend in part on how well the products succeed in helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses.
The foundation understands the importance of learning from peers, and for that reason it’s joining the Roundtable. “We would like to learn from those who are functioning in this area,” says Lange, “it’s still very difficult for us to find peers in areas other than grantmaking.” Other Roundtable Associates actively involved in the promotion of entrepreneurship include the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Coleman Foundation.