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Donna Frisby-Greenwood: Knight Foundation’s Philadelphia program manager on helping entrepreneurs by day and being one by night [Q&A]

Think of Donna Frisby-Greenwood as a modern-day fairy godmother right here in Philly. As the Knight Foundation‘s Philadelphia program manager, she oversees all the organization’s  initiatives in our city, ranging from Temple University’s Urban Apps & Maps Studio, the Knight Arts Challenge and the Project Liberty Digital Incubator. As it turns out, Frisby-Greenwood not only […]

Think of Donna Frisby-Greenwood as a modern-day fairy godmother right here in Philly.

As the Knight Foundation‘s Philadelphia program manager, she oversees all the organization’s  initiatives in our city, ranging from Temple University’s Urban Apps & Maps Studio, the Knight Arts Challenge and the Project Liberty Digital Incubator.

As it turns out, Frisby-Greenwood not only supports local entrepreneurs but is one herself. Read on to find out how she believes community entrepreneurs can also take on the role of community guardian, how Frisby-Greenwood’s family history of entrepreneurship impacted her and how Philly compares to the the Knight Foundation’s seven other host cities.

As always, edited and condensed for clarity.

How does Philly fit into the Knight Foundation’s overall mission? Is there anything that sets Philly apart from the other cities that the foundation serves?

At Knight Foundation, our mission is to promote informed and engaged communities. We do that here in Philadelphia by focusing in part on engaging one of the city’s most underutilized assets, our millennials. Over the last decade, our population of 25-34 year-olds has grown by 50,000, which is unique for an urban center.

Nationally, Knight funds in 26 communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers, with a primary focus on eight, which includes Philadelphia. Our city is the largest of those in terms of population and has the largest media market. That gives us the opportunity of working with a diverse and deep pool of innovators who are making a difference.

It also means that it’s more of a challenge for Knight to make the kind of impact we have in smaller markets, like, say, Macon, Georgia. We therefore must look for opportunity, narrow our focus, and work with others to develop a clear, collective strategy.

Tell us about a mentor or someone who has influenced you.

The person who had the greatest impact on me was my father, Clarence Earl Frisby, Jr., who retired as director of contracts for the U.S. Department of Defense Naval Supply Center. He designed the U.S. government minority contractor set-aside program while a contract administrator at GSA [General Services Administration] in the 70s.

For a few years when I was a child, he and a family friend had a cleaning company where they cleaned banks at night. Friday nights, we were the crew. Since I was still a little girl, I only had to dust the teller booths and desks. So, by day in his profession, he helped entrepreneurs, and at night, he was one.

A couple of years after college, I came home one day from work and told my dad that I wanted to try and use hip hop to reach young people but my current employer wasn’t ready for that. He said, “Do your own thing.”

And I did. By day I worked for Penn State Cooperative Extension, and by night, I worked to create Children First, Inc. with the help of then State Representative Vincent Hughes, now a State Senator. After a couple of years, I left Penn State to become the full-time executive director of Children First, a nonprofit, youth development and advocacy organization that focused on reaching and developing leadership skills in low-income adolescents.

Many years later, my husband and I owned a dry cleaning business in East Parkside and we manage commercial and residential real estate that we own in Northern Liberties, Oak Lane and East Parkside.

How do you think the landscape for black entrepreneurs has changed since you started working with entrepreneurs? 

Today, given our economy, things are tough for all entrepreneurs not just black entrepreneurs.

One thing I remember from one of my uncles, Henry Scott, M.D., who had his own family practice for over 30 years at 17th and Erie in North Philadelphia is that as a black entrepreneur in a working class neighborhood, he spent just as much time interpreting legal documents for people and being a social worker and psychologist as he did practicing medicine. The people in the community knew and trusted him and my mom, who was his office manager for about 10 years.

I found the same thing to be true when my husband ran our dry cleaning business. He got neighborhood boys who came in to talk and get advice, neighborhood men looking for a place where they could connect, and he even got a woman who came in one day to ask for his help to get off drugs. He, of course, called me and I called around to some folks and she was picked up from the cleaners a few hours later by a drug rehab program. Several months later, she came back, was clean, working, and volunteered in the cleaners all day on Saturdays because she wanted to return the favor to my husband.

So, as black entrepreneurs in lower income black neighborhoods, if you are trusted, you also end up serving the needs of the community. We live in a city where 22.5 percent of firms are owned by blacks and the black population is about 44 percent.

While black entrepreneurship is not an area we are focused on at Knight, we do see a growing apps developer community in Philly where few of the workers and leaders are black or Latino, despite together making up more than half of our city’s population. It is what led us to fund the Urban Apps and Maps studio at Temple University.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhI1LZ8r-JA&hl=en_US&version=3&rel=0]

Tell us about a Knight program that is close to your heart.

The BMe Community, which is creating a network of black men who are doing right by their communities, is very personal to me. As I mentioned, I grew up in a community of black professionals, and they were very engaged in their community. My dad, in addition to his full time career and part-time business, which both had an impact on our community, chaired the affirmative action committee for our school district, coached PAL [Police Athletic League] basketball and was active in our church. A dear family friend who was a chemist was also the president of our local NAACP chapter. A male cousin who was a hospital administrator was the president of the local PAL in our community. I can’t think of not one of my more than ten uncles or more than 20 male first cousins who isn’t making a difference.

So when Trabian Shorters, our VP of Communities, decided to create BMe, I was totally on board. I wish something like it existed when my father and uncles were living because they had very powerful stories to share about what they did to make their communities better, and they showed me and my 50 first cousins how we should live our lives –- always striving to make a difference and leave things better than you found them.

Knight Arts Challenge Philly has also been very exciting. It’s a 3-year, $9 million initiative where we’ve asked the community to share their best ideas in art. In the first two years, we spent $5.5 million on 71 ideas. In this the third year we received more than 1,200 ideas and recently announced the 69 finalists.

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Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes began as lead reporter at Technical.ly Philly in July 2012. Previously, she was a city services beat reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, as part of a project called “It’s Our Money.” She is learning to drive, learning to bike (in the city) but is an expert at taking SEPTA. She grew up in North Jersey and Manila, Philippines but she left the tropics for Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in linguistics. She now lives in West Philly.

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