50 Years of Determination & Direction

50 Years of Determination & Direction

Meda ‘founding father’ and board secretary John Stout reflects on lessons from the civil rights era that apply today.

John Stout is the first to acknowledge the importance of board governance and the benefits of frequently revolving directors to infuse fresh perspectives. He helped launch the Outstanding Directors Awards in 1996 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from TCB in 2017 for his enduring commitment to corporate governance.

But there’s something to be said for continuity when you’re passionate about an organization’s mission, and that’s the way Stout feels about Meda—the Metropolitan Economic Development Association. The Minneapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting BIPOC entrepreneurs celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Stout, co-founder of the group, is the only director to have served on the Meda board for the duration.

“The lesson is, if you’re young at the time [you join a board] and the people you’re on with are all a number of years your senior, it can happen,” jokes Stout, who, at 81, also continues to serve as vice president and shareholder at Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis.

“John is invaluable to Meda and its board,” says board chairman Craig Veurink, U.S. Bank senior vice president. “For us to have someone who has been part of Meda every step of the way gives us great perspective. Even more importantly, John brings the same passion to Meda around its mission today that was there when he helped start it 50 years ago.”

Stout moved to Minneapolis to join Fredrikson as an associate in 1967, the same year Thurgood Marshall became the first Black Supreme Court justice. It was an era of civil rights and other protests throughout the country, including the Twin Cities. “There were issues not dissimilar to the ones we’re facing now,” Stout says, recalling cases of police brutality and buildings torched on Plymouth Avenue.

group of MEDA board members on a stage
From left: Darren Moquist, Steve Singer, Craig Veurink, John Stout, Barbara Butts Williams, Laura Helmueller, Jashan Eison, Alfredo Martel, and Matthew Lyons

Stout volunteered for a minority business development task force that formed in the late 1960s as part of the Urban Coalition of Minneapolis. “We knew we needed to carry the work forward.” Stout and another volunteer, Hugh Harrison, went searching for a model that would leverage business leaders, which led to the creation of Meda in 1971. The Meda board consists of executives from more than 25 Minnesota businesses, including 3M, Medtronic, Optum, Target, Wells Fargo, and Cargill. Many of those companies have been involved since the start.

Launched primarily as a consultancy for minority business founders, Meda has evolved into a $40 million community financial institution and business development center that helps BIPOC entrepreneurs secure funding and identify corporate partnerships. In 2020, as small businesses faced acute hardships due to the Covid-19 pandemic and social unrest, Meda deployed $23 million to nearly 1,300 Minnesota businesses.

“2020 was a grim reminder that there is still so much work to do, and access to capital remains an issue,” Meda president and CEO Alfredo Martel says. “The silver lining is a really bright national spotlight on the problem. We feel very proud of how our team rallied around access to capital, markets, and management education. That recipe comes from 50 years of coaching BIPOC entrepreneurs.”

Today, Meda is focused on growing its lending power and providing business mentorship on a broader scale through its new Virtual Accelerator Network (see Giving Guide).

“We know one of the best ways to reduce racial economic inequality is to increase wealth in BIPOC families,” Veurink says. “This is how Meda can continue to make progress and improve the communities we live in.”

Stout is realistic about the work at hand, but he tries not to dwell on the fact that 50 years later, disparities still exist. “You have to see it as a journey,” he says. “You have to accept the fact that racism is systemic. It’s not a problem that goes away [all at once]. We’ll always be working on inclusion, but I’m hoping that maybe this time around there’s enough momentum to make progress and create more economic vitality. Nobody said it was going to be easy.”