A trailblazer for women in business

EAST HARRIET — When Linda Donaldson formed Brighton Development Corporation with partners Dick Brustad and Peggy Lucas in 1981, she and Lucas were the odd women out in what could be a tough-talking, macho environment.

“Oftentimes, developers evolved out of the construction field, maybe someone who had started as a carpenter or something like that,” Brustad recalled. “There was virtually no woman in the field.”

That world is long gone — as much a memory as the old Minneapolis riverfront, before Brighton became a leader in revitalizing the historic Mill District by converting empty warehouses into housing. Over those 31 years, Donaldson has been the trailblazer who did not forget those who followed.

Next month Donaldson serves as honorary chair of the 17th-annual WomenVenture Fall Event, the year’s biggest fundraiser for a local nonprofit that supports women-owned businesses throughout the Twin Cities metro area with loans, start-up advice and business education.

Donaldson’s commitment to helping other women entrepreneurs goes at least as far back as 1982, when she joined the board of directors for the Women’s Economic Development Corporation. Known as WEDCO, it merged in 1989 with CHART, another local nonprofit serving women, to form WomenVenture

Acting President Colleen Willhite said WomenVenture last year “helped start, expand or strengthen” 113 local businesses, creating 74 new jobs and adding an estimated $1.6 million in new wages to the local economy. Much of the assistance to new business owners came in the form of small loans averaging just $12,000–$15,000.

“A lot of our loans go to individuals who don’t qualify for a regular bank loan, but we have an incredibly low default rate, and that is really because of all the support that comes along with a WomenVenture loan,” Willhite said.

She said the organization also strives to build networks among women just starting in business, or perhaps leaving a corporate career to strike out on their own. And WomenVenture has also developed large network of successful women who serve as mentors and role models.

“That’s where Linda Donaldson is such a great example,” Willhite said. “Here’s somebody who was very successful in a male-dominated field.”

Donaldson — who today lives in a grand, 100-year-old home just east of Lake Harriet — entered the business world in 1968, when she spent a little more than one year as a securities analyst in the trust department at Northwestern Bank. She’d earned a bachelor of sciences in business administration at the University of Minnesota (studying in what was the precursor to today’s Carlson School of Management), and would return to study finance as a graduate student.

Donaldson worked as a consultant throughout much of the 70s while also raising two sons, and it was through writing feasibility studies for local developers that she gained an understanding of the local housing market. Her financial acumen and market knowledge where two of the major assets she brought to Brighton, Brustad said.

In its early years, Brighton focused on affordable housing in the urban core, both new construction and rehabilitated historic structures. At the time, it was a market largely neglected by other developers pursuing new construction in the suburbs, Donaldson said.

“I would say that for the first five to 10 years, sometimes people thought we were a not-for-profit, because we were doing a lot of very small-scale projects in partnership with neighborhood not-for-profits,” she said.

That would change.

It was former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton who encouraged the Brighton partners to first take a look at the North Star Woolen Mill building at Portland & 2nd. Brighton’s conversion of the former blanket factory into 36 loft-style condominiums helped spark the revitalization of the Mill District, and was the first of at least seven Brighton-led projects in the area.

Today, the emphasis in Donaldson’s professional life is once again on affordable housing. She works for the non-profit Community Development Housing Corporation founded by Brustad in the early 1990s. One of its most recent projects is the Higher Ground shelter near the Minneapolis Farmers Market developed with Catholic Charities, which opened in June.

In mid-September, Donaldson flew to Nepal on what she called “learning mission.” She planned to observe the work of several non-governmental organizations pursuing economic self-sufficiency and human rights issues in that country, and maybe develop some ideas for how she herself might contribute.

Said Donaldson: “Because of my WomenVenture work, I’m interested in any place in the world where they are supporting women to become more economically self-sufficient.”