Julius Rosenwald was one of America's greatest philanthropists and captains of industry. And most of us have never heard of him.
Though known for making millions—there's more to his story than profit. Born to Jewish-German immigrants in Springfield, Illinois, Julius' father was a small-time clothier. After attending high school only a couple of years, Julius dropped out to follow in his father's footsteps.
Most retellings of Julius' life skim over this part, but he started out manufacturing clothing in New York and Chicago, with very limited success. When the recession hit in 1885, he was left financially devastated.
Maybe it was this devastation that inspired Julius. We'd like to think so—there isn't much more inspiring than watching years of hard work destroyed, and having to start from scratch.
It was in this opportunity to rebuild that Julius took notice of new practices. The Civil War had brought many changes to American life. One of these changes was standardized uniform sizings. Because the armies had needed to make massive numbers of uniforms, they surveyed American men, and took records of average sizes.
Julius decided to consult these measurements for creating American menswear. The move revolutionized how the Rosenwalds did business. Having standard sizes allowed them to create clothes faster, and sell them for less. Soon Julius Rosenwald's business--Rosenwald and Weil Clothiers—would start supplying for the catalogue company, Sears & Roebuck.
But Sears & Roebuck was facing problems of its own. Rosenwald was 34 years old, and lacked things like a high school education (let alone an MBA); but even still, it was obvious that Sears & Roebuck was in shambles. In the words of one storyteller, it was “an office heaped with piles of clothing and stacks of unopened mail; crates used as desks; departments falling three or four months behind on orders. With an eye for detail and fondness for explicit plans, Rosenwald made his mark by imposing administrative order.” (Forward.com)
At a time when Sears & Roebuck's own founders were jumping ship (believing that the mail-order system was doomed to go out of fashion), Julius took a chance and joined the company in 1896. He stepped in and introduced one of America's first assembly lines. Bringing Sears & Roebuck into the 20th century, he made his fortune in the process.
But here's where it gets really interesting. The life of Julius Rosenwald isn't just some capitalism love story, with all ticker tape and no soul. And although in Chicago and New York, the battlefield looked more like a board room, Julius Rosenwald showed an ethic of sacrifice, responsibility, and conviction.
Just as the future was looking up for Sears & Roebuck, the Depression began to erode everything. The Western world shuddered, and the catastrophe redoubled until it hit every American farm.
And of course, American farmers were some of Sears & Roebuck's main customers. In 1922, Julius Rosenwald did what many American magnates would never dream of doing. He pledged his own $21 million dollars to bail Sears & Roebuck out.
Around the same time, Julius became increasingly conscious that great power brought great responsibility. He donated to organizations throughout the Midwest—often issuing “challenge” grants. He'd give financial help to a community on the condition that the recipients would use the money to create more wealth. It was part of Julius' growing belief that societal problems should be fixed at the root, rather than using wealth as a temporary relief.
In 1910, his friend Paul Sachs (recognize that last name?) gave him a little book called “Up from Slavery,” by Booker T. Washington.
Booker, a former-slave, was one of the most respected advocates of racial reconciliation. Washington urged African Americans to be self-reliant, arguing that racial equality could only be reached through economic equality, which was achieved through industry. (Booker was also a fundraising innovator in his own right, and deserves his own post on the blog, too.)
The message resonated with Julius, who identified with the problems facing African Americans, having experienced anti-semitism himself.
In partnership with Booker, Julius provided the funds to help build 5,000 schools in the rural South specifically for African American children. Rather than just donating and leaving the projects alone, Julius kept careful watch on how efficiently his funds were used. He issued challenges to other wealthy men, daring them to match his grants. (Kind of reminiscent of how he went all-in with Sears & Roebuck, isn't it?) At the end of his life, he left a foundation which continued his philanthropic work.
So, when the Sears ship began to sink, Julius was the man who patched the leaks. And what would otherwise have been the rags-to-riches story of one man, became a story of opportunity for thousands of others.