Bill and Susan Sands of St. Paul have provided critical financial and moral support for Lost&Found over the past 2 years, turning a fledgling nonprofit into a force in campus mental health. Here’s a profile of their life and work.
A two-week trip to Arizona in March ended up lasting eight, since that’s where Bill and Susan Sands were when stay-at-home orders were announced to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic convinced the couple to make exercise a priority, but the rest of their busy schedules of meetings and catalytic conversations didn’t change much—they just went online.
Both Bill and Susan are past retirement age, but they don’t consider themselves retired.
“We’re doing the same kinds of things we did for many years, except now we’re not getting paid for them,” Susan said.
Bill quoted E.B. White: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
“That’s kind of where we are,” Bill said. “We’re trying to enjoy life, but still contribute in various ways.”
Both Bill and Susan’s careers were key drivers in the journey that led them to the passions they pursue and the causes they support today.
Bill spent his career as a community banker in St. Paul, a position that required him to pursue interests beyond simply finance. The area in which Western State Bank (now Western Bank) is located faced challenges with “pornography, prostitution, and poverty—all the P’s,” Bill said. “To survive and prosper, … we had to overcome some of those things.”
The bank is on University Avenue, the main thoroughfare connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul in the days before interstates, and was once a hub for car dealerships. When car dealers and other businesses moved to the suburbs, they left empty storefronts behind. This led Bill to invest in a nonprofit training and development center for small businesses, which helped “working-poor neighbors — disproportionately women, people of color and immigrants who lacked the collateral, track record and credit history — to qualify for a bank loan, build the business acumen to take cooking, tailoring, haircutting and other skills into abandoned storefronts,” according to a 2019 story in the Star Tribune. The Neighborhood Development Center is now a nonprofit community development financial institution that has made hundreds of loans over the years. The median loan amount is $25,000, and the default rate is just three percent, for clients that the industry wouldn’t deem “bankable.”
Susan said Bill’s work ignited a passion in the people of that area, but also in the people who worked at the bank, who really wanted to make a difference in that neighborhood. And it also had an influence on the banking community: “Here was a bank in the heart of a distressed area of St. Paul that was actually successful,” Susan said. This made a statement: “It isn’t just the location that you’re in. It’s how you treat people and what your expectations are and what your commitment to them is.”
Bill has also been on the boards of many organizations, including Regions Hospital in St. Paul and a nonprofit helping young African Americans coming out of incarceration. He’s on three boards at the moment.
Susan’s education was in the field of social work, and she worked in residential treatment for delinquent girls for some time.
“I went to the University (of Minnesota) at a time when there were about four choices of careers for women,” she said. “I chose not to be a nurse. I chose not to be an educator. But I chose one of the other ones, which was social work.”
If she’d been born in a different era, she said she probably would have chosen business, because that was what she gravitated to. Her social work background was an asset for the first business she was involved in—a training and development company that did affirmative action training when that was a requirement to do business with the federal government. From there, she got involved with the National Association of Women Business Owners, including starting a Minnesota chapter.
“It really gave me insight into the importance of economic development in communities or even just in households,” Susan said. “Equality for all of us is a very important issue for me, and one of the ways to do that is through business ownership.”
She has been especially focused on small business and economic equity for women and people of color.
“Susan was an early feminist,” Bill said.
“I suppose, since I’m this old, I probably was,” Susan agreed.
Susan has also been involved with real estate development for small businesses and nonprofits for 25 years, and that work with nonprofits gave her the opportunity to work with many people working for social change.
A new focus through fellowships
All of these experiences built into the Sands’ creation of a new endeavor in 2012. After Western Bank was sold, they took some of the proceeds and started the Sands Fellowship at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, which provides 3-8 MBA students each year with $5,000 fellowships to develop social ventures that benefit communities in the Twin Cities.
“That’s how we met our friend Erik Muckey,” Bill said. After a meeting with incoming graduate students during orientation week, Erik approached Bill and Susan, told them about Lost&Found, and mentioned his wish to bring Lost&Found to Minnesota. Erik later became a Sands Fellow, with that funding supporting his work with Lost&Found.
“It’s one of our favorite projects that’s come out of the Carlson School, working with Erik,” Bill said, adding that he recognizes the importance of Lost&Found’s mission. Suicide affected him personally, as he had a sister who took her own life when she was in her 30s.
The Sands have also provided additional financial support for Lost&Found beyond the fellowship.
“I think (Erik) also has put together a group of people or an entity that has a plan for addressing a major issue, and that’s not something that happens lightly,” Susan said. “With good people and a plan, you can make major things happen. … Mental health is a huge challenge, no matter what population you’re talking about, and to have this kind of leadership, both with Erik and the people that he’s drawn to him, and put together a plan that really could make a difference for a lot of people is what drew me in and why I continue to support the effort.”
They look forward to seeing Lost&Found make progress toward some of its goals: Reaching out to form relationships with and chapters at new universities, building partnerships with tribal organizations and colleges, advocating for mental health awareness, convincing universities to increase investment in mental health, finding new ways to measure impact, and reducing the stigma around mental health: “Your mind gets challenged just like your body does, and you need to be aware of it and take care of it,” Susan said.
They really want to see Lost&Found succeed in its mission. In the same way in which the Sands provided support to Lost&Found, they are aiming to empower Lost&Found to support students.
“We met Erik at that point in his life when he had a great idea and needed support,” Susan said. “And that’s really what (Lost&Found) is doing, supporting people at a moment in their lives when they need it the most.”
Addendum, June 6
Our first conversation with the Sands happened May 19. The death of George Floyd on May 25, which shook the nation and the world, took place a few miles from the Sands’ home, as did the both the peaceful protests and the violence that followed it. We checked in with them on June 5 to get their perspective on those events.
Bill and Susan Sands first learned of Floyd’s death by seeing the video on the news, and Susan said her first reaction was, “Yet another one.” Another killing of a black man, Philando Castile, by police had happened not quite four years earlier, just two blocks from their house.
The Sands had planned to celebrate their 50th anniversary on May 29, but Floyd’s death, and the chaos in the Twin Cities that followed, left them in no mood to celebrate. They postponed their anniversary dinner.
They have mixed feelings.
They are troubled by the violence and destruction. “People and businesses that we care about have been victimized by it,” Susan said. This includes the bank where Bill worked for 60 years—the bank that was a catalyst for change in the community—which was broken into. “It just broke my heart to think of all the things we had done as an institution,” Bill said. “It was just so disappointing. It made me very sad.”
And yet, the issues that started the uprising need to be addressed.
“I’m old enough to have been a Vietnam War protester,” Susan said. “There was violence that erupted with all of that, and criticism—‘Is this the best way for change to happen?’ I think it’s the only way that you ever get heard.
“You’ve seen the Black Lives Matter signs … people have them in their yard, and oftentimes, they’re families [that have family members] of color. In our neighborhood, people were getting handwritten, threatening notes—‘take down your signs, or we will be there in the middle of the night with lighter fluid to burn your house down.’ So, to me, there’s been an element (of the rioting) that goes beyond what we all believe in, in terms of the importance of nonviolent protesting, but it’s also a reflection of the hatred that’s been encouraged, or allowed to happen. And that’s what’s got to change.”
There were certainly people who took advantage of the chaos to destroy and loot. “We saw cars with no license plates driving around. What’s that all about?” Bill said.
But they acknowledged people from the Cities were also among those destroying things—people with pent-up anger at injustices and institutional racism that erupted in destruction. “There was a whole series of mixed feelings, but most of all sadness, for us as a city and for us as a nation,” Susan said.
But they also have hope. Thousands have been involved in peaceful protests, and thousands have been involved in efforts to clean up the community and provide for the needs of those who don’t have access to grocery stores at the moment. “That’s one of the things that’s helping me through this, to see how the community is coming together to respond,” Bill said. “I don’t know if it’s ‘take back your community.’ I think it’s just caring about your neighbor.”
There’s also a spirit of helping organizations that are on the ground doing the work now (and were before this crisis). But Susan hopes that dealing with institutional racism isn’t lost in the efforts to rebuild businesses. She thinks we could be at a turning point.
“We can’t just go back to what existed before. It doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for, you know, how many centuries,” she said. “So hopefully, in addition to the businesses feeling much more support from the community, there’s also going to be the kind of community support that says … ‘we’re all in this together.’”
The work ahead is a continuation of the work that the Sands have done all their lives.
“This kind of racism has been going on in this country for hundreds of years, since slavery, and it’s not going to change overnight. We’re going to have to be vigilant,” Susan said. “My whole reason for doing what Bill and I have been doing with this Sands Fellowship, or in the majority of the work I’ve been committed to over the years, is really to find justice—whether it’s for underserved populations, or for women who haven’t had access to the same kind of opportunities. It really is about justice, and … recognizing it in a different way as a culture and as a society that needs to be addressed now.”