If you’re anybody who’s anybody in the TC Jewish Community, you know Josh Awend. Father, husband, brother, comedian, and all-around great guy, he’s a modern-day Da Vinci of Twin Cities Jews. As a son and brother at American Drapery Systems, Josh knows a thing or two about family-run businesses. This year, with the help of Sabes JCC and support from #makeithappen Minnesota, he launched The 3rd Generation Project: The Art of Business, an exhibit at the Tychman Shapiro Gallery. The project documents selected multi-generation, family owned and operated small businesses in the Twin Cities. I sat down with Josh to find out a little more about the exhibit ahead of Thursday’s reception.
So what’s The 3rd Generation Project all about?
Josh Awend: The idea of the show was to highlight multi-generation family businesses. Specifically, how a business stays in a family and why that’s important. Our current generation, the “kids,” are taking over more and more family businesses, and we wanted to tell their stories. If we look around the exhibit, we really see a lot of similar themes and ideas shared by these families. A lot of the core ideas in our company (American Drapery Systems) are directly applicable to these other families in the community.
Which businesses are featured in this exhibit?
JA: Cedar Box Company, Ribnik Fur and Leather, Earnest I. Fink Agency, and American Drapery Systems.
What’s the desired influence you’d like this to have on the community?
JA: Each of these businesses were specifically chosen because they are Jewish families, and so I have that in common with them. I was looking for contemporaries to myself and asking them what it’s like to work with their parents. The younger generation has access to things like social media and the Internet, and I wanted to see how that played into their businesses. The evolution of these companies is fascinating, and a lot of it has to do with our current generation helping to modernize the structure and/or business model of their companies. Hopefully, this project will give some perspective to young Jewish entrepreneurs entering the workforce.
To that end, how are multi-generational family businesses relevant to a younger generation?
JA: A lot of people in their 20s or 30s believe they are set on a career path in corporate America, whether that’s working directly for one or coming up with an idea that gets bought out. But the reality is that small businesses like these keep a lot of people employed. These small companies actually employ relatively large staffs. The Millennial generation, I think, needs to realize that there are career opportunities that involve actually working with your hands, as well as working with people one-on-one. These types of jobs are fleeting, but still incredibly important. We don’t want the current generation growing up to be robots; we need people in the workforce with specialized skills, and these skills are applicable in the world of small businesses.
This exhibit focuses on Jewish small businesses in the Twin Cities. Is something special about the Jewish community here that especially fosters family business?
JA: Many of these businesses, historically, were built out of necessity because there wasn’t access for Jews into mainstream society. You see examples of this in places like hospitals– Jewish hospitals came about because Jews weren’t allowed in regular hospitals at the time. On the other hand, the companies I spoke with didn’t feel that anti-Semitism was a major factor in their founding. The focus is still on the products and services they provide, not anything inherently Jewish. I would say that Jewish culture, in general, fosters the growth of family businesses because of a strong shared sense of community. “I’d like to give the business to someone I know,” is a common refrain.
Sitting here, I see wonderful images and quotes from the various businesses you spoke with. Can you give us some insight into the visual experience here?
JA: Stephen Cohen did our photography for the exhibit. Stephen is an awesome (Jewish) photographer around town, and I gave him carte blanche in that regard. I think he was also my counselor at Camp Herzl. I interviewed each company personally, and the quotes are all direct from the generations of people I interviewed. Each company has its own place on the walls, but in the end we wanted the exhibit to showcase all the companies as a whole.
Can you personally imagine an alternative to a career in your family business?
JA: I was never pushed into the business. After college, I didn’t have a clear path towards something I was really passionate about. For a while I worked as a concert promoter. One memory I have is of a co-worker, on a late night, calling his family to say goodnight. I said to myself that I didn’t want a career like that. Then one day my father called me and asked if I’d install some blinds for a client, and he paid me well for it. I realized not only could I make a good living doing this, but I could work alongside my parents and my brother. That kind of sold it for me.
Would you like your daughters to be a part of the business?
JA: At this point, we’re just trying to get through to High School. And boyfriends. Then we’ll see what happens.
3rd Generation Project: The Art of Business runs through January 29th at the Sabes JCC. There will be a special reception this Thursday, January 15th from 6-8pm, with a panel discussion at 7pm. The event is free and open to everyone. I was impressed not only with the minimalist yet substantive visual elements, but also a clear message of how and why these companies exist. This exhibit is not to be missed!
Thanks to Josh Awend and the Sabes JCC, and here’s to many more generations of successful Jewish family businesses in the Twin Cities!
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