Each fall, Eleanor Josaitis addresses the incoming class of MBA students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and offers a challenge: "Every single person in this room," she says, "is going to help me change the world." The tiny 72-year-old may look like your grandmother, but her voice is steely and she is tough as titanium. Pacing the stage in one of her trademark navy-blue suits, Josaitis unfolds some of the hate mail she has received over the years in her capacity as CEO and cofounder of the Detroit civil-rights group Focus: HOPE. The "love letters," as she calls them, are vile. Josaitis fixes the audience with her steady gaze. "Does anyone in this room think I'm going to be intimidated for one minute by this?" she asks. "It's only going to make me work harder."
And how. Since cofounding Focus: HOPE in 1968 as a food program serving pregnant women, new mothers, and their children, Josaitis has built the organization from a basement operation run by a handful of friends into a sprawling 40-acre campus in Detroit that now employs over 500 people, boasts more than 50,000 volunteers and donors, and has helped over 3,000 more become gainfully employed.
Josaitis quickly learned that hunger was merely a symptom of a larger problem. "You end racism by making sure people enter the economic mainstream and ensuring they can support their own families," she says. So Josaitis and her team set to work. They developed a technical school to help job seekers rack up certifications in IT support. They operate a machinists' training program that funnels people into the employment pipeline at local automotive companies. The organization also teams up with local universities to help disadvantaged students get college educations, and runs a child-care center to make sure all these opportunities are available to working and single parents.
In racially divided Detroit, however, not everyone has wanted to see Josaitis succeed in bridging the economic and ethnic divides that run through the city. In addition to her stack of love letters, she also remembers the day in 1974 when the Focus: HOPE offices were firebombed at the beginning of a 13-year lawsuit the group pursued — and won — against the American Automobile Association for employment discrimination. Josaitis has a simple mantra for getting through dark times: "You can deck the SOBs, or you can outclass them," she says. "I choose to outclass them." And she relentlessly focuses on the positive: On the day she received what she recalls as her most hateful piece of mail, she also remembers receiving a check for $11,000.
Josaitis has stared down the detractors who have threatened her with bodily harm for more than 30 years. And she has dared anyone on her staff, in her community, in the businesses with which she interacts, to tell her that she will not succeed in achieving her vision. But most important, she has had the imagination, the optimism, and the fortitude to overcome that helplessness we all have felt in the face of overwhelming odds.
In 1962, as she sat watching a television program about the Nuremberg trials, Josaitis — then a housewife with five children — asked herself what she would have done if atrocities were taking place in her own backyard. When a breaking news report interrupted the program to show images of Mississippi police turning dogs and fire hoses on civil-rights protesters, Josaitis knew her moment of truth had arrived. She started supporting Martin Luther King Jr., but when race riots burned through her hometown of Detroit in 1967, Josaitis knew that marching wasn't enough. She cofounded Focus: HOPE with Reverend William T. Cunningham the following year. "You have to have the guts to try something," she says. "Because you won't change a damn thing by sitting in front of the TV with the clicker in your hand." It was perhaps her most courageous act of all: Thirty-six years ago, Eleanor Josaitis turned off her television, got up off the couch, and decided to do something. And she has never looked back.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.