A New Frontier for Entrepreneurs at James J. Hill Center
Published on Saint Paul Magazine (http://saintpaulmag.com)
James J. Hill Center helps entrepreneurs traverse the business landscape.
Railroad magnate James J. Hill’s former home on Summit Avenue may be a wellknown Saint Paul landmark, visited by residents, tourists and fieldtripbound school children, but there is another Hillinspired venue in the city that is attracting a lot of traffic.
Formerly known as the James J. Hill Reference library, the James J. Hill Center’s library is a research facility, featuring more than 250,000 volumes and 12 online databases dedicated to business and leadership. “For nearly a century, the historic reference library has provided a blend of services that enables businesspeople, students and scholars alike to access the best in practical business information,” Lee George, the center’s director of marketing and strategic partnership, says.
The Empire Builder, as Hill was known, didn’t make a secret of how he amassed his vast fortune and business success. His New York Times obituary notes that he once remarked, “The man with the big opportunity today is the man in the ranks.” The James J. Hill Center advocates his philosophy by offering entrepreneurs opportunities, guidance and support in ways Hill, a quintessential example of the ragstoriches story, could only imagine.
Hill began planning a Saint Paul library around 1887, with construction beginning in 1913 and opening in 1921, five years after Hill’s death. Considered Hill’s most significant gift to the city, the Italian Renaissance style reference library is hailed as a “high point in Beaux Arts architecture in Minnesota,” according to George, and was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
“It was always Hill’s intention that his library collect only the latest and most authoritative reference books,” George says, noting Hill excluded medicine, law, genealogy and popular fiction, but every other subject was to be represented in the collection. While staying true to Hill’s intentions, the library evolved over the years. “For example, during the Great Depression, the library saw an influx of job seekers as they were being laid off and needed to
do research on companies that might hire them,” George says. “Helen K. Starr, the head librarian at the time and the longestserving head librarian, ordered lamps so the library could stay open longer, and more tables and chairs to provide workspace for the abundance of new patrons.” In 1976, the center’s board of directors decided to shift the library’s focus toward business. “In the 1980s and 1990s, the computers made possible the accumulation and dissemination of detailed business and economic information undreamed of in James J. Hill’s day,” George says.
Today, the center hosts business events and workshops, and meeting room space is available for rental. (The center isn’t all business. It also serves as an event site and wedding venue.) Programs include the Business at the Hill speaker series and 1 Million Cups St. Paul, which is a national program in 66 cities. It is held Wednesdays throughout the nation and offers entrepreneurs six minutes to present their concepts to a group of peers and mentors, with a 20minute question and answer session afterward.
A variety of people participate in the center’s programs and Sean Dunn, founder of Dunn and Brennan Realty, is a regular patron. “There are some really sharp people there who have a wealth of experience and knowledge to share,” says Dunn, who attends a few 1 Million Cups sessions a month. “It’s a gold mine,” he says, noting he finds inspiration and camaraderie attending events with other business owners in a collaborative, rather than competitive, environment. “It’s a gathering of experience, wisdom and knowledge,” Dunn says.
“Sean Dunn has fully engaged in the community and resources the Hill offers by attending workshops and actually starting up two new programs—a networking event and a mentor panel for startups,” George says. The panel invites business owners who have been active for at least a year to meet with a panel to discuss their business, and receive a mentor, along with an action plan as guidance. “I have called Dunn our resident entrepreneur because he has taken what he has learned from listening to startups pitch, or in workshops, and relayed that information to other entrepreneurs who spend time in the library,” George adds.
Programs and services aren’t geared just to startups or businesses on the frontend of growth. Miniseries and other programming is offered and most of the center’s programs are free or lowcost. “The James J. Hill Center is here right when an entrepreneur needs us,” George says. “At each stage in the life cycle of a business, an entrepreneur needs very different resources and support. This is why the Hill’s programming covers a variety of topics by bringing in local experts to teach our business community, is continually producing new workshops like our Funders School, and why business librarians will work with guests one-on-one to navigate the databases.”
“I think approaching business from a position of abundance is what James J. Hill had in mind when he envisioned a reference library with resources free and accessible to anyone in the community,” George adds. “Nothing like this existed for the young James J. Hill as he arrived in Saint Paul, the American western frontier, at the age of 18.”
Barry Gisser, a James J. Hill board member says, “In fact, we often joke that had James J. Hill had access to the custom research, business support and sources of capital that the Hill provides today, he would have founded the railroad industry even earlier.”