As a child growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the late 1950s, Eric Johnson ’72, P’08, watched his father successfully build Johnson Products, a manufacturer of ethnic hair-care products. Seeing how a business could strengthen a community, as Johnson Products did by creating jobs and paying good wages, made an impact on the young Johnson.
Then his father brought him to an event held by Chicago business owners. The featured speaker was Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke about the conditions in the South during the 1960s. “I began to understand the courage these people had in fighting for the concept of integration and voting rights—essential human rights,” says Johnson.
These experiences helped forge Johnson’s commitment to giving back, especially to organizations that educate and expand opportunities for urban minority communities facing economic and educational disadvantages. “I look at it as a responsibility,” says the Babson trustee. “It’s our rent for occupying the space we have on planet Earth.”
Today, as owner and CEO of Baldwin Richardson Foods in Frankfort, Ill., Johnson focuses his efforts not only in the Chicago area but also in upstate New York, where the company’s two manufacturing facilities are located. He has supported literacy programs and community centers, for example, and he works with the Urban League of Rochester, helping support the civil rights organization’s efforts to improve the high school graduation rate and provide job training, affordable housing, and counseling for women returning to the workforce. Taking an active role, Johnson works closely with the Urban League leadership to guide decisions and help the organization understand what makes a program successful.
Johnson brings this thoughtful approach to all his charitable endeavors, looking for ways to make a lasting impact when possible. “Philanthropy is one of the most gratifying things we do,” he says, “but you have to have a game plan.” When Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in 2010, for example, Johnson expressed a desire to provide sustainable support rather than short-term relief. So friends connected him with Prodev, a Haitian-led nonprofit focused on educating and empowering the country’s citizens. As a result, Baldwin Richardson funded the construction of the Ecole Nouvelle Zoranje, an elementary school.
For Johnson, education is the key to future opportunity. In 2004, he created several Babson scholarships dedicated to Chicago-area minority candidates who can benefit not only from Babson’s entrepreneurship curriculum, but also from an institution that he says is “dedicated to the success of its students.” Beyond financial support, Johnson offers mentoring to scholarship recipients, and to further increase the number of potential candidates who are prepared for Babson’s rigorous curriculum, he supports Perspectives Charter Schools in Chicago.
“Today, we’re at a point where it’s working,” he says. “If only one of the students that we support through these scholarships is able to build a substantial business and employ people, it will have made the whole program worth it.”—Jeff Stupakevich, manager, development communications