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Well Connected

To stay strong in business, Wheelock Whitney advises: Tap into your community connections.

By Elizabeth Millard

Start locally: When I first came to Minneapolis from St. Cloud, I was young and carefree and ambitious, but I didn't know much about the area or the people here. So I decided to do some work for the United Way. When I was 30, that was the most significant nonprofit agency in the Twin Cities, and by dedicating myself to community involvement through the agency, I got the attention of local business leaders, who were also involved with the organization. I worked every year in the fundraising campaign and gradually got more and more responsibility until I became general chairman for a United Way campaign. That was a springboard for me to work with people I would have otherwise never met in the business community, and I think that's probably still true today. It's a wonderful way to meet a lot of people at a lot of different levels of business.

Feed your spirit: I've always had an interest in spirituality, I didn't go to church just because I was told to do it at a young age. When I got older, I became part of the Wayzata Community Church, and met a lot of wonderful people, and ended up kind of getting promoted, I guess you could say. I ran the annual fundraising drive, and worked my way up to being a trustee, then on the board of directors, and then was chairman for awhile. This, I feel, helped to inspire a sense of public service, and led me to think about politics.

Understand service: I firmly believe that public service is a noble cause, and that politics is still about that sense of public service. I think most people believe it's a dirty business and not a noble effort, but even though there are bad people in politics-as there are in any profession-our country and our democracy depend on people who serve. I spent three terms as mayor of Wayzata, and when I tried to go further, I got my ears pinned back. But that didn't stop me from staying involved in politics. It's something you never get out of your system. 

Recognize larger community need: I'm a huge believer in the fact that professional sports is an important ingredient in making up the quality of life for people in any state. When I was a young salesman, they didn't have any professional teams here, so I became involved in an effort to bring major league baseball to the state. Then I ended up being involved with other professional sports efforts. It's very bothersome to me that we might lose the Vikings, I feel like that would be a slap in the face to the state, and it's looking pretty bleak on that front. But in general, I believe that people in the business community should be thinking about what makes this state competitive and attractive, and professional sports is a big part of that, as are all the arts, theater and music that thrive here. 

If you want change, create it: Philanthropy, politics and sports, as well as business, have all been a major part of my life, and I think if you want to be successful, if you want to be in this community, you have to decide that you want to be part of important things. Get into the fray, don't just sit on the sidelines and criticize everyone who doesn't do it right; volunteer to try and make your community a better place to live and to work. Some young people talk about changing the world, and they talk about the environment and foreign policy, and doing things far beyond their abilities. I say, why not do something in your neighborhood where you can make a difference, and then maybe in your state, and in your country. I started with my community, and kept on meeting people everywhere I went, and I kept trying to be effective at whatever I did, and that's what I think has given me a very happy life.