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Granting Geniuses

These entrepreneurs don't just run businesses; they do good works. And they've been recognized with $500K MacArthur Fellowships for their accomplishments.


To be declared a is a high honor; a compliment to be sure, but also a big title to uphold. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation doesn't actually call its Fellows Program recipients "geniuses"; that's a tag the media bestows upon the 20 to 30 new fellows selected each year. The recipients are chosen anonymously on "exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work." For this, the fellows receive a no-strings-attached $500,000 award paid out quarterly over five years to "exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society."

In the eyes of the media and the public, the scientists, teachers, writers, artists and, yes, entrepreneurs who receive the grant are surely today's geniuses.

The MacArthur Foundation won't tell what it takes to be rewarded. Instead, the geniuses have to guess. For bookseller Rueben Martinez, his community work and lifelong quest to promote literacy gave him many awards prior to the Fellows grant in 2004, and many since then.

He began with a barbershop in Santa Ana, California that was stuffed with books, newspapers and magazines. Some customers stayed to read after their haircut, and Martinez had to repurchase the books customers just couldn't give them up. When the books took over the barbershop in 1993, Librería Martinez Books & Art Gallery was born.

Martinez has long given speeches at local schools on education and reading. So it didn't surprise him when a teacher from Kansas City called one day to request a visit while she was in town. On the day, however, Martinez received a phone call. "They asked me if I'd heard of the MacArthur Foundation," recalls Martinez. "I said, 'Yeah, of course, I read.' [They said,] 'Well, we want to congratulate you because you've won.' I said, 'Yeah, right!'"

A letter of proof came by FedEx the next day, and a media storm followed the next week. "I got a lot of news," says Martinez, 67, who was interviewed by Entrepreneur magazine in April 2005 and has been featured on countless TV and radio stations. "I think more than anyone else because I'm a bookseller. [It's] a challenging, independent business in which the odds are against you to succeed."

Saul Griffith, 33, who founded Squidlabs--a tech incubator that has spun off companies like Makani Power and Howtoons--says finding out about his award last September was very Mission Impossible. "The voice [on the phone] said, 'Are you Saul Griffith?' I said, 'Yes.' Then they said basically, 'This will be our only contact. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to spend half a million dollars doing good things.'" As Howtoons teaches kids in a fun way about science and technology, and Makani Power works on harnessing high-altitude wind power, Griffith seems to be on the right track.

What would you do with $500K?
Although Griffith hadn't yet received his first payment of $25,000 when we interviewed him, he says, "I always have new projects and the lovely part about the award is I will have my own resource to invest." Griffith, who has a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and works out of Alameda, California says, "There are lots of projects with no apparent commercial return, though I feel they should exist. Most of the interesting inventions in the world started out as someone's hobby."

Violin maker Joseph Curtin, 54, who tweaks the centuries-old violin design from his home studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, uses his grant money, which was awarded in 2005, for everyday expenses, freeing up his time for experimenting, researching and writing about violins. "We'd love to pay down our mortgage," says Curtin, who now makes about a half dozen violins each year--down from 15-plus several years ago--for professional musicians. "That would feel like a permanent grant."

For Martinez, after receiving the grant, he was able to invest back into his business and partner with Hudson Booksellers. He owns 15 percent of five stores at Orange County's John Wayne Airport as part of a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program.

Martinez somehow still finds the time to travel heavily as a national speaker, the fees from which have also helped him keep his stores going. "Because I own a bookstore and I won the MacArthur, they think I am a good person to speak," says Martinez of the many universities, schools, corporations and conventions he attends and speaks on topics like literature, education, changing U.S. demographics, bilingual education and passion. "I look at it as an opportunity."

Money changes everything
While it's doubtful any MacArthur Fellow would refuse a check, the award can have some drawbacks. Martinez has met with 13 other MacArthur Fellows who speak Spanish; they call themselves the MacArturos and he says they've spoken of the pros and cons; one recipient lost a best friend. Another woman was dismayed by the sudden dating desires of men who had ignored her previously.

"I noticed my business was great [right after the award] but all of a sudden, it quieted down," says Martinez, whose customers tend to be working-class people. "I would run into people [and they'd say,] 'Aw, you don't need my business--you've got too much money already.' And I don't know what to say to [that]."

An unsolved mystery
Perhaps the largest conundrum to face MacArthur Fellows is figuring out why they were chosen. The Foundation never tells you who nominated you or why; there's no award ceremony, and the Foundation doesn't contact you after the initial discussion.

"I had no idea I was in the running, which made the phone call from the MacArthur Foundation all the more sweet," says Griffith. "It really is like waking up one morning to be told you had won the lottery, only that award was for previous hard work."

Curtin concurs that it's been a blessing and a reward. "It's accelerated all of the things that I really wanted to do and let me move away from the things I don't want to do. It's been kind of a big 'yes' from the universe."

Martinez found it to be a sign from above as well. His store still struggles against the competition; it's not just booksellers like Barnes & Noble that sell Spanish-language books, but also big-box retailers like Target. "When the MacArthur hit, I was behind in the rent. I was behind in my bills," recalls Martinez. "God was watching down on me, saying, 'Yeah, this guy right here--help him. He's good.'"

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