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One hundred years later, a founder’s entrepreneurial spirit lives on


Cynthia L. Kresge

My great-grandfather, Sebastian S. Kresge, exhibited many traits that today would likely label him as an “entrepreneur.” He was raised with a strong conviction for hard work and self-reliance. As a boy, he opportunistically turned his bee-raising hobby into a profitable business with the goal of earning enough money to continue his education beyond the eighth grade instead of managing the family’s Eastern Pennsylvania farm.

After business school, he was motivated to work as a teacher, a bookkeeper, an insurance agent, a grocery store clerk and a traveling tinware salesman, where he closely observed aspects of the various professions and tucked away the knowledge for the future.

Kresge family front from left: Katherine Lutey, Cynthia Kresge; back: Deborah McDowell, Susan Drewes, Scott Kresge, Bruce Kresge

By the time he entered the retail field his good sense for business, coupled with a respect for the average customer as well as his employees, powered his enterprise to be a success. He didn’t invent the five-and-ten-cent store concept, but he is widely known for his creativity to perfect it. He brought merchandise out from behind the counter to make it accessible for customers to touch and feel the goods before making a purchase. And with savvy marketing skills, he took out playful ads in daily newspapers to lure in customers long before his competition followed suit.

Some  would rightfully say that Sebastian was quirky: he was known for his acute thriftiness and as a devoutly religious man, he didn’t smoke, drink or play cards and fervently supported the prohibitionist movement in the 1920s.

Sebastian seeded his entrepreneurial spirit into the namesake foundation he established in 1924. Similar to his contemporaries in other industries – finance, railroads, steel, oil, and even chocolate – who also set up charitable trusts around this time, Sebastian established his perpetual foundation to “promote the well-being of mankind.” His desire was that these resources would increase opportunity for his fellow men and women and help improve their lot in life.

Grantmaking in the earliest days was typically directed toward higher education institutions aid to disadvantaged women and children and other causes that the trustees supported. But entrepreneurial success typically comes from filling a gap in the market, and The Kresge Foundation began to do exactly that. As educational, health, religious and cultural institutions sought to serve an expanding American population, the foundation’s grantmaking transitioned to help those organizations build and expand their facilities domestically and abroad.

My grandfather Stanley, Sebastian’s eldest son, was destined to join both the business operations and ultimately the foundation. He began as a stock boy; after college he served as a loyal S.S. Kresge Co. executive for 37 years and a foundation trustee for a whopping 55 years. But there was no expectation for subsequent generations to work for the company or serve the foundation. My father Bruce and his siblings freely pursued their own career aspirations. Only after he had a family of his own and had established a career as a physician, did my father join the foundation as a trustee – the same year that his grandfather Sebastian died at the age of 99.

As an independent foundation, there was no governance requirement that a Kresge family member stay involved with the organization. But as the end of Bruce’s term approached, in an effort to encourage Sebastian’s descendants to remain involved, the Board chose to reserve one trustee seat for a member of the family. Since 1999, each of my three sisters and I have sequentially served a term as a trustee; our youngest brother Scott joined the board in 2023 as the current family representative. During these years we have been privileged to help steward the foundation and direct its necessary evolution to confront the issues facing today’s society with a sense of urgency while committing to America’s cities for the long term.

In this centennial year, my family is often asked what Sebastian would make of the foundation today. Would he recognize the organization and approve of its grantmaking strategy? Would he see his directive to promote human progress alive and well in its work? Would he be proud of the impact the foundation has made and support its trajectory?

Having had the privilege of a front row seat to the work and organizational transformation, my answer is a resounding yes. I believe Sebastian would be pleased that his entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. He would see a creative organization that doesn’t shy away from complicated problems or from taking risks. I believe he would fully embrace that everyone, through hard work and perseverance, should have the opportunity to succeed in life. But most importantly, I think he would appreciate that the foundation has adhered to his original commitments, which were to use his wealth to promote human progress and make the world a better place than he found it.