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Doctor Do Good

How one Chicago lawyer took the famous Howard Brown center from broke to bank

  • Jamal Edwards
Jamal Edwards (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
January 25, 2012|By Georgia Garvey, RedEye

Two years ago, Howard Brown was in trouble. Serious, we-might-have-to-shut-off-the-lights-lock-the-doors-and-cancel-the-electricity trouble.

The Uptown health care facility, which serves thousands of LGBT and HIV-positive clients, was being investigated for mismanaging millions in federal grant money. The situation was dire, with change coming in the hiring of a young, successful Chicago lawyer to lead the organization out of its troubles.

What that CEO, Jamal Edwards, accomplished in the time since is nothing short of miraculous, observers say. From a huge deficit a year and a half ago, Howard Brown has come full-circle to budget surpluses and financial stability. Recently, Crain's Chicago Business named Edwards, 35, one of its "40 Under 40," another distinction.

"I don't know of anyone else in my professional life who would have been able to pull off what he was able to pull off," said Karma Israelsen, board chairwoman for Howard Brown. "He's incredibly driven."

The accolades are backed up by hard facts. Edwards, who in mid-2010 took the reins of an organization with a $4 million budget hole, closed out Howard Brown's fiscal year with a surplus of more than $1 million and net assets of about $400,000, the organization said.

Edwards' path to the CEO spot wasn't always set in stone. He had some initial reservations about leaving a flourishing career as a partner specializing in patent law at high-profile firm Kirkland and Ellis. But as one of the attorneys working on Howard Brown's case, he intimately knew the problems the organization was having and found he couldn't turn his back on it.

"I was ... hoping to God that Howard Brown would find someone else to do this, because I was very happy with my career," he said, but "I knew how severe the situation was, probably more so than a lot of other people."

He finally decided to take the job, which brought with it a pay cut and an end to his nine-year career at the firm. As Howard Brown's CEO, Edwards turned out to be a master fundraiser, finding donations in part from big pockets such as GE, which granted $250,000, but mostly from going hat in hand to the community. In one year, about 20,000 individual donors chipped in to raise $1.25 million, he said.

"The people that supported it saw, again, some humility," Edwards said. "I had to stand up in front of those cameras and all those people like you and say, 'We screwed up. Not me, personally, but we as an institution screwed up. And we have a big problem.'"

Courting small donations also turned out be much less expensive than throwing a fancy party, according to Edwards, who said Howard Brown spent only about $10,000 to bring in that money. And he did all this as a single parent to his nearly 3-year-old son, Quinn, who gets the majority of his free time.

"That is my greatest mission in life," he said. "You could spend all day trying to change policies, trying to change laws, even change communities and not have as great of an impact as you can by raising one good, solid, decent human being."

Edwards' proudest professional moment also was pretty grassroots, fixing a situation where the majority of Howard Brown employees didn't have health insurance because of a combination of high employee contribution requirements and deductibles.

"I thought that was a shame, because this was a health care institution," he said. At the holiday party, he said, "more people I think probably cheered and toasted over [the fact that] for the first time, this institution has quality health benefits for the people who are giving health care to folks."

The transformation was complete.

"For an institution that was about to close a year ago, I think that's the thing that I'm most proud of, that we're in a position to do stuff that's going to help the folks that made sure we didn't close," Edwards said.

ggarvey@tribune.com | @gcgarvey

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