Alumnus’s community is his business

Ezell Jones is the founder and chairman of Premier Network Service Group, a privately held multicultural network.

Derrick Biney

University alumnus Ezell Jones is reluctant to be interviewed for newspaper profiles; he said he doesn’t like the advertisement.

But if talking about himself sheds light on his work and his mission, he’s more than willing to open up.

Jones is a longtime community businessman who continues to find ways to empower minority communities through economic development.

Originally from Memphis, Tenn., Jones came to the University in 1965 on an athletics scholarship to play football for the Gophers. He was named to the All-Big Ten and All-Academic All-American teams and went on to play offensive tackle for the New York Jets and New England Patriots.

After he realized football was not his calling, Jones came back to Minnesota to pursue potential business ventures, he said.

Jones is the founder and chairman of Premier Network Service Group, a privately held multicultural network of agencies owned by women and nonwhites, which provides risk management, insurance and financial services.

Jones said he makes his living by selling insurance to businesses ranging from places like the Metrodome to major nonprofit organizations to small businesses.

Jones’ current project is developing the Renaissance Business Center, which he envisions as being a 12,000-square-foot “one-stop shop” for businesses owned by minorities, he said.

“It’s a way to bring entrepreneurs to West Broadway (and the north side of Minneapolis) to do business,” he said.

Jones’ passion for businesses owned by minorities and his position as president of the Minneapolis Black Chamber of Commerce, which he has resigned from, garnered him a Vision Award from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development in October 2005.

Charles C. Muscoplat, vice president and dean of the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, said Jones is “tenacious.” He gave the speech introducing Jones at the awards ceremony.

Muscoplat said he and Jones have grown to become good friends and, for as long as he has known him, Jones has not lost his ambition.

“It’s important for people to be involved in their community to make new relationships and to have vision,” he said. “Ezell does that.”

Muscoplat said he believes Jones is trying to involve the University in business enterprises so that students can gain real-life experience.

Lyonel San Juan, scientific and technical communication senior, was referred to an intern position in Jones’ office by Bernadette Longo, a professor of rhetoric. He works closely with Jones on Jerry’s Cooperative Development Initiative, which includes six interrelated economic development projects.

Because of requirements in his major, San Juan must complete an internship before he graduates and when he heard about the opportunity to work with Jones, he said he was enthusiastic to get on board because of Jones’ experience in community activism and social justice, which matched up with San Juan’s personal interest.

San Juan, who was in the Air Force from 1996 to 1999, said he appreciates Jones’ honesty, especially since he has been exposed to “corporate America,” where people are “politically correct.”

“Ezell’s a straight shooter; if he wants something done in a specific way, he’ll let you know,” San Juan said.

Professor of horticultural science Neil Anderson said Jones is the type of person who “leaves all his cards on the table.”

“If you could describe him in one word, I would call him a visionary,” Anderson said.

Anderson also is working with Jones on Jerry’s Cooperative Development Initiative to create floral designs that would be appealing to specific cultural groups. This is something Anderson said not many people have done, which excites him about working with Jones.

A product of the General College, Jones admitted he doesn’t completely agree with the decision to close it, but said he supports the efforts toward bettering the University and understands the complexity of the issues involved.

“Developmental education is not a University of Minnesota problem,” Jones said. “It’s one of the most daunting problems in this state.”

Jones said he loves the University but that it is not yet where it needs to be.

In addition to involving students in his work and being an advisory board member on the University Men’s Athletic Association, Jones has made many contributions to the University.

He purchased the Archie Givens Sr. Collection, which he said is a “living collection of African American culture,” and worked with Archie Givens Jr. and Josie Johnson to give it to the University.

He said the rare book collection, in the Andersen Library on the West Bank, is invaluable in terms of what it represents as it will encourage other ethnic groups to create literary offerings which the public can see and learn from.

Jones said “accumulating toys and things” is not a value to him.

At 58, he hopes he is able to inspire youths to become activists and involved in their community, like the people he grew up with ” current St. Paul City Council member Debbie Montgomery and renowned African and African American historian Mahmoud El-Kati.

“All I want to do is make a difference or be a catalyst for change. I want to take the things I have learned and help other people.”