Humanitarian entrepreneur: Mary Tjosvold

Mary Tjosvold, left, and her mother, Margaret Tjosvold (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

On the surface, “community activist” and “businesswoman” could seem like separate career paths. One could imagine the activist as wildly idealistic, perhaps dressed in old jeans and a Che Guevara t-shirt. The other, one might picture as a hard-driven and competitive businesswoman, decked in a suit and espousing political views. 

Mary Tjosvold has swept past stereotypes and fused her desire to serve the community with strong business acumen. In the process she has built the family-run nonprofit health care corporation, Mary T. Inc., where she is CEO. Mary T. Inc. offers housing and services for seniors and people with disabilities, including assisted living, rental housing, hospice and home health care. Oh, and Tjosvold also owns Crooner’s Lounge and Supper Club in Fridley. 

That combination takes creative thinking, vision and the attitude that anything is possible. Says Tjosvold, “I was raised in an atmosphere where I learned that you can do anything, that you must give back and where I learned to see the world through positive eyes.” 

She traces those attributes back through a “motherline” of strong female role models starting with her grandmother, Rosa Camille Williams, who grew up on a farm in Iowa with five brothers. There she acquired the attitude that girls should be able to do whatever they set their sights on, including playing sports and driving a tractor. Rosa Williams became a farmer and a nurse. She worked in hospitals, went house-to-house to care for patients and also served food to homeless people. She took in people who needed care into her home – an ethic of service that she passed down to her daughter, Margaret Tjosvold, and granddaughter. 

Changing direction

In her twenties, Tjosvold planned to live out those principles by becoming a community organizer. She wanted to study in Chicago with Saul Alinsky, who is considered the founder of community organizing. But after her grandmother passed away, the family decided to dedicate her Coon Rapids land to the causes Rosa Williams valued most and set out to build facilities to serve seniors and people with disabilities. That propelled Tjosvold in a new direction. 

In the early 1970s, the concept of specialized housing was itself a radical idea. People with disabilities were often shipped off to state hospitals even though, with a little help, they could live on their own. Tjosvold had to obtain approval from the Metropolitan Council for nursing home projects. They were skeptical of both the need and her ability. “They approved it but they didn’t think I’d really do it,” she says. “Minnesota has generally been a good place for women business owners, but there were different standards for women then. The bar was really high.” 

It took five years to get financing for the project, but in October 1976, Camilia Rose Group Home opened, serving people with disabilities, and Camilia Rose Care Center, a nursing home, opened in February 1977. Since then, Mary T. Inc. has grown to 45 residential communities in Minnesota, Maryland, Wisconsin and Arizona, with annual revenues of about $35 million and more than 800 employees. “I discovered that in business I could make a bigger difference in the communities we serve and in the lives of our employees than I could being a community organizer.”

Business, feminine style 

Talking to Tjosvold, it’s obvious that she’s a dynamo with wide-ranging interests. She has written books on leadership and conflict management, earned a Ph.D., opened a school in Cameroon, West Africa, and served on many boards and committees, including as board chair of the American Refugee Committee. 

Yet, while service to others is dear to her heart, Tjosvold is no soft touch. “I’m a big observer,” she says. She saw another, rather different, opportunity one day when she and her late husband, British pianist Larry Dunsmore, were driving by an old Shorewood restaurant in Fridley that was about to be offered in a sheriff’s sale. She worked a deal with the bank, cleaned it up, and opened Crooners Lounge and Supper Club in 2014. 

Busy as she is, Tjosvold employs a down-to-earth style that seems more relaxed than driven. She says that some women believe that they need to use traditionally male behavior to get ahead. “In many companies that’s how you have to behave to move ahead,” she says. “But we believe in cooperation and collaboration, not competition. Women’s attributes are really powerful. I believe that women can and do see the world differently and need opportunities to bring their perspectives to the world.” 

She’s passing those opportunities at Mary T. Inc. down to the next generation of the family. 

“Belief that ‘you can do it’ is a gift my mother and grandmother gave me. Every child deserves that gift.” 

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