January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

Two years ago, Jack Webster had a weird idea for recycling: Why not turn ex-Christmas trees into walking sticks? But Webster, 60 and surviving on disability checks, needed cash to turn his brainstorm into a business. One $700 grant later, he has sold more than 300 sticks at $40 a pop. “The grant isn’t much, but it can really get you started,” says Webster, who used the money to enter craft shows and find buyers. “I owe a lot to Trickle Up.”

And to Mildred Leet, the driving force behind the innovative grant-making program that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. An elegant Manhattanite with a Brooklyn accent, Leet, 76, has distributed seed money to more than 70,000 needy entrepreneurs in 50 countries since founding Trickle Up with her husband, Glen Leet, who died last April at 89. (Government grants “didn’t trickle down far enough,” explains Leet of the charity’s name.) So far, the grantees, 83 percent of whose businesses last at least three years, have trained some 350,000 people in everything from puppet-making to massage therapy. “A little bit of help can make all the difference,” says Leet. “If you give people a chance, they will take it.”

Applicants must write a business plan and commit to reinvesting at least 20 percent of their profit into the business. In return they get grants of $700 (outside the U.S., it’s $100)—enough to buy crucial materials such as garden tools or sewing machines. “Other programs want you to have experience before giving you money,” says Emilio Bermiss, the program officer of a New York foundation that has donated nearly $40,000 to the group this year. “Trickle Up is unique because it only requires that you apply yourself.”

Wannabe businesspeople would do well to model themselves on the tireless Leet, who oversees a staff of 14, solicits donations (mostly from corporations) to meet Trickle Up’s $1.7 million budget, and visits grantees across the globe. “People call her the Energizer Bunny,” says Leet’s daughter Aileen Robbins, co-owner of a liquor marketing company (Leet’s other daughter, Jane Maria Robbins, is an actress). “She doesn’t do this for the glory. She believes the world is a village and you improve it one person at a time.”

Born upper middle class in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a clothing-manufacturer father and stay-at-home mother, Leet graduated from New York University with an English degree in 1942 and began doing volunteer work for several causes. Three years after her first husband, lawyer Lou Robbins, died of heart failure in 1970, she met social activist Glen Leet, then the president of the Save the Children Federation, at a forum on disaster relief. They married in 1974 (their honeymoon: a poverty conference in Bucharest, Romania) and together devised the idea for Trickle Up. With $1,000 in savings they traveled to Dominica, a poor nation in the West Indies that had a 40 percent unemployment rate, and told residents they wanted to help them start businesses. “Some people looked at us very skeptically,” recalls Leet. “But three or four said, ‘Tell us more.’ ” Two weeks later, 10 businesses were off the ground.

More successes followed: In 1985, Leet transformed a destitute squatters’ settlement outside Nairobi, Kenya, into a village with 40 thriving enterprises. “The money their businesses bring in makes a critical difference in people’s lives, in the food they can put on the table, and also gives people a reason to feel good about themselves,” says Francesco Cantarella, a philanthropy consultant who helped the Leets expand Trickle Up to the United States in 1994.

Surrounded in her penthouse Manhattan apartment by tokens of thanks from people she has touched—including a handsome Jack Webster walking stick—Leet is still running on a full battery. Her goal is to make 100,000 grants by the year 2000. “The success of the program is the people themselves,” she says. “All we did was challenge them, and they hunkered down and did it.”

Alex Tresniowski

Bob Meadows in New York City

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