Expanding & Empowering
Northwest Minnesota Foundation joins the Initiators Fellowship, expanding support for social entrepreneurs to 53 Minnesota counties and six tribal nations.
By Bob McClintick | Photography by Michael Schoenecker
When Rachel Stone applied for the Initiators Fellowship back in 2019, the founder of P’s & Q’s Etiquette, which serves Moorhead-area students, had her doubts that she had the stamina—and the right stuff—for an intensive two-year social enterprise program.
Fast forward, and the 2020-2021 Fellow will tell you that mustering the courage to apply was the best thing she could have done for her and the elementary, middle and high school students she guides in leadership skills, resilience, goal-setting and conflict resolution.
“The Initiators Fellowship program has been amazing,” Stone said. “Whatever you think you lack, they are here to support you. The training, the activities, the cohort, the people that surround you … for a long time I felt like I was alone out here. But I feel such support having this program, and I know that this is exactly what I needed.”
Stone and her six peers are in the final year of the 2020-2021 Fellowship, which currently includes the regions served by three Minnesota Initiative Foundation: the Initiative Foundation in Central Minnesota, Southwest Initiative Foundation and West Central Initiative. The Initiators Fellowship Program is an innovative leadership development opportunity that provides two years of intensive mentorship, cohort learning and a $30,000 annual stipend to promising entrepreneurs who are on a mission to solve social challenges through the marketplace.
As Stone and her cohort move toward completion of the program, the Initiative Foundation and its partners are ramping up recruitment efforts for the 2022-2023 cohort, which will expand to the Northwest Minnesota Foundation region.
“We are excited to bring this unique opportunity to Northwest Minnesota,” said Michael Neusser, vice president for operations at the Northwest Minnesota Foundation. “We know our region has many social entrepreneurs working to make a difference in our communities, and this is just one more way that we’re able to support them in that mission.”
The expansion allows the program to serve eight Fellows—two from each region—drawn from an area that includes 53 counties and six tribal nations, or a full two-thirds of Greater Minnesota.
“It’s my hope—and a broadly shared dream—that 10 years from now, in 2030, we will look back across the 2020 to 2030 timeframe and celebrate five groups of successful and diverse social entrepreneurs,” said Rick Bauerly, a trustee of the Initiative Foundation and founder and CEO of Granite Partners, a St. Cloud private investment and holding company that has invested more than $4 million in direct financial support and stock donations in support of the Fellowship. The program also is supported by a seven-year, $1.4 million investment from the Bush Foundation and ongoing support from Sourcewell, a key Central Minnesota partner of the Initiative Foundation.
Bringing new purpose-driven businesses, revenue-generating nonprofits or social benefit corporations to Greater Minnesota is just part of the program, said Chris Fastner, program manager for the Initiators Fellowship, which launched in the Initiative Foundation region in 2016. “The other part of it is to develop these Fellows as leaders in rural and Greater Minnesota so they can continue to make a difference. We feel that the right individual, supported at the right time and in the right way, can have an outsized impact on their Greater Minnesota community.”
The need is great, especially when you consider that retiring baby boomers are leaving leadership voids in many rural communities and that owning a small business can be a risky proposition. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 50 percent of small businesses will fail over five years,” Fastner said. “That’s an unfortunate figure. However, if we develop strong leaders in our communities, they’ll go on to do good, purposeful work for the rest of their lives.”
Initiators Fellows from the 2018-2019 cohort illustrate the program’s impact. Originally looking for ways to turn her passion for public health and diabetes advocacy into a career, Fellow Quinn Nystrom built a successful business as a national expert on diabetes-related issues and made a point of drawing public awareness to the high price of insulin when she was a candidate for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional district. Initiators Fellow Annie Deckert built her consulting business to help fill empty storefronts in Minnesota’s small towns before signing on as the first chief executive officer of Greater Fergus Falls, the nonprofit economic development organization in her hometown.
Like Stone, other 2020-2021 Fellows are making equally impressive contributions. Hamdia Mohamed of Victory Plus Housing, for example, is working to provide sober housing in Central Minnesota by providing safe, secure and clean residential properties and an array of additional supports. And Erin Schutte Wadzinski is focused on increasing access to affordable and high-quality legal representation for immigrants and refugees from all financial backgrounds residing in Southwest Minnesota through her Kivu Immigration law firm in Worthington.
“The Initiators Fellowship gave me the extra boost I needed to launch my social enterprise,” Schutte Wadzinksi said. “The networks, the mentorship and the support from the Fellowship really have been the most important to me.”
APPLY, SHARE THE OPPORTUNITY
Applications for the 2022-23 cohort of Initiators Fellows will be accepted from May 24 through June 15. Though it’s a rigorous process, culminating in a day-long October selection process at St. John’s University from among 15 finalists, Fastner says the biggest hurdle many applicants face is simply seeing themselves as potential leaders.
“If you have an idea for a purpose-driven business, and you’re already working a full-time job, you’re probably finding you just don’t have the time and the bandwidth to make progress,” he said. But with the help of the Fellowship’s $60,000 stipend over two years, “you can make the time to start moving ahead, meeting with mentors, and expanding the networks you’re going to need to succeed. If you want to start a business to achieve something good, that tells us you’re already the kind of applicant we’re looking for—the kind of person who can make positive change in your community.”