Inaugural awards event showcases Enterprise Academy students and their diverse business dreams
By Lisa Meyers McClintick | Photography by Paul Middlestaedt
Under bluebird skies on the evening before the summer solstice, The Clearing in Sauk Rapids buzzed with conversations, affirmations and tangible pride as start-up business owners and those who support them gathered for the Initiative Foundation’s inaugural Emerging Entrepreneur Showcase and Awards.
More than two dozen small business owners set up food booths and display tables at the June 20 event with views of the Mississippi River as a scenic backdrop. They poured fizzy kombucha, served up wood-smoked barbecue and savory soul food, drizzled caramel over deep-fried sweet apple egg rolls, and tempted attendees with a sampling of globally spiced foods. Businesses working with kids of all ages displayed photos of their events and projects while a dance group performed energetic routines before the awards ceremony got under way.
“We’ve been doing Enterprise Academy training since 2018 to help make launching a business easier for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those from underserved and minority communities,” said Brian Voerding, Initiative Foundation vice president for inclusive entrepreneurship. “Five years into this program, we felt it was time to recognize some of the top success stories. We also wanted to give other entrepreneurs a chance to come together and to showcase how they’ve progressed with their unique products and services.”
More than 190 people have completed the 12-week Enterprise Academy program since 2018. The classes help participants navigate the entrepreneurial journey through instructions on personal and business credit, licenses and permits, budgets and planning, marketing and branding, and bookkeeping and taxes.
Since its launch, some 4,700 hours of training and more than 2,800 hours of one-on-one coaching have been provided. And the success rate shows: More than 50 percent of the attendees have been able to start their business, which is double the national average for participants who’ve completed similar business training programs.
To support these individuals and their dreams—and the communities where they live—the Initiative Foundation provides microloans of up to $25,000 for start-up entrepreneurs who have developed a sound business plan. These loans help take their businesses to the next level—to buy equipment, set up point-of-sale systems, secure a bricks-and-mortar location or to invest in essential marketing.
The network students build helps them gain confidence. They trade ideas and have a shared sense of camaraderie. They develop a support system and celebrate with one another as their businesses expand and they achieve new milestones.
“[The Enterprise Academy] gave me the ability to connect to other business owners and to create a supportive little village, which is so important to my journey as an entrepreneur,” said Anisa Hagi-Mohamed, a graphic designer and educator who earned an award for Product of the Year. “The Enterprise Academy has been something that has made me grow in a million different ways.”
Here’s a look at the 2023 Emerging Entrepreneur Award winners.
COMMUNITY IMPACT: ALI ADEN
Culture is central to Bridge Healing Center’s services
Mental health services have been in short supply across the nation, especially therapists who reflect and understand America’s minority communities. Sharing a similar heritage helps therapists more quickly understand patients and their challenges without having to explain their family culture, roles and expectations, and spiritual beliefs.
Ali Aden and his wife, Lul Nur, are working to meet the St. Cloud area’s mental health needs with Bridge Healing Center, which opened June 2022. Four therapists, three of whom are Eastern African, provided mental health counseling to 200 clients during the clinic’s first year of operation. And now, a residential drug addiction center is planned to open this fall.
The concept of talking with a therapist for help with depression, anxiety and related issues is considered a Western concept and treatment. Aden and Nur have intentionally created an environment that feels familiar and welcoming with art and design work from fellow award-winner Anisa Hagi-Mohamed.
They plan to keep expanding to help an array of clients, including newer Americans who have suffered some of life’s biggest losses in fleeing unsafe places, war-torn communities, and who lack resources or employment to support their families.
The grief that comes with losing loved ones and homelands—compounded by difficult experiences at refugee camps and the challenges of trying to assimilate into a new culture without losing their own—can ripple across generations. It’s often multi-generational trauma, affecting children and grandchildren.
“They’re American at school, East African at home,” Aden said. “We have to bridge that.”
The counseling services operate at 22 Wilson Ave. near East St. Germain in downtown St. Cloud. The planned residential drug addiction program is expected to serve up to eight clients when it opens this fall.
Drug addiction carries a heavy stigma in the Eastern African community and can make it harder to acknowledge and treat. Some people in the community think Aden could be enabling addicts by passing out emergency kits with Narcan, which binds with receptors to rapidly reverse the effects of opioid overdose.
Opioid fatalities more than doubled in Minnesota between 2019 and 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It more than tripled for Black and African-American Minnesotans, with deaths rising from 59 to 212 during that three-year time frame.
“We hope to keep expanding services,” said Aden, who serves as CEO and licensed alcohol/drug counselor with a master’s degree in counseling and psychology from St. Mary’s University. Lul Nur serves as program director and has 10 years of psychotherapy experience and a dual license as a professional clinical counselor and addiction counselor.
Both speak English, Somali and Arabic, and have a goal to serve up to 30 patients in the residential addiction program within the next few years.
“There were ups and downs and a lot of struggles [to get Bridge Healing Center opened],” Aden said, “but there was a lot of joy once we provided services to communities of color and other people in need. We’re bridging the gap in culture-specific mental health and addiction services.”
For more information, go to bridgehealingcenter.com.
PRODUCT OF THE YEAR: ANISA HAGI-MOHAMED
Educator embraces positive language to build esteem
Anisa Hagi-Mohamed smiled warmly as people looked through her colorful display of products at the entrepreneur showcase. It included illustrations of Somali women, a children’s book inspired by her daughter who has autism, and her best-known product: Kalsooni bilingual affirmation cards.
The palm-sized cards feature designs inspired by Somali textiles and an esteem-building comment in both English and Somali that’s meant to spark a meaningful conversation and positive thoughts: You are beautiful! You know what you’re capable of! Take pride in your culture! I am what my ancestors used to dream and hope for!
“I’m hoping my products push people to see the importance and the power of positive language,” said Hagi-Mohamed, who earned a master’s degree in linguistics, which she blends with her passions and experiences as an artist, educator, mom to three children, and mental health advocate. Kalsooni affirmation cards, which received the Product of the Year award, can make it easier for educators and students, health care providers and patients, parents and kids, or men and women, to have meaningful, heartfelt conversations.
Hagi-Mohamed, who came to the United States from a refugee camp at 5 years old to escape Somalia’s civil war, also hopes to restore a positive representation of the Somali culture, which was culturally rich in history, poetry, and art before that heritage was overshadowed by war and the many struggles immigrants may face daily.
Losses can make it hard to move forward and upward, and she almost gave up her business as it was launching when her brother and mother died in quick succession. She found the strength to carry on by using her work to honor them.
One of her newer projects, her first children’s picture book, depicts a non-verbal autistic girl modeled after her daughter. It’s an effort to positively show autistic children and to help break down the cultural stigma of autism. An estimated one in 21 Somali-American children in Minnesota have the condition.
Hagi-Mohamed plans to write more bilingual and inclusive books for children and to keep expanding her line of products, including journals that promote inner strength and healing. Her next milestone includes finding a storefront in St. Cloud within the next year. She envisions a welcoming space that feels safe and invites people to share a cup of coffee and the positive words on the Kalsooni cards.
In five years, she hopes to have her products available through other stores and organizations and to translate cards into additional languages requested by customers, including Norwegian, Spanish and Arabic.
“I want to put [my products] into the hands of as many people as I can,” she said, “and to add to the wider community by providing more representation of the beautiful different cultures that exist in Minnesota.”
Her cards and other products can be purchased at anisahagi.com.
PRODUCT OF THE YEAR: ANTIONETTE LEE
Artist’s book promotes pushing beyond limitations
When Antionette Lee hit a low point in life, suffering from a severe back injury after about a decade of working as a certified nursing assistant in nursing homes, creating art became her lifeline.
“I was depressed and stressed and unsure of what was next,” she said. “Art saved my life and changed my life.”
A self-taught artist, she used painting and drawing to express her feelings, and to embrace mistakes and surprises that emerged during the creative process. When she began getting positive feedback for her creations, she knew she wanted to share that joy and transformative power of art with others.
Her ideas, organized and refined as she went through the Enterprise Academy, led her to launch her No Limit Painting business and to publish “You Can Be Anybody,” a book meant to inspire kids (and adults) to not let anything hold them back.
Its pages depict a young girl in a wheelchair who dreams of being an Olympic basketball player, a Somali woman who aims to be a scientist, a family with a same-sex marriage, and other characters who yearn to be a fashion designer, astronaut, librarian, and more.
Lee worked with BadCat Digital, a St. Cloud marketing agency, to help illustrate diverse scenes and characters that break through stereotypes. Rengel printing was able to print the book on paper thick enough to handle paint on every page.
The first print run included 300 copies. She immediately sold half with the support of District 742, United Way and the Initiative Foundation.
“They see me and believe in my vision,” she said. “That’s very inspiring to me.”
Support and self-confidence can help people overcome barriers and find better opportunities, which is something Lee hopes her book can inspire—especially for at-risk and underprivileged boys and girls. They have the fewest opportunities to explore and enjoy art, but by partnering with other organizations, she can bring art to them through special events and as a teaching artist.
With her infectious laugh and a clear passion, Lee keeps the creative process playful and pressure-free. She makes blank canvases less intimidating by pre-sketching them for team-building activities or adult parties. The canvas then becomes more like a giant coloring book page, or they can choose easy-to-paint wooden shapes to “have fun versus overthinking it.”
“We’re our own worst critics,” she said. “Adults don’t let themselves play or do something they don’t think they’re good at.” By getting people young and old to stop judging themselves and to just have fun, she encourages them to let their imagination run free.
She hopes to work again with senior citizens—with a paintbrush this time—and dreams about someday having her own storefront. Her mission, though, remains steady.
“I want to expose the healing powers of art and what it brings to your mind, body and soul,” she said, “and to also bring the community together. That community engagement piece is huge—and to be able to walk away feeling better than you did when you came.”
Lee’s book and other products can be purchased online at paintingwithnlp.com.
FOOD BUSINESS OF THE YEAR: ASHLEY WILLIAMS
Couple taps global eats to roll food business forward
When Ashley Williams and her partner, Chris Richardson, are hand-rolling and reinventing what you’d expect inside a deep-fried egg-roll wrapper, it’s more than a chance to show culinary creativity and keep customers coming to their small business.
Ashley’s Yummy Rollz, developed during Williams’ time in the Enterprise Academy, was launched in the hopes of providing a way forward to a better future—one they wouldn’t have imagined when their paths first crossed nine years ago.
“We met at the Salvation Army shelter,” said Williams. They each were struggling and had a child to provide for, but they eventually found jobs and a place to live together. They worked hard and saved enough to buy a home about three years ago.
Still, they dreamed of something better than the grind of lower-paying jobs, especially with three young children together and a fourth born a year ago. Williams worked intense hours in the food service industry, which left her drained at the end of shifts. Richardson encouraged Williams, who is known for her cooking among family and friends, to find a way to sell what she creates herself. She signed up for the Enterprise Academy to learn what it would take.
“One of the biggest barriers that I’ve faced with starting the business has been finances and just not knowing how to begin as a black entrepreneur,” Williams said. The program helped her navigate business requirements and steps to follow for permits and licensing.
“We’ve been able to overcome some of those obstacles,” she said. Others weren’t as easy. Grief hit hard halfway through the program when Williams lost her brother, and then the 2020 COVID-19 quarantine forced them to backburner their business plans.
“I just wanted to give this up,” Williams said, “but I kept hearing, ‘Have faith.’”
They persevered and set up their tented tables with a small fryer, prep area, and stews and side dishes at events such as St. Cloud’s Summertime by George and Minneapolis’s Rise and Remember event at George Floyd Square, but found they prefer smaller venues such as area farmers markets or distilleries and breweries where they can keep up with the made-to-order Yummy Rollz, which they are looking to trademark.
“The yummy roll is what our customers come to us for and what they follow us for,” said Williams. “We pride ourselves on [those] as well as being different with the food.”
Rolls may be wrapped around a Philly cheesesteak filling, turkey and eggs for a breakfast-themed roll, or sweet apples drizzled with a caramel sauce. She also serves an array of other foods, such as zippy Jamaican or goat curries, Caribbean beans and rice, shredded beef tacos with consommé dipping sauce, and a variety of stews made with catfish, okra, palm nuts, and spinach that are served with rice, as well as chicken wings and cornbread.
As she plans for events, Williams’ kids can see first-hand what it takes to run a business. They may also join her at venues with Richardson, who enjoys sharing their story with others and looking for new opportunities.
The business has helped both of them shed natural shyness and gain confidence—something that can trickle to their kids as they get old enough to help. For now, they’re looking to build their business by catering for events and businesses and taking orders through her Facebook page, Ashley’s Yummy Rollz, throughout the winter.
“Our one-year goal is to have a food truck and be able to travel to different cities and expand our customer base,” Williams said. As they look ahead five years, they hope to have a permanent location, possibly a second food truck and a larger menu. “My journey as an entrepreneur has been rocky, but every bit that we went through has made us stronger,” she said.
NEW BUSINESS OF THE YEAR: LAM CHUOL
Chuol provides accounting and assurance for customers
Trying to grasp the ins and outs of ever-changing U.S. tax laws and figuring out the paperwork for income tax returns can cause the most proficient American to head for the nearest tax accountant.
If you’re a new American, a non-native speaker, or intimidated by math and forms, having someone trustworthy to help navigate the process can ease fears and help retain the most income when there is little to spare.
Lam Chuol, owner of Lam Tax Service in St. Cloud, knew he could provide services that were more personal and less costly than accounting chains that churn out forms, request signatures and lack time to explain and educate about the process.
“One of the biggest things here is that we come down to our client’s level to better serve them because we’re here in the community,” said Chuol, who was born in South Sudan and came to the United States at age 9. “We understand. We make them feel comfortable and ease their mind.”
A graduate of Minneapolis Roosevelt High School, he earned a basketball scholarship to Ohio Valley University and graduated with an accounting degree in 2010. He worked for national tax preparers, such as Liberty Tax Service and H&R Block, and he would be frustrated by earning minimum pay and having to charge customers close to $300 or more. He tried getting work in companies as a public accountant, but he did not have any luck.
After moving to St. Cloud in 2018, he worked independently out of a spare bedroom in the home he shares with his wife and two sons. He was able to charge customers half of what national chains do while offering more help. It was a win-win that increased his earnings while saving customers money.
As word of mouth spread through the South Sudanese community, he’d get calls from new customers from Fargo, N.D., Mankato and Austin, Minn., Nebraska and Iowa. Chuol wanted to expand his tax preparation services for families and small businesses, offering property tax refunds, monthly bookkeeping, sales tax reporting, QuickBooks setup and training, and more. Getting funding to rent an office, though, was a barrier.
“I wish I could say that it has been easy, but it’s actually been tough for a minority person like myself that doesn’t have a lot of backing from the community,” he said. Chuol ultimately was able to secure an Initiative Foundation loan after completing the Enterprise Academy in December 2021.
Chuol opened an office at 1358 15th Ave. SE, which increased his visibility as a business. He prepared more than 200 tax returns in 2023. He hopes to hire someone next year to help and to possibly open a second location within five years. “My long-term vision,” he said, “is to be in every corner of the city.”
Lam Tax Service can be found at lamtaxservice.com.