16 Finalists Emerge for 2024-2025 Initiators Fellowship
Sixteen social entrepreneurs have been chosen from a pool of nearly 90 applicants to move to the next stage of the 2024-2025 Initiators Fellowship selection process. The finalists represent 53 counties and six Native nations in Central, Northwest, Southwest and West Central Minnesota.
On Tuesday, Oct. 24, the 16 finalists will participate in selection day in St. Cloud. From the field of 16, eight Fellows will be selected for the 2024-2025 Initiators Fellowship cohort. The Fellows will experience comprehensive programming, executive-level mentoring, leadership training, ongoing entrepreneurial education, and support from dedicated staff members to advance their mission-driven businesses or nonprofit endeavors. Each Fellow also will receive an annual $30,000 stipend during the two-year program.
“We were blown away by the many folks doing important social enterprise work throughout Greater Minnesota,” said Brian Voerding, Initiative Foundation vice president of inclusive entrepreneurship. “We had a tough job narrowing the pool, and we look forward to selection day when we can meet the finalists and learn even more about their work.”
The Initiators Fellowship originated with the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation in 2017 to help aspiring social entrepreneurs fast-track their ideas, grow their social and professional networks, and develop their business and community leadership skills. Eleven Fellows have graduated from the program since inception. In December, seven Fellows will graduate from the 2022-2023 cohort.
The 2024-2025 finalists represent a diverse range of interests—from an entrepreneur with a goal to engage and support Native artists on the White Earth Reservation to a mother launching a center for supervised parental visits and education opportunities. Here’s a closer look:
Staci Allmaras | Pelican Rapids | Youth Empowerment
Staci Allmaras loves to quote Paul Wellstone: “We all do better when we all do better.” She wants to use her experience working in schools to build up The Youths_PR, a Pelican Rapids youth organization, to offer communal space and income-generating opportunities. Allmaras would use the time in the Fellowship to pursue nonprofit status and expand the organization’s work to empower even more youth.
Alex Blondeau | Fergus Falls | Prairie Restoration
Alex Blondeau wants to connect with the land and help others experience, grow and enhance native prairie reconstructions. Through Windflower Natives, launched during spring 2023, Blondeau grows and sells plants in-person and online. He hopes to use his venture to heal indigenous ecosystems through education, art and prairie restoration initiatives.
Ben Cahill | Bemidji | LGBTQ2S+ Resources
As a community health worker, Ben Cahill has learned a lot about the health barriers facing those in the LGBTQ2S+ community. In Native cultures, two-spirit people (2S+) are male, female, and sometimes intersexed individuals who combine activities of both men and women with traits unique to their status as two-spirit people. In many tribes, they occupy a distinct, alternative gender status. His social enterprise will offer community health services, events, advocacy and more to those in the LGBTQ2S+ community. Learn more: pridesupportnetwork.org.
Lisa Finck | Verndale | Specialized Head Coverings for Epileptics
Lisa Finck launched Rainbow Hair Hats in late 2022 to make life less scary for her daughter and others who have tuberous sclerosis complex, the leading genetic cause of epilepsy. Those with epilepsy often are hooked up to electroencephalogram wires, which can look scary to an onlooker. Finck wants to use Rainbow Hair Hats to make life better for those with epilepsy and to heighten awareness of the disorder.
Dawn Finn | Pelican Rapids | Mental Health Services
Dawn Finn believes in serving others and breaking barriers. Through Community & Life Services, a nonprofit she launched to serve Otter Tail and Becker County residents, Finn and her staff are working to address addiction and mental health challenges while offering education on parenting, personal finances and much more. Her goal for the social enterprise venture is to help people achieve long-term positive change.
Chrystal Fischer | South Haven | Supervised Visitation
While driving her 2-year-old daughter four hours round-trip for supervised visits with her father, Chrystal Fischer dreamed of making life easier for families in similar situations. She started Parenting with Grace to create a safe, comfortable and accessible space in Wright County for supervised visits. Through her social enterprise, she also plans to offer parent education, seminars and support groups.
Jill Greendeer | St. Michael | Tribal Data Sovereignty
Jill Greendeer wants to give voice to indigenous people by advocating for sovereign authority to administer the collection, ownership, and application of their own data. Greendeer’s social enterprise would guide the constraints of research on tribal lands through independent review boards for Native research that include protocols, ethical and diverse community considerations as well as training for researchers. Greendeer has a doctorate in nursing from the University of Minnesota.
Lynn Kotrba | Moorhead | Teaching Farm
Lynn Kotrba launched Harvest Hope Farm to share knowledge on sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship. Kotrba plans to introduce agri-tourism to her venture to better help children and adults connect with nature and our food sources. She’s also contributing to science: The sheep on her farm are used for research to find a cure for Huntington’s disease.
Jean Kruft | Pine Point | Native Career Training
Jean Kruft launched Creator’s Place, LLC (Bam’idizowigamig), to help her Native friends and neighbors put an end to intergenerational poverty. This on-the-job training and work center on the White Earth Reservation employs 20 people. Workers make Ojibwe crafts, create wood-crafted items and package wild rice mixes. Learn more at creatorsplace.org.
Tara Mason | Naytahwaush | Native Art Support and Supplies
Tara Mason’s social enterprise ventures—1867 Supply Trade and White Earth Artist Co-op—are designed to support Native artists on the White Earth Reservation. Through her projects, Native people can earn a living and see themselves reflected in their art: 1867 Supply Trade will market supplies for powwow regalia while White Earth Artist Co-op will be a place for artists to support one another in selling their art.
Muhayadin Mohamed | St. Cloud | Islamic-approved Financing
Islamic rules related to interest collected on loans can create a barrier for Muslim people to get the financing they need to build their businesses. Muhayadin Mohamed wants to create an enterprise to offer Islamic-acceptable financing and to assist with financial literacy. He hopes to use his business to help his Muslim neighbors launch businesses and achieve financial independence.
Shannon Murray | Bemidji | Youth Development
Shannon Murray wants all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to find meaningful, inclusive employment. Her aspiration is to launch a social enterprise that helps young leaders with intellectual and developmental disabilities access continuing education, advocacy support, professional development, job-skills training, and community-building activities.
Suree Sompamitwong | Worthington | Art and Healing Space
Creative Healing Space in Worthington is a place for people to create and spend time together. Suree Sompamitwong built this nonprofit after being inspired by her own healing journey. She wants to continue her work at Creative Healing Space to engage more local people and to provide more opportunities to create and connect.
Wanetta Thompson | Hinckley | Cultural Arts Programming
Wanetta Thompson wants to use Bear Paws Cultural Arts to reclaim cultural identity and build understanding with her friends and neighbors, both native and non-native, through art. The organization offers contemporary and traditional Native American art classes free of charge to the community. Ultimately, she wants to use art to bring people together.
Funwi Tita | Buffalo | African Vegetable Farm
Better Greens, LLC, became a business for Funwi Tita when necessity met passion. Today, the small-scale agri-business supplies fresh and frozen African greens and vegetables to support the dietary needs and wants of African communities in Minnesota and around the country. Tita’s vision for his social enterprise is to introduce more people to traditional African vegetables and to help people make meals like they had growing up. Visit bettergreensllc.com to learn more.
Tanya Vacek | Glencoe | Community Kitchen, Incubator
Raising her family on a homestead farm, Tanya Vacek understands how food can bring people together. She wants to support and encourage people to connect over food by launching a community kitchen and incubator space in Glencoe. Vacek hopes to inspire culinary enthusiasts of all ages, to foster connections, and to champion local, sustainable agriculture.
About the Initiators Fellowship
The Initiators Fellowship is a collaborative program of the Initiative Foundation, Northwest Minnesota Foundation, Southwest Initiative Foundation, and West Central Initiative. The Fellowship is made possible by generous funders, including Granite Partners, an original founding funder and partner, along with the Bush Foundation, McKnight Foundation and Sourcewell.