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JON FRIESNER: “The Initiative Foundation and its partners seem to have a bottomless well of people they know. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

Homegrown Goodness

Search begins for 2024-2025 class of Initiators Fellowship social entrepreneurs

By Betsy Johnson | Photography by John Linn

Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely endeavor, especially if you’re in a rural area. Jon Friesner knows that feeling all too well. For Friesner and his business, Emily-based GroShed, being a member of the 2020-2021 Initiators Fellowship cohort made all the difference in the world.

“When it’s just you in your head,” Friesner said, “it’s easy to talk yourself out of the big idea—to imagine no one is going to want it.”

The Fellowship provided Friesner a network of people that cared about him and supported his big idea. It helped him refine his vision and mission, and, as he puts it, “Suddenly, a bunch of people knew we existed, and that was incredibly helpful to kick us off and gain some ground.”

We spoke with Friesner, Initiators Fellowship Program Manager Christine Metzo and Brian Voerding, Initiative Foundation vice president for inclusive entrepreneurship, to learn more about this two-year program for emerging social entrepreneurs.

What is GroShed?
Friesner: GroShed builds pre-manufactured and fully deliverable hydroponic farms. Customers who own a GroShed are growing their own food and controlling their own spaces where they can grow food. We were a typical startup—a struggling business trying to figure out what it was we were even doing. Through the Initiators Fellowship, we refined our vision and mission of what GroShed is, what we produce, what we do. It’s been a huge evolution.

What is the Initiators Fellowship?
Metzo: The Initiators Fellowship is an intensive commitment to cultivate rural leaders and to support their social enterprise visions. With wrap-around training and individualized support plus a stipend ($30,000 annually), we help entrepreneurs develop their social enterprise while growing as individual and community leaders.

What did the Initiators Fellowship do for you?
Friesner: The Fellowship relieved some of the pressure we were feeling with the economic shifts and the pandemic. The financial support, the network and the mentorship all helped us navigate those challenging times. Plus, the Fellowship makes you feel like you are not on your own. Being an entrepreneur in a rural area … you always feel like you’re chipping away at this big idea, and you have to do it all by yourself. So, to have a group of friends, networks and mentors … we felt like we had a place to go.

Who is a good fit for the Initiators Fellowship?
Metzo: If you are committed to revitalizing your rural community or region with a business and a mission that lifts up social or environmental commitments, then this is an opportunity to accelerate your growth and the success of your venture.

How do I know if my idea fits the definition of a social enterprise?
Voerding: The business model needs to center on a social purpose, not simply in giving back. A coffee shop that donates a portion of its profits to good causes is a great way to run a business, but it’s not a fit for the Fellowship. A coffee shop with a mission to hire previously incarcerated people to create jobs, on the other hand, would be a fit.

Metzo: There needs to be a social goal embedded in the economic goal. That’s what makes it a social enterprise rather than simply a business enterprise. In the case of GroShed, Jon Friesner knew that a big challenge facing Minnesotans, especially rural Minnesotans, is year-round access to fresh, healthy food.

How did the Fellowship help you overcome a challenge with your venture?
Friesner: GroShed has had numerous challenges. We’re in that strange space of creating our own market, because no one else is doing what we’re doing. One of the biggest challenges was to secure funding to buy equipment and expand our company. The Initiative Foundation has been there to help fill those gaps. They’re willing to take that risk because they know what you’re trying to accomplish and want to see you succeed.

What’s in it for people who might want to apply?
Metzo: When someone is starting out in business, it’s challenging to find an expert, accomplished mentor. Because of our deep relationships with Fellows, we can help them identify the support and training they need. We can also assist in building networks around the region to support them and their business. Cohorts are large enough to be their own support network but small enough that individual attention is central to all that we do.

How do I know if I’m ready for the Fellowship?
Voerding: We invest in ideas that are centered on creating positive social impact in a way that is transformational for you, your community and your region. If you have a clear vision for your enterprise and you’re driven to succeed and have the capacity to dedicate a minimum of 20 hours a week, you are ready to apply!

What is the commitment if I am selected?
Metzo: Fellows commit to weekly work on their business, monthly training sessions and quarterly in-person retreats. One other commitment involves our premier event every August. We call it the Brain Trust, and it provides Fellows with a unique opportunity to converse with leaders from statewide companies and nonprofits.

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FRIENDS & FELLOWS: The 2022-2023 cohort includes (back row, left to right) Kris Shelstad, Madison; Daniel Barrientez, Bemidji; Nora Hertel,  St. Michael; Khalif Ahmed Bashir, Willmar; (front row) Brenna Rollie,  Fosston; Noreen Thomas, Moorhead; Alex Ostenson, Evansville; and Fardowsa Iman, St. Cloud. (Photo by Paul Middlestaedt)  

How does the Initiators Fellowship set you up for success?
Friesner: My mentor pressed me to figure out what we do as a business and how to do it really well. That was invaluable because, like a lot of entrepreneurs, I’m a big thinker. It’s easy to get distracted and go in a thousand different directions. The mentorship forced me to ask questions that our team still asks on a weekly basis. “Does this fit our long-term mission and vision?” If it does, let’s move forward with it. If it doesn’t, let’s not get distracted. Plus, their support meant I had a safety net. That allowed me to run my business with a clearer mind, because it alleviated some of the worry and stress.

What can you gain from your continued alliance with Fellowship alumni, your mentor, and the wider network?
Friesner: So much of owning a business is about who you know. The Initiative Foundation and its partners seem to have a bottomless well of people they know. I’m always amazed if I send out an email asking for help or support. Before long, I usually receive an outpouring of responses and resources. You can’t put a price tag on that.


Check Your Eligibility and Apply

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Interested? Know someone who would be a good fit? Visit fellows.greaterminnesota.net to learn more or to complete an eligibility quiz. The online application for the Initiators Fellowship is open May 1 through noon on June 15.


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