7 Fine Fellows
The expanded Initiators Fellowship supports emerging social entrepreneurs in Greater Minnesota. Meet our new cohort of regional difference-makers.
By Lynette Lamb | Photography by John Linn & Michael Schoenecker
Designed to develop new leaders and accelerate social entrepreneurship across Greater Minnesota, the Initiators Fellowship program is an opportunity to support people who are eager and ready to make a difference. “We’re trying to find people who have the ability to make things happen in their communities and regions,” said Jeff Wig, Initiative Foundation vice president for entrepreneurship. “We want to elevate high-potential leaders.”
Indoor Agriculture | Crow Wing County
A devoted gardener, Jonathan Friesner wondered how he could grow food during Minnesota’s long off-season. Now, he is part of a six-person collaboration that has solved the challenge using their new product, GroShed. An automated indoor agriculture solution, a GroShed building—or farm—employs nutrient-rich water rather than soil and can be used to grow produce year-round.
The all-volunteer GroShed team is investing their time, effort, and money in this passion project. “There is lots of processed food around here,” Friesner said. “Gaining access to fresh, local foods is almost impossible in Northern Minnesota outside of our short growing season.”
To change the equation, Friesner, a former contractor, and his partners have scaled down typical hydroponics echnology so the average person can grow what they want: tomatoes, broccoli, onions, herbs, lettuces, peppers, chilies.
By early 2020, GroShed had sold seven shed-sized farms and was fielding interest from a range of potential customers—from restaurants to food shelves. For now, the startup is sticking to Minnesota customers. “We want to see as many farms as possible in our own state so we can warranty and fix things easily,” said Friesner.
He dreams of bringing fresh food to Minnesotans, and he envisions boosting the state’s economy as larger commercial farmers realize GroShed’s potential for providing winter income. “Rural Minnesota is a place of great innovation and untapped resources, but we’re frequently overlooked and can’t always compete with Twin Cities operations,” he said. “It’s so cool that the Initiative Foundation is seeking out ingenuity and entrepreneurship in the rest of the state. [Ours] is a big mission, but we absolutely believe it’s doable.”
Jonathan's mentor is Mike Dillon
President of Lexington Manufacturing in Brainerd.
Sober Housing | Stearns County
When Hamdia Mohamed’s husband first came to the United States from Ethiopia, he was homeless for a time. Later, after the couple moved to St. Cloud, the convenience store they owned was next door to a shelter. “We have seen a lot of people struggling with homelessness,” said Mohamed, “and we would like to help those people get back on their feet.”
To achieve that goal, the couple sold their convenience store and bought two duplexes and a house in which they provide sober housing for men in long-term recovery or who are coming out of treatment, some of whom were previously homeless. Named Victory Plus Housing, the organization rents rooms for $500 a month, which includes transportation and counseling services.
For now, Victory Plus Housing has 10 rooms—already in great demand in St. Cloud—but “we are planning to buy more houses as we go,” said Mohamed. “We are getting a lot of phone calls from social service agencies.”
Mohamed and her husband have their hearts in this project. “We know the struggle,” she said. “You lose dignity and worth when you don’t have a place to live. It means a lot to us to help people in need and to help transform their lives.”
HAMDIA’S MENTOR IS LISA MAURER
Senior vice president of business banking for Bremer Bank in St. Cloud
Tribal Arts | Renville County
Anne O’Keefe-Jackson has lived on the Lower Sioux Indian reservation for 15 years, but only in the last five has she focused on tribal arts.
“There’s been a real resurgence of interest in traditional arts on the reservation and in this community of Morton, Minnesota,” she said. “We’re bringing that back as an important cultural piece.”
While learning beadwork, quilting and quill work from master tribal artists, O’Keefe-Jackson noticed that obtaining the proper supplies wasn’t easy. Her goal during her time as an Initiators Fellow is to focus on sourcing and providing authentic materials.
“We need beads, rawhide, quills. Right now, we have to either drive to Minneapolis or order something sight unseen from the internet,” she said. One example: O’Keefe-Jackson prefers brain-tanned hides to those that are chemically tanned because they are easier to sew. Unfortunately, finding the people who do that work is a challenge.
O’Keefe-Jackson envisions outfitting a trailer or a small school bus with supplies and possibly a small gallery, which she can bring to any location where an artist is teaching. “I’d like to push it out further than my own reservation,” she said. “With relocation and boarding schools, many of these arts were lost. And now so many people want to learn.”
ANNE’S MENTOR IS MARY BORDEAUX
Co-owner and creative director of Racing Magpie in Rapid City, S.D., and a vice president with the First Peoples Fund.
Cheesemaking & Agricultural Tourism | Stearns County
When she was 16, Alise Sjostrom returned from a 4-H trip and announced to her parents that she planned to become a cheesemaker. Unlike many adolescent dreams, hers came true.
To make it happen, Sjostrom developed her own major at the University of Minnesota—a combination of applied economics, food science and agricultural marketing. Next, she worked for established cheese operations in Vermont and Wisconsin.
Today the 34-year-old runs Redhead Creamery on the Brooten-area farm where she grew up. Sjostrom and her husband, Lucas, now co-own the farm with her parents, Linda and Jerry Jennissen. While the Jennissens care for 200 dairy cows—the source of Redhead Creamery’s milk—Alise runs the cheesemaking operation, which she started in 2014.
From its own building on the family farm, Redhead Creamery sells cheese online and in a retail outlet. They offer tours and host concerts and other events. Sjostrom hopes to use her term in the Initiators Fellowship to increase the business’s educational offerings. “Our whole family is passionate about teaching people about agriculture and dairy farming,” she said. “We hope to expand that aspect of our business and make it profitable.”
What shape that takes remains to be seen. “It could be anything from beer tastings to school tours,” Sjostrom said. She hopes the Fellowship program will help her determine which of her ideas are financially viable.
Meanwhile, she has her hands full with Redhead Creamery, as well as with her three young children. In fact, Sjostrom went into labor with her youngest child the same day she learned she had been selected for the Initiators Fellowship. “I’m still kind of soaking it all in,” she said later. “That was quite a week.”
ALISE’S MENTOR IS NICOLE FERNHOLZ
Executive director of the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission.
Youth Empowerment | Clay County
Over the period of a dozen years working as a lunch lady, security worker and paraeducator in the Fargo and Moorhead school districts, Rachel Stone watched the struggle between students and teachers. “There was a wall or gap there that prevented some students from focusing on education,” she said. “And I realized that first they needed to understand that they’re loved and supported; they needed help coping with life experiences.”
Her years as “Mama Rachel,” when she saw the impact she could have even while “serving nuggets and mashed potatoes,” set the stage for Stone’s empowerment program for youth—P’s and Q’s Etiquette. Although she offers a variety of classes, her capstone course, “Leaderlicious,” focuses on learning to lead, discovering strengths and goals and speaking out. “I take it step by step. How do you use your voice in a positive manner? How can you take control of your lives?”
Starting this youth empowerment program represents the fulfillment of a promise Stone made to herself when she was a struggling Chicago teenager. “I vowed if I could ever do something to help girls, I would—I have a passion for that.” Later, after parenting three sons and recognizing that most of the kids getting kicked out of school were boys, she expanded her program to support girls and boys.
Support from the Initiators Fellowship program will help Stone and her students start a youth publication, which she considers a critical piece for their community. “Our [children of color] don’t see themselves represented in this region,” she said. “They need a place to share their stories and to shine.”
RACHEL’S MENTOR IS KARA GRAVLEY-STACK
Dean of students at Minnesota State University Moorhead
MARC VAN HERR
Mental Health Advocacy | Stearns County
When Marc Van Herr found out he had diabetes five years ago, the St. Cloud man immediately shared his diagnosis on social media. That experience led him to an epiphany: Why had he so readily told the world about his diabetes when he had never felt free to share openly about his bipolar disorder, which he’d been managing for a decade? “When I realized that both conditions are chemical imbalances that require medicine for my body to work properly, a light went on,” he said.
That light is now shining throughout Central Minnesota, thanks to the project that Van Herr was inspired to start. The mission of The Beautiful Mind Project is to “change the way we treat mental health in our community, both from a cultural and clinical perspective.”
To achieve that, The Beautiful Mind Project has three parts: providing mental health education; granting college scholarships to youth who share how mental health has affected their lives; and establishing a network of mental health providers committed to providing same- or next-day appointments. “We’re like the Uber of mental health,” Van Herr said. “We connect people who need counseling with those who can provide it.”
The Beautiful Mind Project’s network of mental health providers has grown quickly, with eight locations in Central Minnesota and plans to have as many as 30 locations in Central and Southern Minnesota by year-end.
“Access is everything,” Van Herr said. “If you need help and you finally make that call but you can’t get an appointment for a month, you may lose motivation. We want people to quickly get the help they need.”
MARC’S MENTOR IS JOHN RUIS
Director of strategy and business development for St. Cloud law firm Quinlivan & Hughes and former United Way of Central Minnesota CEO and president.
ERIN SCHUTTE WADZINSKI
Immigration lawyer | Nobles County
After 10 years at Yale University—first as a student and then as a staff member—Erin Schutte Wadzinski came home to Worthington in 2018. She was drawn back to be closer to family and “to serve my community by providing immigration legal services.”
Schutte Wadzinski earned her law degree at night from the University of Connecticut while serving as director of Yale’s Young Global Scholars program. From afar, she watched as Worthington’s foreign-born immigrant community expanded to become a third of the city’s 13,000 residents. These new Americans hail from many regions, including Central America, East Africa and Southeast Asia. Many were attracted to jobs at the city’s large meat packing plant. Others moved to join family in the area.
Schutte Wadzinski spent her first months back in Worthington working for the St. Paul-based nonprofit Immigrant Law Center, which provides immigrants with free legal help. While there, she recognized a service gap. Her new firm, Kivu Immigration Law, which she will develop as an Initiators Fellow, will help immigrants who can’t qualify for free services but also cannot afford large hourly legal fees.
Schutte Wadzinski will offer below-market flat rates for legal services, “so a client will know up front how much it will cost to hire me.” She has signed a lease for a downtown storefront office and plans to hire a part-time bilingual legal assistant/office manager. Once her office is up and running, Schutte Wadzinski plans to handle about 15 clients a month, most of whom will be applying for green cards and citizenship or sponsoring family members seeking to move to the United States.
“Worthington’s immigrant population makes our city a special place,” she said. “I want people to hear that we are growing and thriving and understand that diversity is something our city should celebrate.”
ERIN’S MENTOR IS PATRICK COSTELLO
A partner at Costello, Carlson, Butzon & Schmit, LLP, in Lakefield.
This cohort of the Initiators Fellowship will graduate in December 2021. The goal is to strengthen each Fellow’s leadership within their respective communities and to support the growth and development of their social enterprise ventures. Visit ifound.org/give to support this important work.
Learn more about the Initiators Fellowship program by visiting greaterminnesota.net/fellows.
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