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Enterprise Academy Supports Entrepreneurs

April 18, 2018

Pilot program includes coaching, business planning, lending, marketing and technology assistance to help business startups and expansions

The Initiative Foundation has launched its Enterprise Academy, a new program to support small businesses and startup ventures within communities of people who traditionally have limited access to financing and business development tools. The first cohort is focused on St. Cloud’s East African population.

Enterprise AcademyThe effort expands upon a five-week training project supported by an Initiative Foundation grant in 2016 to help three dozen Somali residents create a business plan.

“Just that training wasn’t enough,” said Jeff Wig, vice president for economic and business development at the Foundation. “We knew we needed support beyond a training class.”

To create the Enterprise Academy program, the Initiative Foundation received a $200,000 grant and a $600,000 Equity Equivalent Investment from the Wells Fargo Works for Small Business: Diverse Community Capital program. Additional support for the Enterprise Academy comes from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in support of the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) and its Build from Within Alliance initiative.

The Initiative Foundation’s status as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) since 1997 made it an eligible participant in the Diverse Community Capital Program. The CDFI certification is awarded to financial entities that meet U.S. Department of the Treasury guidelines to support underserved communities.

“The Diverse Community Capital grant can be used in a number of ways to build a CDFI’s organizational capacity to serve diverse small businesses,” said Connie Smith, Wells Fargo’s Diverse Community Capital program manager. “The Initiative Foundation’s Enterprise Academy is a great example of how awardees use grant funds to serve diverse entrepreneurs.”

While the program is getting its start with St. Cloud’s East African community, its training, micro-lending, and other assistance for entrepreneurs has relevance across the 14 counties served by the Initiative Foundation.

“Our goal is to explore where this model will work in other areas of our region,” said Matt Varilek, Initiative Foundation president. “There’s no question we view this as a long-term strategy that can help all of Central Minnesota, and that it complements our long-standing work to cultivate small-business success.”

The centerpiece of the Enterprise Academy is a 12-week business planning course, the first cohort of which began on April 7. Participants who complete the course will also have access to targeted business lending and customized one-on-one technical support in many of the areas that challenge new entrepreneurs—from developing logos and handouts to creating a bookkeeping system or a pleasing store layout. “Our aim is to provide comprehensive support for new entrepreneurs so they have the tools to start a viable business—and be set up for long-term success,” Wig said.

Building on a Successful Model

The Initiative Foundation is partnering with the Twin Cities-based Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) to build and implement the Enterprise Academy program.

Since its start more than 25 years ago, the NDC has trained 5,000 people and has provided some $18 million in financing. The NDC’s efforts in the Twin Cities have resulted in the creation of 650 active businesses that have created 2,400 jobs.

“Our job is to provide wealth-building tools to people who have not had access to these kinds of opportunities before," said Isabel Chanslor, the NDC’s chief program officer. "We're building entrepreneurs to build neighborhoods, and hopefully these entrepreneurs become neighborhood and civic leaders."

While hard work and long hours are required, entrepreneurship training can help first-generation Americans climb out of poverty the way previous generations of new immigrant groups have done. The Enterprise Academy’s goal is to help them succeed, and that excites local leaders like Abdirizak Jama, an Enterprise Academy trainer who serves on the Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization’s executive committee.

“The amount of opportunity that this will bring to the community of St. Cloud is just mind-blowing,” he said.

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