Meet the 2020-2021 Fellows selected to represent Central, Southwest and West Central Minnesota

seven Chosen to advance their social enterprise ideas

From a hydroponic growing system that allows for year-round fresh produce to an immigration-focused law firm with an innovative and affordable fee structure, the field of seven fellows for the 2020-2021 Initiators Fellowship promises to lead the way in building greater good in Greater Minnesota through entrepreneurship.

Central Minnesota Fellows

Jonathan Friesner

Crow Wing County: Hydroponics

Much of my family and my wife’s family live in Emily or the surrounding area. After starting a family, we decided to move back closer to home for the family support and a solid network of opportunity. The beauty of this area is a huge draw for many people, including us. Everyone in our family enjoys the many outdoor activities this area provides.

With GroShed, I want to provide communities with a year-round food production system that is capable of growing foods that best reflect the communities needs and desires while simultaneously creating economic value that remains local.

Rural Minnesota is a massive food desert. Finding fresh foods in the off season is extremely difficult. By utilizing indoor agriculture, we can see a huge shift in this reality. Many communities have thriving farmers markets and cooperatives, but they only operate for a small portion of the year. What if those markets continued through the winter? We want to see communities healthier physically, by altering what’s available, and healthier economically by providing the opportunity for farmers to turn a year-round profit instead of a seasonal one.

I love people. Our slogan is Grow Local, Eat Local, Love Local. I believe people want better and have strong convictions about our current food system dilemma and the fact that we have too much processed foods in our diet. What they lack is an outlet for that passion. How do you eat more vegetables and fresh foods when they are not available? Indoor agriculture provides a practical solution to that problem. My biggest inspiration comes from the people we meet while traveling with our farm. They are so excited to see what GroShed is doing and dream about the possibilities for their own community. Where we invest our love, we invest our lives. I want to invest in my own community and abroad as much as I can in as practical of a way as I can. Food brings people together like no other medium. It is something we all share and have to do to survive. What better place to love people than to alter the food system in a healthy way?s

Hamdia Mohamed

Stearns County: Sober Homes

I was born in Ethiopia and now make my home in St. Cloud. I chose Central Minnesota because I thought it would be a good place to raise my children.

I would like to reduce the negative impacts of isolation, depression, addiction and health problems for homeless populations in Central Minnesota by providing safe, secure and clean residential properties and an array of additional support services including transportation, medical appointment support and social services support.

By providing stability to this population, there will be a decrease in the number of homeless individuals, a decrease in healthcare costs for the community, and a decrease in the number of mental health and legal issues this population faces.

Seeing loved ones who have faced homelessness and the challenges that came with it inspired me to strive to create a safe and secure residential facility where individuals can heal and become productive citizens of our community.

Marc Van Herr

Stearns County: mental health

I was born in St. Paul but now make my home in St. Cloud because it’s a growing community with excellent opportunities to raise a family. It’s a city big enough to provide a thriving arts, music and theater scene yet small enough to feel a true sense of community.

Our mission at The Beautiful Mind Project is to change the way our community treats mental health, from both a cultural perspective as well as a clinical perspective.

Our program will fill a gap in mental health care that is desperately needed, which is access to a therapist within 24 hours.

The inspiration for this program was borne out of my own personal experiences. It wasn’t unusual to have to wait 4 to 8 weeks or longer, in some cases, for a mental health appointment, which I found profoundly unacceptable.

Southwest Minnesota Fellows

Anne O'Keefe-Jackson

Renville County: Tribal Arts

I was born in Minneapolis and make my home on the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation in Morton. This is the community my ancestors are from. All members of my immediate family have moved back to the reservation over the years.

My social enterprise goal is to increase the availability of traditional art supplies for native artists. I would also like to have a space to exhibit artwork and to have native artists come and perform.

I think it would bring a great awareness to all of the beautiful artwork and traditions that are being preserved. I also think it would help artist to be able to continue working on their pieces if supplies were readily available.

I have always wanted a gathering place with beautiful artwork and supplies for sale, a place where community members could gather, connect and build relationships.

Erin Schutte Wadzinski

Nobles County: Immigration

Upon graduation from high school, I moved to Connecticut for college and lived on the East Coast for the next 10 years while I attended college, started my career, and graduated from law school. However, when I became interested in practicing immigration law, I made the deliberate decision to move back home to Worthington so that I could use my skills to assist an underserved community that I know and love. I am passionate about opening a law firm specifically in Worthington to help meet the demand for immigration legal assistance in my hometown.

My goal is to increase access to affordable and high-quality legal representation to immigrants and refugees from all financial backgrounds residing in Southwest Minnesota by opening an immigration law firm in Worthington.

Even though one-third of Worthington’s residents are foreign-born immigrants (the highest percentage anywhere in the state), there are no private law firms in Southwest Minnesota that practice immigration law. My law firm would address the current shortage of immigration services in Southwest Minnesota so that rural residents do not need to travel several hours to Minneapolis or Omaha for legal assistance.

I currently work at a nonprofit in Worthington that provides free legal services to low-income immigrants and refugees, and while I find this work very fulfilling, I’ve realized that many immigrants in need of legal representation do not financially qualify for the nonprofit’s free services. Besides the nonprofit, there are no other entities in the local area that practice immigration law. The desire to address and close this obvious local resource gap inspires me to start my own firm that would serve immigrants from all financial backgrounds by offering below-market, fixed-rate legal services on immigration-related matters.

West Central Minnesota Fellows

Elke Richards

Douglas County: Local Foods

I grew up in Nisswa and Red Wing but now make my home in Alexandria. The two biggest reasons we looked at living in Alexandria was because of the excellent public schools and because of the beautiful lakes. There is a diverse economy here with industry, farming and healthcare leading the way.

My goal is to connect people with food, producers and our environment. I also want to increase awareness of environmental sustainability and uplift our local farmers, which boosts rural economies. Another goal is to educate our community on the “why” and “how” Venn will be the business leader in plastic- and food-waste reduction, food security, and growing a healthy rural community.

We will be the community hub for healthy, local food and educational opportunities. All are welcome, no matter a person’s social or economic status. We are applying to accept both SNAP and WIC benefits. We have been in conversation with the Minnesota Extension office to get educational programming ready so we can have a greater impact for our social benefits users. Our community will have direct and consistent access to healthy, local and whole foods with which they can nourish their families. Our deli chef is full of innovation and ready to take on the challenge of cooking both seasonably and healthy. Instead of grabbing a burger, our community will have the opportunity to “grab and go” a healthy sandwich or wrap or enjoy some homemade soup. Venn will also begin purchasing from our local farmers on a consistent basis, which gives them opportunities to grow economically as well. Right now, our farmers are limited to weekend farmers markets in the summer, and now many of them will be able to sell to us year-round. This model is a benefit for everyone.

My kids. As I look around at all of the “Big Ag” that has swallowed up so many of our small family farms, I am literally surrounded by food with nothing to eat. Our soils are depleted, our waterways are contaminated, and 90 percent of our American food waste ends up in landfills, which is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases. What kind of a legacy am I leaving for my girls? Our kids are ready to take on the challenge, but it’s up to us to set up the infrastructure so they can actually accomplish real change. We need to normalize organics recycling, cover crops, reducing plastic waste, paying livable wages and taking care of our rural economies. It matters.

Rachel Stone

Clay County: Youth Leadership

I grew up in the Chicago area and now make my home in Moorhead, where I work for the Moorhead public school system. The connections and relationships made with both the students and school staff were absolutely rewarding and made a lasting impression on me. It was then that I was convinced to move my husband and three sons from across the bridge in Fargo to Moorhead. The schools have been very supportive, and I love the big family neighborhood. It’s a great place to raise my family, and the opportunities are endless. With the motto, The Strong Belong, I know that I am truly blessed to live in such a wonderful community!

Our mission is to equip our youth by giving them the knowledge and leadership skills needed to help them reach their greatest potential, manage daily activities and face new situations all with a greater self-confidence. It’s also my goal to create career pathways that expose our students to opportunities promoting higher education and entrepreneurship.

Our communities are growing and becoming quite diverse. The great need for youth leadership in our communities means that we will always benefit from youth programs. We envision thriving communities in which all members are supported and connected through meaningful relationships and experiences to achieve success by bridging gaps, building together, finding solutions, and inspiring others, especially our youth. We want to build our youth and encourage them to grow and invest in their local communities.

Oftentimes, when I am around our little people, it’s like looking into a mirror. I also have three teenage sons and I want them to have the opportunities to continue to grow and be successful in our world. There are so many gaps and unmet needs when it comes to our youth, and my heart is to encourage them to break cycles, to create opportunities to lead, and to do whatever I can to bring change and unity in our community. I was born for someone else.

Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds have limited opportunities to express their hopes and dreams for their future with a caring adult. They have limited opportunities to interact with professionals in real life that may be in those educational or career roles that look like them or interest them, and to experience the support of their educational futures from a variety of caring adults. Our children are our future leaders, and we have to pour into them, because they shape our world.