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Necessity: The Mother of Social Innovation

We have all likely heard the dire predictions of a nationwide shortage of ventilators as the COVID-19 virus spreads across the United States.

On March 26, news came out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that MIT-based teams were working on rapid deployment of open-source, low-cost ventilators. MIT plans to circulate clinical and design considerations online to support rapid production and to alleviate hospital shortages.

MIT has clearly invested a variety of resources into this effort, yet they are providing open-source design specifications to their intellectual property to help, not to monetize.

In times of crisis, social and environmental needs often are in the spotlight. Moments such as these lead entrepreneurs and innovators to look for, or serendipitously discover, new opportunities. For instance, Initiators Fellow Jon Friesner, founder of GroShed, an efficient, self-contained hydroponic growing system, has seen interest in his product rise as people consider the advantage of being more self-sufficient when local food distribution networks are interrupted. Alise Sjostrom of Redhead Creamery, another member of the Initiators Fellowship program, is discovering and creating new ways to sell and deliver her locally produced cheese while demonstrating the importance of sustainable family farms.

Fellows Rachel Stone and Marc Van Herr run nonprofits that provide essential human services. Stones’s youth empowerment program, P’s & Q’s Etiquette, and Van Herr’s mental health care initiative, The Beautiful Mind Project, will undoubtedly see service demands grow as this crisis lengthens. They have new opportunities to meet increasing demand and deliver services in new ways.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson’s vision for a Dakota Arts Center will, among other things, provide traditional native arts supplies to local artists and will clearly fill a niche, providing source material for productive ways of spending one’s time while sheltering in place. Hamdia Mohamed’s Victory Plus Housing provides supportive sober homes for people whose sobriety could be even more at risk under the stress of uncertainty in their lives. And Erin Schutte Wadzinski’s Kivu Immigration Law office continues to provide legal assistance to immigrants in Southwest Minnesota, many of whom are deemed essential workers in the agriculture industry.

In addition to innovation, times of crisis demand leadership. People need to step forward and help. The Initiators Fellowship focuses not just on enterprise growth but also on leadership development. We believe the two go together in helping build our Greater Minnesota communities and economies. Our current Fellows are proving the wisdom of our program model as they step into new leadership roles.

In times such as these, we are all called to be social innovators. What’s your innovation, and how can we help?



By Chris Fastner, Initiators Fellowship program manager. Contact Chris at
 or by calling (320) 631-2019.