In a 2017 survey, the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission found an increasing number of minority-owned businesses opening in and around Willmar.
The EDC report was sponsored with a grant from Southwest Initiative Foundation to design and implement a Business Retention and Expansion Program for diverse businesses in the Willmar area.
Elevate is a program specifically tailored to underserved minority entrepreneurs within Kandiyohi County. The program was created in conjunction with Rising Tide Capital to help individuals start and grow successful businesses in their communities through collaborations with other nonprofit organizations, corporations and public agencies.
“This program (Elevate) was brought here to invest in the people who choose to live, start or expand their businesses in Willmar because this is where they want their families, children and businesses to thrive,” said Diana Anderson, president and CEO of Southwest Initiative Foundation. “This program invests in people who want to be here, the people we want to be here.”
Elevate was not the first program that the foundation and the Economic Development Commission looked at, but it was the first one that met the needs of the community, said Connie Schmoll, the EDC’s former business development manager. She continues to work under contract for the EDC on broadband planning.
Schmoll led the implementation of Willmar’s Business Retention and Expansion Program before retiring in May.
“We have a lot of great entrepreneurs with great ideas,” Schmoll said. “They don't necessarily have a background in business management. Even though they're doing it.”
Lacking certain skills became increasingly evident as the pandemic swept through the country, leaving many businesses in need of assistance.
“When it came to (applying for) some of the grants that we had through the pandemic, there's where we really saw the need for some basic training,” Schmoll said, “because people had to gather their financials together, and their bookkeeping skills didn't allow them to really submit good financials for their business. We really had to help a lot of people (through) that process.”
After starting and running his own business for more than 10 years, Abdilahi Omar, owner of Ainu-Shams Grocery, ended up needing financial help to make it through the hard times brought on by the pandemic.
After getting help with his paperwork at the EDC, Omar signed up and was accepted into the Elevate program.
Omar said he was able to gain skills in “financing” and “technology,” saying that those skills had been “limiting factors” in operating a successful business.
“The homework lessons are all about your business,” said Stephanie Thompson, owner of Wings Gymnastics. “So if you do them, you're helping your business. If you don't do it, then you're only hurting your business. So it was great to be able to put your business in the homework and really figure out the numbers, and what you need to do to make your business better.”
One of the last assignments given to the class was writing a business brief about their business or planned future business with the best brief being awarded a new laptop. Schmoll read the winning brief aloud; Omar smiled as his brief was read.
Both the EDC and Southwest Initiative Foundation would like to get more trainers trained to continue implementing the program in Kandiyohi County and grow to include other counties across the state.
“We are hoping to find funding partners for expansion to another community, and also to keep it sustainable in Willmar,” said Scott Marquardt, the foundation's senior vice president. “The goal is to make the curriculum affordable to the entrepreneurs.”
A fall 2021 Elevate class will begin in September, with information sessions starting this month. Information can be found on the Elevate website at elevatebusinessacademy.com, and interested parties may inquire about the program at email@example.com or check EDC's social media pages for dates around mid-July.
Abdiqani Mahamed, Hikam Trucking
Abdilahi Omar, Ainu-Shams Grocery
Hteh Hteh Hta Rue, Chaw’s Asian Market
Stephanie Thompson, Wings Gymnastics
Abdiweli Yusuf, Amin Grocery