Elevate program founded to support diverse businesses, entrepreneurs

The Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar’s Economic Development Commission began training the second Elevate class of entrepreneurs and local business owners Sept. 16.

Seeing her dreams become reality, Hteh-Hteh Hta Rue opened her store, Chaw’s Asian Market, after graduating from the inaugural Elevate class. Tim Speier / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — The Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar’s Economic Development Commission began training the second Elevate class of entrepreneurs and local business owners Sept. 16.

The 12-week Elevate course offers hands-on training in business planning and management while providing business education and coaching specifically tailored to underserved minority entrepreneurs in the county.


The EDC partnered with the Southwest Initiative Foundation in 2017 to design and implement a Business Retention and Expansion Program for diverse businesses after a survey they had funded found an increasing number of minority-owned businesses opening in and around Willmar.

Graduating top of his class, Abdilahi Omar, owner of Ainu-Shams Grocery, found that even after running a successful business for 10 years, he was able to take what he learned at Elevate and implement it at his shop to run a more successful business. Omar is pictured here in his store in September 2021. Tim Speier / West Central Tribune

Sarah Swedburg, the EDC’s business development manager, took control of the program after longtime manager Connie Schmoll retired from the EDC in May.

Schmoll led the implementation of Willmar’s Elevate program before stepping down. She is currently training to become an Elevate instructor.

In order to be accepted into the program, applicants must first attend one of Elevate’s information sessions.

“Information sessions are a requirement for applying to the class for students,” Swedburg said. “I think they're also a good opportunity for community members or supporters who have small businesses to understand and get to know a little bit more about Elevate.”

If applicants decide that they would like to be considered for the program, they would then fill out the required paperwork on their current business or a business proposal.

Swedburg said their target class size would be around 10 students and Elevate estimates the costs of the 12-week program to be around $3,000 per student.


That fee was waived for the students who attended the program in 2021 after Elevate received funding for its first year from the Southwest Initiative Foundation.

Looking at the graduates

The program’s first class graduated in June 2021.

Stephanie Thompson, the owner of Wings Gymnastics, encourages 8-year-old Bailee Peterson, left, 7-year-old Sommer Slinkard, center, and 7-year-old Zoie Meis to keep practicing in this September 2021 photo. Tim Speier / West Central Tribune

Three of the five graduates already owned a business in Willmar; Stephanie Thompson, owner of Wings Gymnastics , had just purchased the company in January.

Thompson was hesitant to take the course.

“I was timid at first because I didn't know anything about it,” said Thompson. “But I chose to do it and I'm very happy I did because I did learn a lot. I think it did add a lot of aspects to my business that I didn't necessarily know of.”

Over the summer, that inaugural class saw its fourth graduate open for business.

Hteh-Hteh Hta Rue had her dream become a reality when she opened Chaw’s Asian Market.


As for the three graduates who were already running successful businesses without any formal training, Elevate works to teach its students how to better manage a small business.

From marketing to inventory control, Abdilahi Omar, owner of Ainu-Shams Grocery, found that he has better control and understanding of his finances.

“If you're starting a new business, (Elevate) helps every step of the way,” Thompson said. “From getting the loans to talking to people about the building that you're wanting to purchase. I mean, they're willing to help you with anything. I think that’s a huge aspect of this class is being able to get everything you need and have help with it, because they're there for you.”

Shopping with her mother at Amin Grocery, 4-year-old Nasra Abdullhi is intent on getting her jar of candies opened in this September 2021 photo. Tim Speier / West Central Tribune

Elevate looks to continue giving more minority business owners the skills to succeed and looks forward to building partnerships with more community business owners.

The program is currently teaching its second class and is scheduled to finish Dec. 9, with graduation at 5 p.m. Dec. 15 at the Willmar Education and Arts Center .

This story was originally published in the West Central Tribune's IMPACT edition on Oct. 23, 2021. More stories in this section can be found at

Related Topics: WILLMAR
Tim Speier joined the Brainerd Dispatch in October 2021, covering Public Safety.
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