Inaugural Mille Lacs Tribal Economy Summit asks how can we create an inclusive growing economy in rural Minnesota

Samantha Erkkila, Digital Media Specialist

May 26, 2022

Earlier this week, the Entrepreneur Fund had the honor of co-sponsoring and participating in the inaugural Mille Lacs Tribal Economy Summit at Grand Casino in Onamia.

It was a great opportunity to learn from a variety of organizations who are all working together to support entrepreneurs and businesses within the Mille Lacs Tribal Economy, which encompasses Aitkin, Mille Lacs and Pine counties.

While there were many takeaways from the summit on May 23, we left thinking about how we can answer these three questions:

How do we rewrite the rural narrative?

You’ve heard the phrase, “In the middle of nowhere.” But that’s not how people in “nowhere” towns think about their community. Neil Linscheid with the University of Minnesota Extension challenged us to find positive stories in our rural communities that can be used to welcome newcomers.

Many people who move to rural areas are looking for that “small-town feel” or to feel safe or for a slower pace of life. Linscheid encouraged us to lean in and use those reasons to draw people and businesses to our town. Show that you are welcoming. Host events or invite new residents to lunch. Show them what you love about your town and keep that relationship going.

Here are some great examples of places in rural Minnesota that are showcasing why their community is a great place to live, work and play: Live Wide Open, 218 Relocate, Prairie Waters.

How can we create inclusive economic growth in the region?

According to the American Community Survey and Brookings Institution, 98% of growth in the nations’ 100 largest cities is from communities of color, and yet wage gaps, employment gaps and other inequities persist. Tawanna Black, CEO and founder of the Center for Economic Inclusion, said practices and polices are great but in order to have systems change it needs to go much further than that. She shared that 2/3 of CEOs believe they are doing a great job at creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace, but only 1/3 of those employees see it that way. The Center for Economic Inclusion uses data and community input to advance inclusive growth and achieve regional prosperity.

In relation to creating a more inclusive workplace, Joe Nayquonabe, Jr., CEO of Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures, provided examples of how he strives to be a servant leader and puts the needs of his employees first. He explained that when we celebrate our individual differences that is our company’s biggest strength.

How can we work together to support BIPOC entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneur Fund CEO Shawn Wellnitz joined fellow panelists in a discussion about what we can do today to support Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) entrepreneurs, not just financially, and what resources are available. Panelist Sarah Agaton-Howes, owner and CEO of Heart Berry, shared the barriers she experienced on her journey to starting and operating her business. She said she didn’t feel welcome, didn’t believe she could make it and wasn’t aware of the resources available. Her experience is something Entrepreneur Fund team members hear too often from BIPOC-owned businesses and it’s something we are intentionally trying to address with our new Stride program, which was unveiled at the summit.

Stride is a program for BIPOC entrepreneurs, either aspiring or currently in business, in which participants have a dedicated business advisor, have access to grants and 0% interest loan opportunities, gain skills and training on how to grow their business and have access to a network of entrepreneurs of color across the 17 counties we serve in northeastern and central Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin.

To learn more about Stride, contact Stephanie Williams at 218-623-5727 or fill out this short form if you are interested in participating.

Thank you to all the presenters and hosts Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures for challenging the way we think about what it means create an inclusive growing economy in rural Minnesota. We look forward to attending next year’s summit.

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