What a difference two years makes
Seven social entrepreneurs recently graduated from the 2020-2021 Initiators Fellowship in Greater Minnesota. They spent the last two years working on bold ideas to solve big challenges in their communities. Each fellow was supported by an executive mentor, $60,000 in financial resources and a rich ecosystem of regional leaders to help them grow and flourish.
Meet the two Initiators Fellowship alums from our region and read about their experiences in their own words.
Backing Native artists
Anne O’Keefe-Jackson is a member of the Caŋṡa’yapi Oyate (Lower Sioux Indian Community), an artist, an entrepreneur and a human resources professional. Her fellowship focused on building a Native arts supply business, Mni Sota 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. I have a hard time imagining working or living anywhere else. It’s very much a sense of community.
My goal with the Initiators Fellowship was to increase the availability of traditional art supplies for Native artists. In our community, we don’t have a lot of area artists. It’s just emerging here. I’m really trying to bring voice to those people and recognition for them.
There’s a huge desire for this in our communities, to support artists, to create. But access is sometimes difficult. I’m trying to support artists who want to do work and help them understand this is important work they’re doing.
I would also like to have a space to exhibit artwork and to have Native artists come and perform. 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.
Working with Southwest Initiative Foundation, it’s a relationship like no other. I’ve never had an experience where people are just like, “How can I support you?” Especially with the Initiators Fellowship, that’s been lifechanging – the connections and networking and just the opportunity it’s created.
The foundation has just been amazing. Scott, Diana, Pablo – they’re not just, “This is what I do for work.” They’re really invested in the communities they’re working with, and you can tell. It’s been an ongoing relationship of not only what can I do for you, but, “Can you help with Welcoming Week? Do you want to reach out to this woman about the needs of and having daycare in your community?” It’s also about building connections here. It’s not just a money thing. It’s building a real foundation. They show up. They support you. It’s a support network.
As part of the fellowship, Anne worked with mentors Mary V. Bordeaux and Peter J. Strong of Racing Magpie, a Lakota-centric arts and culture organization in South Dakota. They gave Anne critical support in clarifying and expanding her vision. In addition to the fellowship, Anne collaborates with Southwest Initiative Foundation on several projects. In her role as Human Resources Director at Jackpot Junction Casino Hotel, Anne is a partner in our new Southwest Initiative Employer Resource Network® (ERN), an innovative approach to workforce development. She has also served as a local coordinator as part of region-wide Welcoming Week activities in southwest Minnesota.
Closing the justice gap
Erin Schutte Wadzinski is an attorney in her hometown of Worthington. Her social enterprise is Kivu Immigration Law, a law firm focused on closing the justice gap in Greater Minnesota.
Prior to receiving the fellowship, I had returned home to Worthington after 10 formative years on the East Coast to accept a position as an attorney at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota (ILCM). At ILCM, I received all sorts of calls from local residents with questions and requests for assistance. But due to funding limitations and staff capacity, ILCM was not able to meet all the immigration-related needs of the community. I wanted to provide legal services that were not available through existing resources.
My time spent working in the field of immigration law in Worthington was absolutely crucial in my ability to launch my own practice in Worthington. Among other valuable experiences I had with ILCM, I gained an understanding of the legal landscape in southwest Minnesota and what kinds of resources were not readily available but were in demand among immigrants and refugees.
Kivu Immigration Law serves refugees and asylees, unaccompanied minors, permanent residents, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, victims of crimes, and family members of U.S. citizens — all of whom have immigration needs that we can meet. Kivu Law helps lawful permanent residents with the naturalization application process so that green card holders can become U.S. citizens.
We guide people in exploring options for employment based visas to help meet hiring needs and provide employment authorization to our region’s workforce. We support victims of domestic violence, trafficking, and other serious crimes in seeking immigration benefits.
While I honestly never expected I would return home permanently, I had never stopped calling Worthington home. This sense of belonging, which is perhaps also a very privileged position of garnering community trust and support, served as a platform to get involved in the community. It was the financial support that really lured me in to applying for the Initiators Fellowship. However, I realized that it’s really the networks, the mentorship and the encouragement from the fellowship that has been the most invaluable to me. The fellowship focuses on you as a person as much as your business idea.
I’m so grateful to Southwest Initiative Foundation and other fellowship partners to be able to be part of this esteemed network of entrepreneurs, philanthropists and changemakers. The Initiators Fellowship gave me the extra boost I needed to launch my social enterprise. It has been more successful than I could have imagined.
Since launching Kivu Immigration Law two years ago, Erin has provided legal consultation to 500 immigrants, and she currently employs five people. In February, Kivu Immigration Law purchased an office building in downtown Worthington with help from Southwest Initiative Foundation’s Business Finance Loan Program. The building is larger than Kivu’s rented office and will provide space to continue growing the team. Erin has also been a partner with SWIF in hosting Lead For Minnesota Fellow Ricky Mojekwu and leading Welcoming Week activities in Worthington.
The Initiators Fellowship is a program of the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation to help aspiring social entrepreneurs fast-track their ideas, grow their social and professional networks and further develop their business and community leadership skills. Partners include Northwest Minnesota Foundation, Southwest Initiative Foundation and West Central Initiative.
Granite Partners, a mission-driven private investment and holding company based in St. Cloud, worked in concert with the Initiative Foundation to develop the Initiators Fellowship program and provides critical funding. The Bush Foundation and Sourcewell have also made a financial commitment to support the fellows on their business-building journey.
New cohort of fellows
From a community journalist with a goal to surface community-centered challenges and solutions to an entrepreneur creating felon-friendly employment to a grocery store owner creating food access, the field of eight fellows for the 2022-2023 Initiators Fellowship cohort has been selected.
The fellows from southwest Minnesota are Khalif Ahmed Bashir of Willmar and Kristine Shelstad of Madison.