Bella Lam got her first big break in the business world when she was just a college student with a craving for cookies.
“I went vegan and gluten-free in my sophomore year of college, and there weren’t any vegan or gluten-free baking mixes at the supermarket. That spawned my idea,” says Lam, who was then a student majoring in public health at Minnesota State University, Mankato. What if she and her boyfriend, psychology major Myles Olson, invented baking mixes that they and other vegans could enjoy?
Minnesota State Mankato holds an annual Big Ideas Challenge, a Shark Tank-style competition where winners in various divisions get cash prizes to help them develop their businesses. Lam and Olson decided to enter. First, though, they thought they’d get some advice from people who know more about business than they do.
The pair’s next stop was the Mankato chapter of 1 Million Cups, a nationwide entrepreneur peer-education program started in 2012 by the Kansas City, Mo.–based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. At monthly 1 Million Cups meetings, two presenters each spend six minutes talking about their companies, which have to be less than five years old.
After the presentations, attendees can ask questions, offer feedback, suggest connections, or volunteer help. The Mankato chapter meets at Mankato State’s Small Business Development Center; other chapters are active in St. Paul, Eden Prairie, Minneapolis, Rochester, Willmar, and Winona.
“1 Million Cups was a practice place for pitching to the judges at the Big Ideas Challenge,” Lam says. “It really boosted our confidence. People liked the food and saw what we saw, as far as where we wanted to take our company.”
The students made valuable connections, too. Yvonne Cariveau, director of Mankato State’s Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, connected Lam and Olson with Angie and Dan Bastian, who started Angie’s BoomChickaPop. “They just happen to be old friends of mine. Bella and Myles wanted to meet them because they’re also a couple who grew something from small to big,” Cariveau says.
Lam and Olson got a meeting with the Bastians within a week. “Angie gave them great advice on getting into Hy-Vee, and Hy-Vee in Lakeville gave them a spot where they sold out,” Cariveau says. “They were really smart about gathering an informal group of advisors around them.”
Minnesota’s institutions of higher learning offer a variety of bachelor’s, master’s, and even doctoral degrees in business, marketing, finance, and other subjects connected with starting and running a business. But area entrepreneurs might not need to earn a four-year degree to pursue their passions full time or develop an energizing side hustle. Freestanding courses, certificate offerings, and programs that connect would-be business owners with feedback and expert advice might be the right fit for an entrepreneur who wants to launch a venture.
Mankato State offers a minor in entrepreneurship, and continuing education students can take classes in finance, leadership, project management, or marketing, although the school doesn’t offer a certificate in any of those topics. (Cariveau says that certificate programs are under discussion.)
Other Minnesota educational institutions offer more structured small business programs. The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, for instance, provides executive education classes, mostly in three-day blocks. “We offer finance for nonfinance people, creating high-performance teams, which can be 90 percent of the battle, and other leadership and innovation classes. Those can help round out a person’s background,” says John Stavig, director of Carlson’s Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship.
The school has full-time MBA students, of course, but students from a variety of university departments also take Carlson’s innovation and entrepreneurship courses, which are available in person and online.
“We’ve put in a lot of effort over the past six to eight years around helping people from a variety of departments commercialize their technology,” Stavig says. “Quite often those result in the University of Minnesota Office of Technology Commercialization forming a company, but it can also result in a company that doesn’t use university resources. We help test early-stage concepts for students and faculty, coaching them through the process of finding out if there’s a ‘there’ there.”
Carlson uses the Minnesota Cup, its much bigger answer to Mankato State’s Big Ideas Challenge, to help entrepreneurs kick the tires. Teams of hopeful business-starters enter this annual competition, present their plans, get mentoring, and compete for $500,000 in cash prizes. “It’s open to any Minnesota–based business that has less than $1 million in annual revenue, and we’ve had top startups compete,” Stavig says. “We had 1,000 entrepreneurs sign up this year and sponsorships from most of the big companies in town.”
The contest is a free resource for entrepreneurs, whether they win cash or not, and a chance for them to get their ideas in front of Minnesota Cup sponsors. A similar contest, Grow North, launched two and a half years ago and is specifically aimed at supporting food and agriculture startups. Golden Valley–based General Mills is the sponsor. Startup Week, which happens every autumn at Carlson, gives big companies a chance to check out startup and early-stage companies, and gives the little guys a place to make connections and recruit talent.
Undergraduate and graduate students earn degrees at the University of St. Thomas’s Opus College of Business and Schulze School of Entrepreneurship. Students and alumni also are eligible for the gBETA program through the startup accelerator gener8tor, which partners with St. Thomas.
The program, which takes no more than five teams at a time, is free but selective. “It’s very structured,” says Carleen Kerttula, associate dean of graduate programs and strategic outreach. “You don’t pick and choose—you commit to an experience designed by gener8tor.”
Those who don’t qualify for gener8tor or don’t want to use the accelerator can still enroll in classes through St. Thomas’s executive education program. “You can take a single class or a series to a certificate or mini-MBA,” Kerttula says. “A mini-MBA gives you marketing, finance, and the language of business and helps you figure out how to apply it to your business. Or you can get a certificate from executive education that means you’ve done a project or passed a test.”
With an undergraduate degree, students can also take a series of up to four St. Thomas graduate classes. “You get more depth and a certificate as well,” Kerttula says.
Entrepreneurs who care less about credentials and more about advice can attend Smart Start for Business, a three-hour workshop through Opus College of Business’ Small Business Development Center. The center has a variety of other seminars and workshops, as well as advice from entrepreneurs on staff. “It’s a great place for people who know something but not everything,” Kerttula says.
Diane Paterson, associate director of the Small Business Development Center, says that Smart Start for Business exists in part to talk participants out of following their entrepreneurial instincts. If this happens, “I consider this a success,” she says. “I don’t want them spending their money so it goes away and never comes back.”
Participants learn about succession planning, risk assessment, funding strategies, loans and leases, and the complications of partnership. “Most of the startup capital comes from personal savings, family, and friends, but people need to be careful with the terminology. ‘Uncle Joe really believes in me, so I’ll give him part ownership.’ But how much of a vote does Uncle Joe get? Is he a partner? What percentage of the business does he own? How will the arrangement dissolve?” Paterson says.
Smart Start classes typically have around 20 attendees. At the end, three to five of them go forward, meeting for free with one of nine staff business consultants. “We also get a lot of calls from existing businesses that have hit a plateau. If they reach out for help, they really want that help and benefit from meetings with our consultants,” Paterson says.
St. Thomas also houses Legal Corps, a pro bono law clinic that specializes in transaction law. Its Inventor’s Assistance Program and advice clinic give entrepreneurs free expert opinions on a variety of topics.
Many colleges and universities offer classes online, which makes it easy for entrepreneurs to fit them into their schedules. Minneapolis–based Capella University’s business model consists of providing online classes. “Capella students are mostly working full time,” says Jennifer Hoff, vice president for portfolio strategy at Strategic Education, Capella’s parent company, which is based in Herndon, Va. “They tend to be more female and African-American, and they are all over the map in terms of the businesses they end up starting.”
Capella offers certificates for students who have completed a bachelor’s or master’s degree. “A third of Americans have a side hustle, and plenty of those people are at Capella,” Hoff says. All the coursework is online, so students can do it wherever and whenever it works best for them.
All schools offer learning through courses; some provide physical locations to help new businesses grow. In Winona, St. Mary’s University of Minnesota has started a downtown co-working space called the Garage, in partnership with the city, chamber of commerce, and Winona State University. “We’ve started offering sessions there on design thinking and ideation,” says Christine Beech, executive director of the Kabara Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at St. Mary’s. “People who are entrepreneurs often have a background in something else, and they might not know much about structuring a business. We started offering that to them, and they love it.”
At St. Mary’s Rochester campus, the university has teamed up with the Rochester Area Economic Development Group to create the Women Entrepreneur Forum, hosted on campus. From the first event in January, the free events have played to full houses. “It was a mini-college course in the span of a morning,” says participant and presenter Bethany von Steinbergs, founder of Flourish Consulting in Rochester.
“We asked people what they need,” Beech says. “They need to know about funding a startup, so we brought in people who know about loans, grants, and venture capital. We’ve talked about inventing a business model, navigating challenges, leveraging your business style,” Beech says. The forum alternates formats, offering a panel discussion one month and a workshop on the same topic in the next.
In east central Minnesota, Pine City Technical and Community College goes one better, offering incubator program participants up to 8,000 square feet of industrial space. It’s currently occupied by EZ Electrical System Solutions, a contract manufacturer for the electrical construction industry.
“We get reduced rent for three and a half years, starting at $3,200 a month,” says EZ president Glenn Liubakka. Later, an extra fee is designed to encourage incubator tenants to move out and make room for new program participants.
“There’s been a lot of opportunity for business mentorship,” Liubakka says, of his time in the incubator. “An attorney did some pro bono work for our business structure and operating agreement. The college had a plastics program and a printer, so we printed some 3D prototypes there.” Now the company, founded in 2015, is on the brink of a product launch, with sales channels and two regional distributors ready to go.
As for Lam and Olson, they perfected their recipes and won the 2018 agriculture division of the Big Ideas Challenge with their pancake mix, chocolate muffin mix, and mixes for Snickerdoodle and chocolate chip cookies. “We won $3,000 and used that to grow the business,” Lam says.
Now their company, Coconut Whisk, also sells mixes for sugar-free pancakes and chocolate mug cake. Lam and Olson sell their products online and in multiple stores, including Hy-Vee, Lakewinds Food Co-op, and Seward Community Co-op. Since mid-2018, their gross sales have exceeded $60,000.
Ingrid Case is a Twin Cities–based freelance journalist who writes about businesses for TCB and other publications.