How a St. Thomas Program Is Elevating Local Businesses

How a St. Thomas Program Is Elevating Local Businesses

A 10-month, hands-on program aims to educate, unify, and uplift local entrepreneurs looking to start or grow a community business.

After a trial run last year, the University of St. Thomas is bringing back its Community Entrepreneurship program for a second cohort.

The 10-month program includes a six-month business training boot camp, one-on-one mentorship, consulting support, and networking opportunities. It is geared toward any community member building a business while facing economic hardship.

In its first year, the program showed that there was “tremendous need” in the community for something like it, said Laura Dunham, dean of the St. Thomas Opus College, associate professor, and one of the main creators of the program. With room for only 30 entrepreneurs in the program’s first round, the school ended up with 90 people waitlisted.

“I always say it takes a village to raise an entrepreneur because it’s a challenging task. It requires a lot of different skills that most people need help tapping into. It requires a network. It requires finance. It requires emotional support,” Dunham said.

The second cohort launches in mid-March. It comes with a $500 price tag, but $475 scholarships are available for anyone with a need for one. Though this next cohort is now full, a recent pool of funding means more programs can be offered in the future.

The program was awarded a $500,000 GHR Foundation grant. This is in addition to $630,000 received in federal appropriations for the program. The financial support allows St. Thomas to scale the program, Dunham said. More people can now be trained to run the boot camps. The school can also further build its mentor pool.

“This allows us to not only add more cohorts, but to add more programming for the cohorts that we have so that we can keep that connection. We can keep that community together and growing, and learning together,” she said.

Many first-cohort students are still in touch with their mentors and the friends they made along the way. When Laura Merino entered St. Thomas’ first Community Entrepreneurship program in 2022, she was just over a year into owning her filigree jewelry business Primitiva Jewelry.

As a solopreneur, Merino said the inaugural run of the 10-month program provided her with her first opportunity to work with a team of business-minded people within her community. She said she felt her knowledge solidify as the months progressed.

That gave her the confidence to branch out and create a sister company to Primitiva Jewelry, Primitiva Collective, an artist co-op storefront in Uptown that features Merino’s work alongside 40 other Minnesota women artists.

“I really think if I hadn’t taken the course at St. Thomas, if I hadn’t run through that process, I don’t think I would have had the knowledge or the courage to try for a second business,” she said.

Entrepreneurs at all stages are able to enroll in the program. This allows for people with a range of experiences to bring and share the knowledge they have. For example, Marino hadn’t gone to school for business before entering, but still felt she was able to bring her business experience to the table. That included her experience working with artists in Colombia, her home country, who hand-make the pieces she designs for her collection.

“It’s such an interesting model because you have these students that perhaps don’t have real-life experience, then you have these entrepreneurs who have real-life experience but don’t necessarily have the more formal education,” she said. “It truly is a powerful combination where both parties can benefit from the experience.”