Founder’s Journal: Three Minnesota Startups Share Their Stories
Startups tend to draw the spotlight when they hit a major inflection point: launching a product, completing an investment round, going public. The real story happens in between: long hours, fundraising attempts that didn’t pan out, learning to delegate, big opportunities—all of which lead to bigger questions about scaling, staffing and financing.
With the “Founder’s Journal,” we’re creating a place to talk about the in-between part—all of the moments, both disappointing and exhilarating, that are fundamental to entrepreneurship. We’re spotlighting three founders at different points on the path to building a sustainable business. They’ve agreed to draw back the curtain and take us along on the ride for the coming year. One is just getting started and figuring out how to fund the software platform she’s developing. Another is gaining traction with a consultancy and needs to staff up. A third is getting ready to take her food product national and thinking about scaling all aspects of the business from marketing to manufacturing, which means fundraising. No matter what happens, it’s sure to be an interesting year.
Building a digital platform to connect at-risk youth with career development advice and opportunities.
The odds were stacked against Qiana Hicks. Her parents battled addiction, leaving her to help raise her siblings and her own child at the age of 15. Determined to change the narrative, she put herself through college and earned an MBA. She built a career in IT management, working for big companies including Wells Fargo and Boeing. She wrote a book about her experiences and how she overcame them, called Life in its Rawest Form. But the call to help others continued to grow louder. She started thinking about ways to combine her tech expertise with her desire to help kids overcome difficult circumstances.
“I could no longer suppress the idea of innovating something to help make a
— Qiana Hicks, founder, Pathway Forward
The idea evolved into Pathway Forward, an app and software platform to connect at-risk youth with opportunities. In August, she quit her corporate job to work full-time on the startup. “I could no longer suppress the idea of innovating something to help make a greater impact for our youth and communities,” Hicks says.
Development is underway on the Pathway Forward software, which Hicks says will offer college and career readiness services, including guides, tools, support, and connections. “I know what it’s like to feel that there’s no way out,” Hicks says. “But a degree can change your life. I’m living proof.” Hicks envisions the software used by schools and businesses that are looking to hire or provide training. With her 20-plus years in IT, Hicks has the expertise to oversee the coders she’s hired, and even do some hands-on work herself.
She saved up for this startup phase, but even so, she admits, it’s been more challenging than expected. Among some of her “costly mistakes,” she cites investing in UI/UX design prototypes too early. “It was too premature. Hopefully I’ll be able to leverage some of those concepts eventually.”
She tried a Kickstarter but didn’t reach her goal. Now she’s looking for grants to complete her prototype.
The hurdles only make her more determined. “This is a lot for one person to take on, but I can do it faster and better than anyone else because of my lived experiences. This is my calling.”
- Raise $150,000 to complete app development and an additional $60,000 for operational costs
- Establish founding sponsors and corporate partners
Evolving from nonprofit to for-profit consultancy that works with businesses on LGBTQ recruitment and equity.
One of the only openly gay students at Stillwater High School, Nick Alm expected college to feel more welcoming to LGBTQ people. When he started college in 2016, however, it didn’t quite live up to his expectations. “It wasn’t overtly discriminatory, but there was an unconscious tone that said ‘Leave it at the door. You’re going to be more successful if you fit into a heteronormative role.’”
“I’m rolling the dice big time. But I have to invest in people if we’re going to grow.”
—Nick Alm, Mossier
Instead, Alm, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, organized an LGBTQ student group at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business and convened a panel discussion to talk to the business community about LGBTQ issues. Consulting requests followed. Just a college sophomore at the time, Alm sought guidance from longtime gay activist Charlie Rounds, who was president of RSVP Travel, a trailblazing LGBTQ travel business started by Kevin Mossier in 1985. Rounds also managed the Mossier Foundation, distributing grants to LGBTQ entrepreneurs. Alm learned the ropes from Rounds, while organizing LGBTQ career fairs and starting to consult with businesses. When the time came to hand out the final Mossier Foundation grant, it went to Alm to create the next chapter of the organization. They kicked off 2022 by transitioning Mossier from nonprofit to a social enterprise LLC with a focus on providing LGBTQ equity training for businesses, plus workshops, and a jobs platform.
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Alm can already point to more than $260,000 in annual revenue for Mossier, and expects to work with around 40 businesses in 2022. In the near future, Alm wants to create a franchise model for Mossier and take the consultancy to “the most hostile environments—places that people haven’t had these conversations around intersectionality and relationship building.” Now, Alm is sorting out staffing and programming. “The blueprint is still in my head.”
- Grow the Mossier staff
- Step away from some day-to-day operations Identify investors and other supporters
Scaling a line of Afghan-style chutney sauces on their way to becoming a mainstream condiment at grocery stores nationwide.
In early February, Yasameen Sajady visited the Fancy Food Show in Las Vegas. Her mentors told her it would be a good idea to get a feel for the national stage a year before stepping up, and she fully anticipates Maazah, a Minneapolis-made line of Afghan-style chutney sauces, will have a booth at the influential industry show in 2023. But first: she’s raising her first round of growth capital and prepping for a national rollout to 2,000 Kroger stores.
Like many independent food brands, Maazah started in Sajady’s kitchen, inspired by the food she grew up eating at home in the Twin Cities—but couldn’t find on local store shelves. “I come from a very food-centric family,” Sajady says. “Our gatherings start with which aunt is bringing the rice.” Seven years ago she declared that her mother’s chutney was good enough to bottle. So she did, and started selling at a local farmers market. It was a weekend side hustle with her mother and sisters that grew into a full-time job as Maazah got picked up by co-ops, and then some larger grocers. She quit her job as social enterprise manager for Pillsbury United Communities in 2018 and entered Lunar Startups, a St. Paul-based accelerator, which gave her money, mentorship, and space. In 2021, she completed two other accelerators: Good Food Accelerator in Chicago and ImpactSKU, a program specific to consumer product goods, created by Minneapolis-based Finnovation Lab in partnership with Austin-based SKU.
The industry connections are especially useful now, as Sajady closes in on a $500,000 seed round, led by Twin Cities investment firms Groove Capital and Tundra. The capital will help Maazah step up manufacturing and marketing as it goes from 100 to 700 stores this year.
- Increase manufacturing capacity
- Create regional marketing efforts to ensure launches are successful in other parts of the country
- Salaries for staff