LITTLE FALLS – Applicants are being sought for a unique fellowship program that powers up the innovators and idea people in Central Minnesota. The Initiators Fellowship, launched by the Initiative Foundation in 2016, is available to social entrepreneurs in its 14-county service area, including Stearns and Benton counties.
The two-year, 2022-2023 Fellowship program awards a $30,000 annual stipend along with other supports to promising entrepreneurs who want to grow as leaders and who have a passion to tackle a social challenge.
The Initiators Fellowship starts with people committed to social change, an inspirational idea and a plan for harnessing the power of the marketplace. Through a rigorous selection process, Fellows are vetted from a pool of applicants to receive a two-year suite of supports that includes training, mentoring, networking and financial backing to foster growth and development. Social enterprise ventures are for-profit or nonprofit businesses that are created to achieve a mission.
Jonathon Friesner’s story
Jonathan Friesner is a member of the 2021-2022 Fellows cohort. A devoted gardener, Jon wondered how he could grow food during Minnesota’s long off-season. Now, he is part of a four-person collaboration that has solved the challenge using their new product, GroShed. An automated indoor agriculture solution, a GroShed building—or farm—employs nutrient-rich water rather than soil and can be used to grow produce year-round. It’s a hydroponic garden in a self-contained shed requiring only to be plugged into electricity and an outdoor water supply.
The GroShed team is investing their time, effort and money in this passion project. “There is a lot of processed food around here,” Friesner said. “Gaining access to fresh, local foods is almost impossible in Northern Minnesota outside of our short growing season.”
To change the equation, Friesner, a former contractor, and his partners have scaled down typical hydroponics technology so the average person can grow what they want: tomatoes, broccoli, onions, herbs, lettuces, peppers, chilies.
By the end of 2020, GroShed sold 18 shed-sized farms and was fielding interest from a range of potential customers — from restaurants to food shelves. For now, the startup is sticking to mostly Minnesota customers. “We want to see as many farms as possible in our own state so we can warranty and fix things easily,” said Friesner.
He dreams of bringing fresh food to Minnesotans, and he envisions boosting the state’s economy as larger commercial farmers realize GroShed’s potential for providing winter income. “Rural Minnesota is a place of great innovation and untapped resources, but we’re frequently overlooked and can’t always compete with Twin Cities operations,” he said. “It’s so cool the Initiative Foundation is seeking out ingenuity and entrepreneurship in the rest of the state. [Ours] is a big mission, but we absolutely believe it’s doable.”
just a fellowship
In addition to the annual stipend, Fellows benefit from an executive-level mentor, deep programming, educational opportunities and support from dedicated staff members. A complete definition of social entrepreneurship and other details can be found in the resources section at greaterminnesota.net/fellows.
The Initiators Fellowship is suitable for emerging social entrepreneurs ranging from recent college graduates to mid-career individuals. Additional requirements include living within one of four participating Minnesota Initiative Foundation regions, or an adjacent tribal nation, for the two-year duration of the Fellowship term. Diversity is a core program value. Applicants with diverse backgrounds, experiences, ability, economic status and perspectives are encouraged to apply. Full eligibility details and an eligibility quiz can be found on the Fellowship website, greaterminnesota.net/fellows.
“The Initiators Fellowship aims to provide the next generation of regional leaders an opportunity to use their entrepreneurial spirit to address society’s needs while also building the business and leadership capacity of Greater Minnesota,” said Matt Varilek, Initiative Foundation president.
The program is open to applicants from the regions represented by the Initiative Foundation, West Central Initiative Foundation, Northwest Minnesota Foundation and Southwest Initiative Foundation. Online applications for the 2022-2023 cohort are open from May 24 through June 15, 2021.
Learn more about the program and social entrepreneurship by visiting Greaterminnesota.net/fellows or by contacting Chris Fastner, Initiators Fellowship program manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (320) 631-2019.