jjhillLogo

James J. Hill Center Statement Regarding July 3rd Closure

Error: Only up to 6 widgets are supported in this layout. If you need more add your own layout.

The Short-Term Benefits of Long Roots

The Original Thinker Series explores local innovation in entrepreneurship, the arts, and our community one pioneering mind at a time.

Vetiver Solutions is an impact-driven company committed to reducing poverty and malnutrition in Haiti by making sustainable farming profitable.

“We take a grass called vetiver that is really good at preventing soil erosion and we’re turning it into a cash crop,” says Jesse Abelson, Co-Founder and CEO.

In a nutshell, Vetiver Solutions incentivizes farmers to plant vetiver grass along the edges of their crops. In the short term, the company purchases the harvested shoots providing an immediate profit to farmers. In the long term, the roots of the vetiver plants—which can reach up to 20 feet in depth—naturally prevent soil erosion with the goal of better crop yields and decreased malnutrition.

The seeds of this venture were planted as far back as 2013 when Jesse began traveling to Haiti to work as an emergency medical technician. Over time, Jesse became frustrated by the preventable deaths they were seeing at the hospital.

“By the time they got to us, it was too late,” says Jesse. “I wanted to do something that tackled the actual problem instead of just reacting to it.”

Through a course at the University of Minnesota, Jesse and his co-founders began developing their idea. They found that vetiver already exists in Haiti and is one of the most effective living plant barriers for preventing soil erosion. However, when farmers plant vetiver in Haiti they are often looking to turn it into vetiver oil.

“The problem with distilling [vetiver] into an essential oil is that the oil comes from the roots of the plant,” says Jesse, “and those are the parts [of the plant] that we would like to keep in the ground.”

In order to prevent soil erosion, Jesse and his team needed to come up with a way to make vetiver profitable in the short-term for properties other than its roots.

It turns out that the shoots of the vetiver plant can be broken down into fibers which can then be used to make many products including particle board, paper, cardboard, and yarn. This last category is where Vetiver Solutions sees the biggest market potential.

“We’ve shown that we can make fibers out of this,” says Jesse, “we’ve shown that we can make yarn on a small scale and now we’re trying to scale up into a company that can actually create enough supply for consumers.”

It is energizing to talk with Jesse about this work and the cautiously idealistic and practical approach he is taking with Vetiver Solutions. Overall, what makes Jesse and his team original thinkers is that they have come into this work with a grounded humility.

From the beginning they have partnered closely with a locally run non-profit, MIJABA, to develop a relationship with the regional farmers’ association. Instead of coming in as experts they have respected local leadership and expertise.

What is next for Jesse and his team?

The Vetiver Solutions team is now moving from a research and development phase into marketing and sales with the hope of bringing their first products to market soon.

While Jesse doesn’t think vetiver products will be a household name yet he is excited to get into a few stores and start selling product regularly. Keep your eyes out—it is not every day that you can buy a product that is not just “conscious” but socially and environmentally beneficial.

Learn more about Vetiver Solutions and follow their progress at vetiversolutions.org.


Written by Christopher Christenson, Program & Event Coordinator, at the James J. Hill Center.  Have an idea of a person or organization to feature in this series? Send your recommendations to 
[email protected].

Continue Reading

The Business of Storytelling with Numbers

The essence of my role as an entrepreneur is best described as a storyteller. I use the power of telling stories to learn, create, grow and change. Whether it’s a day filled with wins or a bumpy road filled with missed opportunities, it is through the lens of storytelling that brings appreciation for the real and raw lived experiences from my entrepreneurial journey.

I appreciate the power of words skillfully crafted together to deliver a message of motivation to the entrepreneur or a message of persuasion to the customer. Brands are transformed from basic ideas into successful, industry-topping businesses largely due to the story that is being communicated. It is the power of telling shared stories of the human experience that sparks my creative process and allows me to dream bigger dreams. My cookie company, Junita’s Jar was founded because I had a story to tell and a product to share.

But there’s more to the story…

Like many ‘creative-types’ who launch businesses, I enjoy the freedom of dreaming crazy big dreams and I thrive at the ability to be agile and quick on my feet. But unfortunately, many of us ‘creative-types’ approach the management of our business financials with the same quick, dreamy approach.

Recently I sat down for a business planning and strategy session with Connie Rutledge, Managing Director for Finnovation Lab, with a goal of building upon my business story, only this time the story would be told using numbers. After a successful business launch in July 2018, it was time to build upon the current narrative to reach a wider audience and position my company for growth.

In the past, I dreaded the task of financial management. I believed the story that the numbers encroached upon my creativity and inhibited my ability to dream. Unfortunately, this type of storytelling is one of the leading causes for the premature death of countless numbers of businesses.

But there’s a plot twist…

The business financials tell the most inspiring and compelling story and that creates the lifeline for your business. Whether there is a financial shortfall or an abundance of resources, a clear and thorough understanding of the business story told through the numbers, removes much of the guesswork in the decision making process. While this concept can be basic knowledge for many, there are many entrepreneurs who have yet to embrace the powerful story that lives inside of the business financials. I was one of those entrepreneurs.

After my strategy session with Connie, I walked away with a beautifully crafted financial model. I had never appreciated the hidden beauty of an Excel spreadsheet filled with if/then formulas and color-coded equations, like I did upon the conclusion of my strategy meeting. This practice of taking a thoughtful and thorough approach for a deeper dive into my business financials provided a level of clarity that now fuels the future of my company. In the coming months, Junita’s Jar will be introducing some exciting changes and new opportunities for growth. We are building upon our story with clarity and conviction, sprinkled with limitless creativity.

Yes, at my core I am a story teller. Equipped with the beauty of words and empowered by the clarity of financials, I tell stories of shared human experiences that deliver hope throughout the business journey.

I would love to hear from you. How has the power of story telling unlocked hidden secrets and potential growth tactics into your business journey? Also, if you’re looking for a speaker to inspire your group, team or organization through the power of storytelling, I would love to chat. You can send me an email, simply by clicking here.



Junita L. Flowers,
 Founder/Owner
Baking hope in every cookie. #HopeMunchesOn
Follow her on Facebook. Like her on Instagram. Order your cookies now.
You can also read more about Junita Flowers on her website junitasjar.com.

Continue Reading

Startup Showcase: For entrepreneurs who need a little extra help

Each month the James J. Hill Center interviews entrepreneurs for the Startup Showcase feature in the Pioneer Press. See interview as seen in the Pioneer Press Startup Showcase originally posted on April 21, 2019.

Data from the Minnesota Secretary of State Office shows that there were over 67,000 newly registered businesses in 2018 and according to the SBA small business report there were over 500,000 small businesses registered in 2017.

Building, supporting, managing and maneuvering an ecosystem of that size can prove to be a challenging and frustrating for all involved. What steps do you take next? What resources are out there? And how do you track meaningful growth? Answers to these questions can often get lost in the noise of options and chatter.

David Ponraj, founder and creator of Startup Space, felt that frustration first hand and made it his mission to find a simple and efficient way to engage the entrepreneurial community, measure impact and build stronger ecosystems. His hope is that Startup Space will interconnect entrepreneurial communities around the country, build stronger ecosystems and ultimately strengthen the success rates of startups and small businesses by connecting them to meaningful resources, real-time assistance, advice, support and mentors. #SmallHelpsAll

COMPANY PROFILE

Name of Company: Startup Space LLC
Website: https://www.startupspace.us
Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/startupspaceapp
Business Start Date: June 2018
Number of Employees: 5 -10
Number of Customers: 3,000 + app users

Name: David Ponraj
Age: 36
City of Birth: Gujarat, India
City you live in: Dunedin, Fla.
High school attended: Santosha Vidhyalaya (India)
College attended: University of Delhi (Bachelor’s in Physics), St. Petersburg College (Bachelor’s in International Business), University of South Florida (Master’s in Business Administration)

Q&A

A. What led you to this point?

Q. Startup Space was an idea that was born out of the frustration that I felt as a startup when trying to find resources to help me over a decade ago. Exactly a decade later, I came back to address this issue because I knew that there had to be a better way to engage with the community and measure impact. Startup Space is that solution by bringing the community together to help entrepreneurs and startups.

Q. What is your business?

A. Startup Space is an online platform that provides community organizers and ecosystem builders with tools that connect their startups with the resources needed for success. These tools include ways to measure the effectiveness of current events and programs, collaborate with mentors and service providers, and grow ecosystems with cutting-edge technology solutions that elevate the effectiveness in serving entrepreneurial communities.

Q. What is the origin of the business?

A. I knew there had to be a better way to engage the startup community and measure impact. I didn’t find one that worked, so I built it.

Q. What problems does your business solve?

A. Entrepreneurial community leaders are doing entrepreneurs and startups a disservice by not bringing efficiency, measurability, and innovation into the startup ecosystem. This case for change is a look at a bold new world where entrepreneurial activity is driven by innovation and made efficient by measuring the real impact of activities and events through technology.

The absence of a platform that can bring the various ecosystem players together has resulted in a fragmented ecosystem. In cities across the United States, there is now an explosion of events for entrepreneurs every day, many of them similar or redundant in the outcome they are driving.

Yet it has never been harder to start a business. In fact, I would argue that all this noise hurts the startups trying to make it to their next milestone or find that first customer. Startup Space provides ecosystems with a way to make engagements more meaningful so when startups are pulled from their desks to network or learn a topic, organizers can track the effectiveness of their programs and ensure that the time spent at events has been meaningful for the participants.

By building a better tool to communicate with each other as community builders, the Startup Space platform helps organizers reduce noise and drive stronger clarity and purpose in their ecosystems.

Q. What personal strengths or skill sets do you bring to the business?

A. I have experience in managing technology teams and building technology solutions at a large multinational corporation, so I was able to bring this skill to my own business.

I am also passionate about sales and meeting customer needs. This is a critical skill for any founder and has helped me make sure that all our product features prioritize customer needs from the very beginning.

As we grow, another important skill will be organizational design and people management, which will ultimately help us scale.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. I am proud of how we have been able to build a software solution that is beautiful and easy to use for our customers. This is so difficult to do, so I am proud of how we have worked to make this a reality.

I am also proud of the team we have put together. This is the most important aspect of starting a company and a key ingredient in long term success.

Q. What obstacles must you overcome to be wildly successful?

A. Being able to go from a beta company to a growth company with a profitable business is extremely difficult. We will have to overcome the initial obstacles of being a startup to be wildly successful. The secret is to delight your existing customers, as well as assembling a solid team to help you grow.

Q. How are you funding your business?

A. We are organically growing our company today, but we are actively seeking angel investments for a seed round.

Q. What would be success for your business in the next 2-3 years?

A. Growing our user base to over 20,000 users and hitting the $10 million mark for revenue are two goals we are working towards for the 3-year mark.

Q. In your opinion, what does it take to be a great entrepreneur?

A. The main skills of a great entrepreneur are the ability to adapt and change plans, an eagerness to learn and seek new information, understand the value of working with people and not being afraid to fail.

Q. How did the James J. Hill Center and 1 Million Cups Saint Paul help you with your business?

A. The James J. Hill Center and 1 Million Cups St. Paul have been instrumental in providing opportunities to grow our business in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. They opened their arms and welcomed us in when we showed up to present at the 1 Million Cups in St. Paul. They are truly entrepreneur-focused and go out of their way to help entrepreneurs succeed.

Interview by Lily Shaw, Director of External Relations at the James J. Hill Center.  Have an idea of a startup organization to feature in this series? Send your recommendations to [email protected].

 The James J. Hill Center is a nonprofit business center in downtown St. Paul that provides access to business research, educational programming and a place to work. The Hill is open to the public 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Thursday. You can hear from startups like the ones featured in Startup Showcase every other Wednesday, 9-10 a.m. at the James J. Hill Center during 1 Million Cups St. Paul. To keep updated on what startup is presenting next or to apply to present, visit www.JJHill.org/1-million-cups.

Continue Reading

Startup Showcase: Connecting artists, art lovers and the masses

Each month the James J. Hill Center interviews entrepreneurs for the Startup Showcase feature in the Pioneer Press. See interview as seen in the Pioneer Press Startup Showcase originally posted on April 7, 2019.

According to Statista.com, global online art sales amounted to about $4 billion in 2017. Artwork Archive states that one in five high net worth individuals collect art. These statistics often create a misconception that art collecting is reserved for the elite and that a person of less wealth cannot have their own personal art gallery.

Local Minnesota entrepreneur Bren Hampton is the creator and founder of White Wallzy. She believes every wall should be a gallery and has made it her mission to break down the barriers of art ownership by uniting communities of artists, individuals and businesses with inspired local art and inspirational human stories. Her online market place is building bridges of creativity and human connection, giving local communities the power to inspire each other.

COMPANY PROFILE

Name of Company: White Wallzy LLC
On the web: www.whitewallzy.com; https://twitter.com/whitewallzy; https://www.facebook.com/WhiteWallzy/; https://www.instagram.com/whitewallzy/
Business Start Date: Jan. 2, 2019
Number of Employees: 1
Number of Customers: 1

ENTREPRENEUR PROFILE

Name: Bren Hampton
Age: 47
City you live in: Minneapolis
City of Birth:
 Litchfield, Minn.
High school attended: Walker-Hackensack-Akeley in Walker, Minn.
College attended: Minnesota State University, Mankato

Q&A

A. What led you to this point?

Q. I’ve had a series of ups and downs in my life that have helped me be the strong, loving, vibrant woman I am. My entrepreneurial spirit has led me to work for two startups, try my hand at affiliate marketing, and start two of my own businesses. The first was My Clear Essentials, 2010-13. I designed, manufactured and sold comfort accessories for women utilizing a medical technology. And now White Wallzy.

Q. What is your business?

A. White Wallzy is an online marketplace selling the creations of visual artists. Our mission is uniting communities of artists, individuals and businesses with inspired local art and inspirational human stories.

Q. What is the origin of the business?

A. I was sitting on my couch looking around at my walls that were still blank after living in my studio apartment for 18 months. It wasn’t because I wasn’t out looking. I could see art, even art that I liked, but I never bought any art. There’s no meaning with art when I don’t know the story behind it.

I was thinking of the painter I occasionally see around Bde Maka Ska with the canvas on his easel, his pallet of paints in one hand and his brush in the other painting the skyline of Minneapolis. I realized I wanted to connect with a local artist so I posted an ad on Craigslist titled, “Free Gallery Space.” In summary the ad said, “If you have art that you’d like wall space to hang and to show occasionally, evenings or weekends, let’s talk.” The idea was resonating so strongly with me that I kept talking. One conversation was with a friend who I shared my story with. I said that if I couldn’t have meaningful art where I know the artist and their story then I’m perfectly happy with my white walls. My friend said, “You know, you’ve got a ballsy business idea there.” We both looked at each other and said, “White Wallzy.” I immediately purchased the domain name, not knowing what I was going to do with it. A little over a year later, after a warm, autumn day in 2017 White Wallzy LLC was formed.

Q. What problems does your business solve?

A. People think art collecting is reserved for elite, high net worth individuals. There is a misconception that our home or business cannot also be our personal art gallery where we meet the artists and know the story of every art piece.

Q. What big hurdle did you have to overcome?

A. In startup phase, my biggest hurdle has been website development. I thought I had a website ready for artists to sign up in January 2019 only to potentially lose a few artists because of frustrations with the website and setting up their online account. I am now pivoting by taking a different approach with my current web developer and researching other web developers.

Q. What personal strengths or skill sets do you bring to the business?

A. I have a strong leadership skill set. I listen without thinking about what I’m going to say in response. I ask questions to truly learn about someone and to find out what their needs are. I am more of an artist lover than an art lover. I can problem solve by maximizing resources. I consistently feed my mind with the knowledge of great leaders. Then lastly, balance, because I know White Wallzy won’t be successful if I don’t also love and nurture all other parts of my life.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. Having a solid personal foundation. I know my core values and how those align with the White Wallzy mission. My personal connection with the business, my motive that inspires me, is what uplifts me and carries me through the frustrating points.

Q. What obstacles must you overcome to be wildly successful?

A. Only myself.

Q. How are you funding your business?

A. My savings

Q. What would be success for your business in the next 2-3 years?

A. Three things:

• Revenue generation that covers the business expenses.

• Artists who are earning an income through White Wallzy.

• The stories of individuals (homeowners, renters and business owners) whose lives have been enriched because they have living artwork in their homes and businesses where they know the artist and the artist’s story and they are creating their own stories as they share their discovery of local artists.

Q. In your opinion, what does it take to be a great entrepreneur?

A. Being a great leader. Leaders grow their businesses by solving problems and maximizing resources and they do this by influencing.

Q. Why do you do what you do?

A. I believe that artists create from pure, positive energy and they want to share this. White Wallzy is a love brand where they can share their creations with the power of their story.

Q. How did the James J. Hill Center help you with your business?

A. First it was research on their AtoZ Database that helped me forecast initial sales projections for my business plan. During my research time, I learned of the CO.STARTERS opportunity. CO.STARTERS at the Hill helped me gain clarity, conciseness and confidence in my White Wallzy business concept. By the end of class I had a pitch deck prepared.

Continue Reading

In The Spirit of Women’s History Month

Since 1987, March has been designated as Women’s History Month, a time to recognize and celebrate the contributions of women throughout the United States.

Earlier this month and on the eve of International Women’s Day, I attended WomenVenture’s emPOWER Social Hour. WomenVenture, a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization, dedicated to helping women achieve economic success through entrepreneurship, hosted the emPOWER Social Hour as a networking and story-sharing event. This event highlighted local women entrepreneurs and the greater financial impact on families and communities when women thrive and are supported as entrepreneurs.

I’ve found so much value, support and friendship by connecting with organizations and networking groups specifically dedicated to elevating and strengthening the platform for women to excel personally and financially. In spite of the thriving community of support, entrepreneurship can be a lonely and isolating experience, often resulting in many women abandoning their dreams of business ownership. I want to change that.

In the spirit of Women’s History Month, here is my open letter of encouragement to the woman who is afraid to follow her dream of entrepreneurship:

Dear sister,

I see you. Yes, I am writing directly to you. I honor you and I want to encourage you to believe that now is the time for you to soar. You have dreams that you are afraid to embrace, so they exist only as wishes. You have aspirations to achieve something greater, but you have stopped short of your goal and embraced real fears. Your gut, that internal GPS, is nudging you to take a chance and share the greatness that lives inside of you, only to be blocked by the brain chatter of playing safe and staying within your comfort zone. Let me reassure you that the deferred dreams, fears and brain chatter are normal stumbling blocks on the journey and when you take action, those things will strengthen your resolve. Go ahead and take one step. Don’t remain stuck. Those mistakes you’ve made…don’t discard them. Those wins you’ve experienced…don’t minimize them. Those doubt you’ve had…don’t deny them. All of it is required. All of it is important. Today is the perfect day and right now is your moment to simply trust the process, believe in the possibilities and take a chance on your dreams. You have an army of supporters standing by and cheering you on!

 Junita Flowers

I’d love to hear from you. What action can you take today to get one step closer to launching your dream of entrepreneurship?  You can share the details with me by clicking here.  If you’d like to keep in touch and follow along on my journey of entrepreneurship, please like or follow Junita’s Jar on Facebook and Instagram or subscribe to e-news and updates on junitasjar.com.

Happy Women’s History Month!



Junita L. Flowers,
 Founder/Owner
Baking hope in every cookie. #HopeMunchesOn
Follow her on Facebook. Like her on Instagram. Order your cookies now.
You can also read more about Junita Flowers on her website junitasjar.com.

Continue Reading

Startup Showcase: Offering support for couples facing infertility

Each month the James J. Hill Center interviews entrepreneurs for the Startup Showcase feature in the Pioneer Press. See interview as seen in the Pioneer Press Startup Showcase originally posted on March 10, 2019.

According to the CDC about 10 percent of women (6.1 million) in the United States have difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant. An article last year in Fast Company reports that the emotional ordeal of infertility takes a toll on life, work and family.

Entrepreneur Elyse Ash understands all too well the isolation and frustration of infertility. That is the very reason she and her husband started Fruitful, a mentoring and matchmaking platform for those experiencing infertility, connecting them with others who understand, and creating fruitful relationships that will last a lifetime.

COMPANY PROFILE

Name of Company: Fruitful Fertility
Website: www.fruitfulfertility.org
Twitter: @FruitfulFert
Business Start Date: Began working on it in the fall of 2016 but launched the website in April 2017
Number of Employees: 2
Number of Customers: More than 3,000

ENTREPRENEUR PROFILE

Name: Elyse Ash
City of Birth: Minneapolis (moved away to Virginia when young, but returned as an adult)
Age: 35
City you live in: Minneapolis
High school attended: South Lakes High School, Reston, Va.
College attended: University of Miami, Coral Gables, Fla.

Q&A

Q. What is your history:

A. I began my career over 10 years ago making creative advertising campaigns for some of the country’s biggest brands. I’m currently the founder and CEO of Fruitful Fertility, an organization that makes infertility suck less. I also currently work part-time as a creative lead and senior copywriter at GoKart Labs where I help enterprise companies and startups grow and transform their companies.

Today, I spend most of my time growing Fruitful, which has seen incredible traction since its launch in 2017. Fruitful was recently accepted into the second cohort of the accelerator Lunar Startups, named a 2018 semifinalist for the Minnesota Cup and has been receiving great press from The Star Tribune, MPR, WCCO, Inc. and Business Insider.

I’m also a founding board member of MPR’s project Generation Listen, a Moth storytelling award winner, a 2019 “40 Under 40” honoree by the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal and a mom.

Q. What is your business?

A. Fruitful is a mentorship matching service for the 1 in 8 couples who experience infertility. Fruitful connects those feeling isolated at the beginning of their fertility journey with individuals who have been through it firsthand and are now “on the other side.” Like an online dating services, mentors and mentees are matched based on shared diagnoses, histories, interests and values.

Our matching algorithm suggests the best possible mentor/mentee relationships based on geography, diagnosis, age, religion etc. We then finalize each match by hand, which while time-consuming, allows us to create meaningful relationships between mentors and mentees. Once matched, the mentor and mentee connect in their own time, and in their own way.

We also offer our members additional free resources including a private forum, a blog and a monthly newsletter called The Fruit Basket.

Q. What is the origin of the business?

A. My husband and I battled infertility for three years and they were the toughest years of our lives. We were not emotionally prepared for the anger, grief, anxiety, heartbreak and financial stress it would put us under. Yet despite all the bills and injections and medical tests, the toughest thing was feeling isolated from our friends who didn’t understand what we were going through and would make unhelpful comments like “Just relax!” Or “Want kids? You can have mine!” I quickly realized that the only people who could truly support us were those who had been through infertility themselves. That was when I had the idea for Fruitful.

Q. What problems does your business solve?

A. Despite the prevalence of infertility, it’s still a lonely, traumatic experience. Part of what makes infertility the fourth most traumatic life event a woman can experience is that it affects nearly every aspect of her life: her body, finances, friendships, relationship and mental health. The stress and isolation are compounded since 61 percent of women struggling with infertility don’t tell their friends or family what they’re going through.

Q. What big hurdle did you have to overcome?

A. While we haven’t “pivoted,” we have been working to implement a revenue strategy now that we’ve really proven the need for the product. At first, we didn’t worry about revenue; just building something that solved the problem and that our users would LOVE. With 3,000+ members we now feel confident that this model is valuable. The struggle is finding a revenue strategy that will work while still maintaining the integrity of platform and working to truly help our mentees going through infertility first.

Q. What personal strengths or skill sets do you bring to the business?

A. As a professional copywriter and digital strategist, I have over 10 years of creative advertising and marketing experience and have created everything from huge multi-channel ad campaigns to social media content. I’ve also helped create and brand many startups while working at GoKart Labs, whom I still do some work for. My husband Brad Ash is my co-founder and serves as CTO. He’s a software developer with a background in design and digital marketing. Over the last 18 years he’s worked in financial and small-business newsletter publishing, building editorial content management, order processing, reporting and fulfillment systems.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. Simply launching Fruitful. When I had the idea, I was very convinced it would work but wasn’t sure if I wanted to be the one to do it. I was nervous about being open about our story (especially since IVF hadn’t worked for us yet and we still didn’t know if we’d ever become parents). Vulnerability is hard. It’s hard enough to launch a new company but doubly hard when it’s also something very personal to you.

Q. What obstacles must you overcome to be wildly successful?

A. Internally, the self-doubt, impostor syndrome, and fear of failure. Logistically things got a little tougher when I gave birth to our baby, Abigail, in March 2018 — she was the product of our second round of IVF. But now that she’s almost a year old (and I’m weaning her off breastfeeding) life feels a lot more balanced and manageable.

Q. How are you funding your business?

A. Fruitful is currently 100 percent bootstrapped by myself and my husband, Brad. With very minimal financial expenses needed to run the company, we haven’t needed external funding or investment dollars yet.

Q. What would be success for your business in the next 2-3 years?

A. Really penetrating the infertility marketplace. We want to be a household name, especially for people who have gone through infertility.

Q. In your opinion, what does it take to be a great entrepreneur?

A. I think it’s a combination of optimism, humility, focus, curiosity and grit all coupled with a great idea and the support from other people.

Q.  Why do you do what you do?

A. This sounds corny but it’s all about helping other people when they are at their lowest.

Q. How did 1 Million Cups Saint Paul help you with your business?

A. I loved getting the opportunity to present Fruitful at One Million Cups St. Paul at the James J. Hill Center. It was a great opportunity to share and practice telling the story while fielding questions from some of the city’s smartest, savviest business-minded folks.

Interview by Lily Shaw, Director of External Relations at the James J. Hill Center.  Have an idea of a startup organization to feature in this series? Send your recommendations to [email protected].

 The James J. Hill Center is a nonprofit business center in downtown St. Paul that provides access to business research, educational programming and a place to work. The Hill is open to the public 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Thursday. You can hear from startups like the ones featured in Startup Showcase every other Wednesday, 9-10 a.m. at the James J. Hill Center during 1 Million Cups St. Paul. To keep updated on what startup is presenting next or to apply to present, visit www.JJHill.org/1-million-cups.

Continue Reading

A “Twiggy Fresh” Smile

Check back each month for the Original Thinker Series as we explore local innovation in entrepreneurship, the arts, and our community one pioneering mind at a time.

“I’ve always wanted to do something that gives people a bright smile and at the same time helps the environment,” says Umar Ahmed, CEO and Co-Founder of Twiggy Fresh.

For Umar, a business analyst and social entrepreneur, the natural product poised at the intersection of “smile” and “environment” is a toothbrush.

In the United States alone, we throw away an estimated 800 million to 1 billion toothbrushes each year. Plastic toothbrushes are part of a much larger problem as they often cannot be recycled and do not decompose. They live on long after us in landfills and oceans.

Enter Twiggy Fresh, a Minnesota-based company dedicated to reducing our plastic footprint through natural oral care alternatives that are good for the consumer and for the environment.

“I had in my mind this product that I’ve been using every single day and I wanted to share it with the world,” says Umar. “I believe we have a responsibility to keep our planet clean for the next generation.”

As a kid in Somalia, Umar grew up using a miswak. A miswak is a fibrous chewing stick—a twig from the Salvadora persica tree—commonly used around the world for dental care. It is natural, does not require toothpaste, and comes from a long tradition as one of the earliest recorded forms of oral hygiene care.

Even after moving to the U.S. and using other kinds of toothbrushes, Umar still uses a miswak daily and introduces it as an eco-friendly option to friends and colleagues.

After considering the idea for many years, Umar and his wife decided to make Twiggy Fresh a reality and launched this past year with two products. Alongside the miswak, Twiggy Fresh offers a premium bamboo toothbrush that is BPA free and completely biodegradable (even the packaging).

“We are unique in that way because you don’t find similar companies who have two different kinds of oral care products,” says Umar.

There are other companies selling biodegradable and recycled toothbrushes and still others bringing the miswak to market. However, Twiggy Fresh is one of the first companies—if not the only one—to offer both a modern bamboo brush and a traditional chewing stick side-by-side.

Umar believes that our plastic-dependant habits can be broken and new ones formed if eco-friendly products like his become convenient for consumers. That is why he hopes that not only Twiggy Fresh but also their competition in the eco-toothbrush space do well in the coming years.

For Umar, it comes down to this: “How can we change our mindset in terms of small items that we use every single day.” At the end of the day, a toothbrush alone can’t solve our plastic crisis but small choices along the way can help us shift our perspective.

“Here in Minnesota, we take pride in our lakes and the natural beauty of our state,” says Umar. “We are proud to say that since last year we [have] sold hundreds of eco-friendly toothbrushes that didn’t pollute our lakes.”

To learn more about Twiggy Fresh or shop their eco-friendly products visit twiggyfresh.com.


Written by Christopher Christenson, Program & Event Coordinator, at the James J. Hill Center.  Have an idea of a person or organization to feature in this series? Send your recommendations to 
[email protected].

Continue Reading

Startup Showcase: Mindfulness as the fourth dimension of fitness

Each month the James J. Hill Center interviews entrepreneurs for the Startup Showcase feature in the Pioneer Press. See interview as seen in the Pioneer Press Startup Showcase originally posted on February 10, 2019.

COMPANY PROFILE

Name of company: 4D Fit
Website: www.4dfit.net
Twitter: @4D_Fit
Business Start Date: Sept. 26, 2018
Number of Employees: 1
Number of Customers: 4

ENTREPRENEUR PROFILE

Name: Scott Mikesh
Age: 43
City of Birth: Fargo, ND
City you live in: St. Paul, MN
High school attended: Fargo South High School
College attended: University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

 

Q&A

Q. What led to this point?

A. I was born and raised in Fargo and moved to the Twin Cities in 1997 to attend the University of Minnesota. I studied mass media, design, and social psychology, that not only inspired my career path, but also helped me accept myself as a gay man.

Coming out made me aware of the power of perception. I later realized that much of my anxiety and fear stemmed from my own self-perception, the perception of others, and from what I had been taught and told.

Today, my focus on mental fitness has helped me manage my anxiety. Like any other fitness goal, creating a new habit, pattern, or routine takes time, commitment, and social support.

Q. What is your business?

A. 4D Fit is mental fitness. The concept of fitness is often limited to physical — the things we can see, touch, and measure — focusing on three common dimensions: biometrics, movement, and nutrition.

4D Fit focuses on the fundamental fourth dimension of fitness — mental fitness — and the interconnectedness of mind and body. As anyone with a physical impairment will tell you, thriving in life is not about physical ability; it’s about believing in yourself, focusing on what you can do, and making the most of the life you have.

4D Fit provides group workshops, talks, and training sessions for small to medium-size businesses and community groups. The sessions are based on the 4D Fit Mental Fitness Model that provides a framework focused on progressive levels of fitness, including balance and flexibility, rest and recovery, and strength and endurance. Sessions are conducted in-person to provide social connection and emotional support, that are an important part of mental fitness.

Q. What is the origin of the business?

A. Since college, I’ve developed communications and brand strategies for several health and education organizations, led employee wellness and inclusion initiatives, and led an incredible youth art mentor program called Art Buddies.

It was my cumulative experience and passion for empowering people to thrive and realize their full potential that inspired the creation of 4D Fit and the 4D denoting mental fitness.

Q. What problems does your business solve?

A. As a society, we are struggling to thrive. It’s not that we don’t know what we should do to live healthier lives. We have more information at our fingertips than ever before, and we are spending more each year on fitness programs than college tuition, yet we are still struggling to make healthy choices.

To truly thrive, and combat the stigma of mental health, we must broaden our definition and approach to fitness beyond the body, to include the mind.

Whether your goals are to improve physical health, improve relationships, promote equity, foster inclusion, manage conflict, or optimize performance, it all starts in the mind, that can be supported by focusing on mental fitness. Which exactly what 4D Fit focuses on.

Q. What big obstacle or hurdle did you have to overcome?

A. My primary goal has been to provide on-site services for business clients, to reach people where they’re at — at their workplace. Though I’ve received a tremendous amount of interest from the business community, a large hurdle that has delayed execution has been the bureaucracy and approval(s) required by the right decision-makers to bring a program like 4D Fit into large businesses.

Therefore, I switched gears this year to offer community-based workshops at local establishments — including coffee shops, art spaces, and fitness centers — where individuals can enroll themselves to focus on mental fitness in a group setting. From there, attendees may recommend 4D Fit for their workplace, where mindset and emotional processing play such a vital role.

Q. What personal strengths or skill sets do you bring to the business?

A. I believe my personal strengths are the values of honesty, integrity, and compassion that I strive to practice every day. I consider myself a well-rounded person, with experience in many areas that influence our community and culture, including the arts, education, media, mentoring, fitness, finance, business, policy, and community service.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. I am proudest of the leaps of faith I have taken to face my fears, challenge my perceptions, believe in myself, embrace others, and develop a healthier mindset to achieve my goals.

Q. What obstacles must you overcome to be wildly successful?

A. My biggest goal for 2019 is to establish a stable revenue stream that can sustain the continued growth and development of 4D Fit, to achieve its full potential.

Q. What would be success for your business in the next 2-3 years?

A. I hope in the next 2 to 3 years 4D Fit will be providing workshops and talks in the Twin Cities and beyond by developing a team of licensed instructors who can coordinate and facilitate 4D Fit workshops regionally and nationally.

Q. In your opinion, what does it take to be a great entrepreneur?

A. To be a little cheeky with a phrase stolen from RuPaul’s Drag Race, being an entrepreneur really takes charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. Entrepreneurs must be able to engage people, and have something unique to share, with enough nerve to put it out there, and enough talent to make it happen.

Q. How did the James J. Hill Center and 1 Million Cups Saint Paul help you with your business?

A. Not only did the 1 Million Cups St. Paul opportunity at the James J. Hill Center provide this unique media opportunity, but really helped me focus and refine my business pitch, to articulate my mission and services, and reach a broader audience. The community of people involved have provided valuable feedback, resources and support for me as an entrepreneur, and for the success of 4D Fit.

You can hear from startups like this every other Wednesday, 9-10 a.m. at the James J. Hill Center during 1 Million Cups St. Paul. Visit jjhill.org/calendar for scheduled dates. The James J. Hill Center is a nonprofit in downtown St. Paul that provides access to business research, educational programming and a place to work. The Hill is open to the public 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Thursday. To keep updated on what startup is presenting next or to apply to present, visit www.JJHill.org/1-million-cups.

Continue Reading

Startup Showcase: Feeding social connections through sharing meals

Each month the James J. Hill Center interviews entrepreneurs for the Startup Showcase feature in the Pioneer Press.  See interview as seen in the Pioneer Press Startup Showcase originally posted on January 27, 2019.

Young entrepreneur Hojung Kim wants to create something that has a positive impact on people’s lives. He has been travelling around the country pitching his idea to various audiences, landing recently in St. Paul.

He proposes that when people dine together it not only creates meaningful connections, but it can shift perspective, open awareness, reduce inequality and break down barriers. With his new Airbnb-like platform he and his team are building on the new trend of social dining with a home-cooked hook.

COMPANY PROFILE

Name of company: Homecooked: Social Dining
Websites: www.homecooked.io
Twitter: @homecookedInc
Business Start Date: Jan. 2, 2018
Number of Employees: 3
Number of Customers: 212

ENTREPRENEUR PROFILE

Name: Hojung Kim
Age: 22
City of Birth: New Haven, Conn.
City you live in: Madison, Wis.
High school attended: Phillips Exeter Academy
College attended: University of Chicago (currently taking time off for his startup)

Q&A

Q. What led to this point?

A. I’m the only son of South Korean immigrants and was born in Madison, Wis. My parents put an enormous amount of emphasis on education. In hindsight, there doesn’t seem to be many common threads in how I grew up to do what I’m doing now, but I was always fiercely independent, passionate about what I did, and cared about solving hard problems.

Q. What is your business?

A.  Homecooked is a social dining app that organizes small communal meals at the tables of home cooks, restaurateurs, and local farmers. It’s an opportunity for hosts to generate income by doing what they love — sharing food. And an opportunity for guests to connect in a unique way around food, an increasingly rare occurrence in our digitally isolated world. But really, it goes deeper than food. We use machine-learning to organize meals with incredible conversation. We do this by organizing people with shared interests, compatible personalities or areas of common ground.  We’re hoping to break barriers through food.

Q. What is the origin of the business?

A. I am alarmed at the degree of social isolation in our new digitized world. And I knew from both personal experience (from study abroad trips to France and India, as well as my frequent trips back to Korea to visit family) and research that food was an extremely powerful way to connect people.

Q. What problems does your business solve?

A. We’re tackling digitization’s negative social effects on isolation and loneliness and building community to alter the polarization and lack of understanding between people.

Q. What big obstacle or hurdle did you have to overcome?

A. We’re in the process of trying to overcome the retention problem. Originally, we thought of Homecooked as an “Airbnb for food” but it’s much more communal. As a result, we had designed our entire (user interface and experience) and app structure around one-time meals, when instead we’re trying to get closer to a social network, where people can return to the table over and over and build a larger community through these tables. I believe that this might be the next evolution in marketplaces. (For more on the evolution of marketplace eras, check out Andreesen-Horowitz on YouTube).

Recently, we’ve thought of Homecooked Circles to not only pivot our revenue model to a B2B team-building subscription sell, but also to acquire customers at an accelerated rate.

Q. What personal strengths or skill sets do you bring to the business?

A. I’m more of a generalist, with no depth in any single area. The team calls me the Utility Player — I’ll do whatever needs to be done to move things forward. My strength is in building on my teammates’ skills by building organizational framework and a positive creative environment. I love to talk to customers and ideate and iterate on products. I love to think long-term strategy.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. I’m proud of maintaining incredible working and personal relationships with my team (to overcome) crazy amounts of stress and turmoil. I think this solid team foundation is the most important thing for long-term success.

Q. What obstacles must you overcome to be wildly successful?

A. So many. Let me tell you all the reasons we might fail: (1) People might just not care enough about eating together; (2) The food industry has extremely tough margins. Our revenue model will have to undergo an extreme pivot; (3) Execution — we might be too young and inexperienced to successfully achieve velocity.

Q. How are you funding your business?

A. Entirely through grants from incubators and pitch competitions.

Q. What would be success for your business in the next 2-3 years?

A. We’re still working on Homecooked. Because that would mean: (1) We successfully graduated; (2) We were able to overcome personal financial situations to sustain our business; (3) We had enough market traction to convince us to keep going; (4) And we still believe in our mission — to bring people together. And that’s something worth fighting for.

Q. In your opinion, what does it take to be a great entrepreneur?

A. It takes flexibility, quick learning, and an open mind. Absorbing and listening to not only others, but signs of the future.

Q. Why do you do what you do?

A. I want to build something that matters. I want to create something that has a positive impact on peoples’ lives.

Q. How did the James J. Hill Center and 1 Million Cups Saint Paul help you with your business?

A. The team at the Hill were incredible with organizing 1 Million Cups St. Paul. They were patient and kind as I figured out my ridiculous schedule last-minute to be in the Twin Cities. The Hill also offers powerful resources for entrepreneurs. I was able to access a world-class grant database and create a powerful resource list.

You can hear from startups like this every other Wednesday, 9-10 a.m. at the James J. Hill Center during 1 Million Cups St. Paul. Visit jjhill.org/calendar for scheduled dates. The James J. Hill Center is a nonprofit in downtown St. Paul that provides access to business research, educational programming and a place to work. The Hill is open to the public 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Thursday. To keep updated on what startup is presenting next or to apply to present, visit www.JJHill.org/1-million-cups.

Continue Reading

Startup Showcase: Headstrong entrepreneur tackles football safety

Each month the James J. Hill Center interviews entrepreneurs for the Startup Showcase feature in the Pioneer Press.  See interview as seen in the Pioneer Press Startup Showcase originally posted on January 12, 2019.

According to the Washington Post, more than 1 million high school students participated in football in 2017 but that was a 20,000 decrease from the year before. The ongoing concerns of head injury due to impact continue to plague the sport.

However, research shows that there are more forces working inside the skull after impact than just the initial force caused at the site of impact. It is known that whiplash concussions occur in football. Hits in which the helmet has no contact with an opponent or the ground. These forces cannot be addressed by the helmet as it moves the head after impact. This can only be addressed outside the helmet by slowing it down.

Entrepreneur Jeff Chambers has dedicated his life to sports and is working to change the way we look at safety in football. With his invention of the Kato Collar he is looking to change the mentality that concussions are something you treat after you get them.

COMPANY PROFILE

Name of company: Guardian Athletics, LLC
Website: www.guardianathletics.com
Twitter: @katocollar
Business Start Date: 2008; began working on production of Kato Collar in September 2016
Number of Employees:  3
Number of Customers: 300+

Name: Jeff Chambers
Age: 59
City of Birth: Marysville, Kan.
City you live in: North Mankato
High school attended: Aurora High School, Aurora, Neb.
College attended: Undergrad: University of Nebraska Lincoln 1983; Masters; University of Northern Colorado 1985

Q&A

Q. What led to this point?

A. I have been a certified athletic trainer for over 35 years providing health care for student athletes, the majority of those years as the head athletic trainer and all but 4 years at the College/University level.  I was the head athletic trainer at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh from 1990-99. I was at the director of athletic health care at Minnesota State University from 1999-2015 and associate director of athletic health care from 2015-17. Since October 2017, I have been the CEO of Guardian Athletics.

Q. What is your business?

A. Guardian Athletics is an innovative-driven sports company dedicated to player safety, introducing and patenting its flagship product Kato Collar in April 2018, designed to prevent concussions and the brachial plexus injury (burner/stinger).

Q. What problems does your business solve?

A. Kato Collar is the first and only safety device outside of a helmet to reduce forces causing concussion as well as preventing the burner/stinger neck injury. Kato Collar focuses on the deceleration of the brain after the initial impact of a hit. By focusing on this, Kato Collar’s design performs three things: 1) Slows down the helmeted head reducing the forces to the brain inside the skull after impact where concussion also occurs;  2) Prevents the head and neck from moving forcefully past the end PROM where contrecoup concussion and BPIs occur; and 3) Allows full AROM (active range of motion) for optimal performance so players will wear it.

Q. What is the origin of the business?

A. In 1998 I had an athlete who got a burner/stinger neck injury. I began tinkering with existing products, trying out new ideas, and started down the path that has led to where I am now.

In 2007, an entrepreneurship class at Minnesota State University worked with me; we entered a contest through Greater Mankato Growth and won a $5,000 award and that is how Kato Collar got started. I have been working on it ever since.

Q. What big obstacle or hurdle did you have to overcome?

A. After receiving the Brian Fazio Business Creation Project Award, I used that money to get the initial CADs (computer-aided design) done and to seek out advice on prototyping and manufacturing. All the advice I received said to seek out a license and manufacturing agreement with a company that already created protective gear for athletes. I did this for the first three years and two companies were very interested, but eventually backed away from my product in late 2011. It was at this point that the money I had, along with the grant, was not near enough to move forward.  I had to decide whether to continue. It appeared the only way this would happen was to manufacture and take it to market myself. I went out and raised $30,000 and was able to complete the patent and continue building Kato Collar.

Q. What personal strengths or skill sets do you bring to the business?

A. My faith and my passion. Without these two things I would not have had the courage to move forward to bring Kato Collar to fruition. My concentration is on thought leadership for the company and any way I can help in capital raising.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. My perseverance, strength, and courage to step away from a profession I had been practicing for 35 years. I was comfortable to do something uncomfortable and move forward with Kato Collar when most people told me it was impossible and that I couldn’t do it. In fact, many people did not believe in the emerging science behind brain injuries and willingly shared that lack of knowledge. We have done something that current equipment does not, and cannot do — slow the head down after impact.

Q. What obstacles must you overcome to be wildly successful?

A. We must shift the paradigm of thought about how to prevent concussions. It is really very simple, but throughout history the helmet has been the only protective device designed to protect the head. It is ingrained into our society. We must change the following two myths: 1) Collars only deal with neck injuries and 2) Helmets prevent all concussions.

Q. What would be success for your business in the next 2-3 years?

A. I measure success one brain at a time. There are monetary milestones, investment goals, sales numbers, and all those measurables, but, those come as a byproduct of doing the right thing. We will change the way safety is looked on in football, that is our success. When we do that, everyone makes money and all those traditional benchmarks are easily eclipsed.

Q. In your opinion, what does it take to be a great entrepreneur?

A. Faith and passion are what I believe to be the key qualities to becoming a successful entrepreneur. I have heard some say until you have failed one time you are not a true entrepreneur. I totally disagree!  I asked myself what would I do if I was not afraid? I did not know how and when, but I knew it was going to happen. You must be humble and willing to learn from other’s experiences and learn from your own mistakes. At times it can be overwhelming! You trust and believe, move forward, and make sacrifices.

Q. How did the James J. Hill Center and 1 Million Cups Saint Paul help you with your business?

A. We are still early in our relationship, they have helped us gain exposure and recognition.

You can hear from startups like this every other Wednesday, 9-10 a.m. at the James J. Hill Center during 1 Million Cups St. Paul. Visit jjhill.org/calendar for scheduled dates.The James J. Hill Center is a nonprofit in downtown St. Paul that provides access to business research, educational programming and a place to work. The Hill is open to the public  8 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Thursday. To keep updated on what startup is presenting next or to apply to present, visit www.JJHill.org/1-million-cups

Continue Reading

IMPORTANT NOTICE:

Patrons with accessibility needs please access our ground floor elevator entrance via Kellogg Ave at the back of the building. Please ring the doorbell on the right hand side of door and a Hill staff member will assist you. If you have questions or concerns please call 651.265.5500. We look forward to having you visit.

Blog and More!

X