Microenterprise and microlending are strategies typically associated with economic growth and poverty reduction in developing countries. However, non-profit organizations with similar goals have helped small business entrepreneurs in Minnesota flourish for over thirty years. Many of these organizations prefer to not be called microenterprise, because while their services are targeted toward so-called disadvantaged individuals, the microenterprise label could impede a client business’ future success.
These non-profit organizations are an important part of Minnesota’s economic development landscape. By offering alternative lending options (microloans) to individuals who may not be eligible for traditional bank loans, jobs are created and retained through periods of recession. Programs help to build financial stability for low-income individuals and minorities, many of whom are striving to leave public assistance. Finally, the business and technical classes, career and personal counseling, and training programs offered through these organizations provide Minnesota with a highly skilled and educated workforce.
The Northeast Entrepreneur Fund (NEF) was founded in 1989 in Virginia, Minnesota to encourage local entrepreneurship and create economic wealth and diversity in eleven counties in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin, an area traditionally dependent on employment in the mining and timber sectors. According to founder Mary Mathews, “Everything we do is about skills development for the entrepreneur so they can grow successful companies.” The Greenstone Group, a 10-year initiative started by NEF, offers a program called the Campus Initiative, which works with the area’s eight community colleges to develop and train new entrepreneurs. The Northeast Entrepreneur Fund and Greenstone Group have successfully diversified Northeastern Minnesota’s economy and encouraged entrepreneurship. To date, the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund has helped 1,000 businesses, and created or retained 2,500 jobs.
In the Twin Cities, WomenVenture has provided services for thirty-four years. Their mission is to enable women to secure their own economic self-sufficiency and to achieve financial competence, with an emphasis on low-income communities. The Women Can Do It! Program trains women in job and life skills in non-traditional fields, (defined as less than 25 percent of the workforce of a single gender). The one-year program provides classes, counseling, networking opportunities, support in training and certification programs, and is free for participants who meet income guidelines. Results are promising: of the seventy-six women enrolled in the Women Can Do It! Program, 67 percent were minorities, and 16 percent were ex-offenders. After completing the program, 68 percent of the participants were placed in jobs, with an 85 percent on-the-job retention rate.
From encouraging entrepreneurship and new business development in outstate Minnesota, to helping women become economically independent in traditional or non-traditional career paths, these non-profit organizations are helping build and sustain the small business economy and jobs all around Minnesota.