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Boreal Community Media

The Entrepreneur Fund: Providing support to Cook County business owners

Sep 26, 2022 11:33AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: The Entrepreneur Fund

By Rae Wojcik Poynter - Boreal Community Media - September 26, 2022

As any entrepreneur knows, starting and running a business is no small feat. From funding to education to navigating legal questions, a lot of behind-the-scenes work goes into business ownership. While this is true anywhere, rural business owners face added challenges due to fewer resources in small communities. 

Since 1989, the Entrepreneur Fund has helped business owners across northern Minnesota overcome these exact challenges. The Fund gives business owners, including those in Cook County, the support they need to see their business dreams become reality. 

Although its headquarters are in Duluth, the Entrepreneur Fund has staff across northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin, including in Cook County. Founded by Mary Mathews, the Entrepreneur Fund was designed to help bring more economic vibrancy and diversity to northern Minnesota’s communities. The initial focus of the organization was to provide training, consulting, and small loans to business owners. While it has grown since, the heart of the mission remains the same today.

Boreal Community Media reached out to Shawn Wellnitz, President & CEO of the Entrepreneur Fund, who said, “We get to know clients individually, what their ambitions and opportunities are. We combine a whole series of elements including consulting work, expertise, and cohort network building. We tend to be the most flexible source of money for people to pursue what they want to pursue.”

What is the Entrepreneur Fund?

The Entrepreneur Fund is a community development financial institution, or CDFI. A CDFIs is a lender focused on helping communities and individuals who may be low income or under-resourced. Although CFDIs are private financial institutions, they prioritize their mission of helping communities above maximizing profits. Last year, the Entrepreneur Fund worked with around 2,000 entrepreneurs and financed about $27 million in loans. Wellnitz estimated that about 25% of those loans went to startup businesses. 

“We can partner with a bank where we might take a riskier lending position so the bank can feel comfortable, or we might pair money with investors,” Wellnitz said. “We do whatever we can to structure money in a way that maximizes what the business owner wants to accomplish.”

Business Developers

To better serve small communities, the Entrepreneur Fund has Business Developers in 17 counties across the region. Cook County’s Business Developer is Tracy Benson, and her role includes helping with business planning, planning expansions, getting entrepreneurs ready to apply for loans, and more. Benson also brings a wealth of retail experience to the role, and she has helped local business owners develop inventory, point-of-sale, and online sales systems that work for their needs. 

“I work with a variety of business owners, from people who are planning to buy a local business to people with an existing business who want to expand,” Benson said. “There’s always things you need to grow and build on.”

One local business owner that Benson has worked with is Josiah Avery. Avery’s business, Rocky Knoll Boarding, opened in 2019 and offers dog boarding facilities. Initially, Rocky Knoll could board three dogs at a time, but after working with the Entrepreneur Fund, Avery was able to expand his business and double that capacity. He also built a new driveway for customers and a sight/sound barrier.

“The folks who work for the Entrepreneur Fund were great to work with,” Avery said. “The staff is very knowledgeable and helped me with the many questions I had. They provided technical support when I was in the process of applying for funds and walked me through the entire process step by step. They offered personal meetings and classes to discuss anything business related. Without them, I never would have been able to accomplish Rocky Knoll's expansion this year.”

Be Strategic Courses

This fall, Tracy Benson is leading a set of Be Strategic courses, which are classes for non-competing business owners. Over the course of six classes, the business owners get to know each other and support each other in creating strategic plans for their businesses. 

“We’re really thrilled to bring that back this fall,” Benson said. “I know our local businesses really appreciate having that extra help. It forces you to get focused on those things that are churning in your head all the time about your business. This is a channel for those questions and helps you get a plan to move them along.”

Women's Business Alliance

In addition to business advising and lending, the Entrepreneur Fund hosts events and has resources for women-owned and BIPOC-owned businesses. The Women’s Business Alliance is run by women, for women entrepreneurs. Becoming part of the Women’s Business Alliance means access to all the Entrepreneur Fund’s programs, plus additional resources that address additional challenges women business owners may face. 

“There are cultural barriers in place that are taking time to change,” said Carly Viegut, Communications & Content Manager for the Entrepreneur Fund. “Women historically ask for less money and don’t ask for loans as soon as their male counterparts in business. But women are super invested in their communities and are such an important part of growing our economy, so the Women’s Business Alliance helps with those challenges.”

SOAR Conference

Additionally, the Entrepreneur Fund hosts the SOAR Conference (SOAR stands for Seize Opportunities and Rise) which is for women in business, and includes a weekend focused on inspiration, actionable plans, and connection. This year’s conference will be a hybrid of online and in-person, and will take place October 11-13, 2022. Although the focus of the conference is for women, everyone is welcome to attend. 

Stride

The Entrepreneur Fund also launched a program called Stride for businesses owned by people of color. Stride brings together cohorts of BIPOC business owners to share their experiences and support each other on the entrepreneurial journey. 

“That’s been really well-received in the community and we’ve had a lot of interest,” Viegut said. 


For those who want to learn more about the Entrepreneur Fund or possibly seek assistance, the best way to reach out is to visit their website at entrepreneurfund.org and fill out their contact form. Cook County business owners will get to meet with a business advisor to learn more about what the Entrepreneur Fund has to offer.