By NEAL ST. ANTHONY
Junita Flowers’ entrepreneurial passion for “cookies and conversation’’ events grew out of her yearslong struggle to escape an abusive marriage and establish an enterprise focused on reducing shame experienced by victims, creating allies and customers, and inspiring college students and others to join her at junitasjar.com.
Precious Drew, who attended the College of St. Benedict, is the co-founder of Perk, which is developing sustainable skin-care products, starting with a body scrub made from “upcycled fair-trade coffee grounds from local coffee shops” at perkbeautylab.com.
Michelle Tran Maryns, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, has a master’s degree from Harvard and worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and also helped minority businesses get financing. Her Minneapolis-based wesparkle.org is a software-as-a-service that makes it easier for female-owned service businesses, such as hair salons and nail shops, to automate scheduling and other customer administration in order to spend more time on customer care.
These “social entrepreneurs,” who use business to advance causes, are among the first small-business fellows to graduate from the Finnovation Lab business incubator that is part of social entrepreneur Jacquie Berglund’s year-old Finnegans House, the downtown brewery, taproom, social club and entrepreneurial center.
250 applicants, 5 fellows
The five graduating fellows, all from modest backgrounds and very limited resources, were selected from 250 applicants to accelerate their businesses, thanks to nine-month stipends of $50,000 apiece from the Bush Foundation, plus business mentors, work space and more in what is believed the first such accelerator in the Twin Cities.
“I always knew it was more than a cookie company,” said Flowers, 46, who started baking cookies as a side job more than a decade ago during an emotionally and physically abusive marriage that she finally left.
“I didn’t just want to be a victim. I was a stay-at-home mom for eight years and also [eventually] ran a nonprofit, Family Promise in Anoka County. But I didn’t know what was a ‘social entrepreneur.’?”
A couple of years ago, Flowers met Berglund and Melissa Kjolsing, another social entrepreneur who once ran the Minnesota Cup entrepreneurial sweepstakes. They encouraged her to develop her fledgling cookie business as a platform for conversations with young people on campuses and elsewhere about domestic violence — the horror of it, the way out and how to prevent it.
Drew, 23, who graduated from Minneapolis Edison High School after moving with her mother from Chicago, partnered with another St. Ben’s student in entrepreneurial studies on what has become Perk. A coffee shop donates all the used grounds they need to make body scrub.
Drew said the business, a trending sector particularly in the United Kingdom, takes a waste product, adds oils and other ingredients and produces an environmentally benign skin-care therapy.
“We hand-craft our product in our homes,” Drew said. “We’re now looking at how to scale the business, whether that will be a [third-party] co-packer or using a commercial kitchen.
“The biggest benefit of this fellowship program has been the help that is vital for entrepreneurs,” said Drew, whose mentor is a Twin Cities data scientist and entrepreneur. “My mentor has pushed me out of my comfort zone. And I now have a network of people to discuss things and who want to help me succeed.”
Maryns was born and raised in a small town in Kansas to which her parents immigrated from Vietnam in 1975. She will never forget several townspeople who helped the family, including finding her father his first job. She spent nearly a decade in business and government, working three years at MEDA, the nonprofit counselor and financier of small minority businesses.
Minority women in business
She decided that she wanted to focus on developing software for use primarily by immigrant and minority women who own hair and nail shops. They know how to do the work, but they often lack the time or experience for running the business.
“It really stems from my parents are refugees from Vietnam in 1975. I was born and raised in Kansas in a small, farming community. It was thanks to a few people in our community who helped us, starting with helping my dad find a job. I was able to go to college.
“Female minorities are the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs, but they are not seeing revenue on par with their peers,” Maryns said. “Many are in service businesses, particularly hair and nail salons and pet business.
“I decided that if I wanted to help them, I should [assist] the businesses they are trying to start. I always wanted to start a business. The most common thing they need is help with administrative tasks, such as scheduling appointments and calling clients for reschedule. They lose customers for lack of that. I have a tech background. It’s the solution that makes the most sense. I’m developing a message-type service, kind of like texting.”
The next cohort of Finnovation fellows, based at the Impact Hub co-working space at Finnegans House, starts in September.
Berglund has brewed a seven-figure strategy that transcends beer sales and the profits she donates to food charities.
Finnegans House, is a $10 million, four-level brewery, taproom, social club and entrepreneurial center developed in partnership last year with Kraus-Anderson. Kraus redeveloped the entire block in a $125 million overalhaul of its headquarters block to include the developer’s new headquarters, apartment buildings, a hotel, and Finnegans House.
It’s an upgrade from Kraus’s nondescript old digs and surface parking lot. And Kraus was willing to take on some risk to help the expanding Finnegan’s succeed as the social centerpiece of the development.