The seven men and women — Candace Aaker, Nick Aaker, Mohammed Abdi, Daniel Carranza, Fatouma Hachim, Hans Hibma and Victoria Hibma — who participated in the second class of the Elevate Business Academy celebrated those dreams in front of a small crowd of friends, family, business leaders and elected officials from across Kandiyohi County earlier this month at the Willmar Education and Arts Center where their graduation from the program was conducted.
“Congratulations on such a beautiful job well done,” said Sarah Swedburg, business development manager with the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, during the Dec. 17 ceremony. “Not only have you gained such foundational business ownership knowledge that you now carry with you, we want you to remember you are business leaders in our community.”
Elevate Business Academy, a business training and management program, was launched in spring 2021 by the EDC, the Southwest Initiative Foundation and Rising Tide Capital. While the program is open to all business entrepreneurs and owners in Kandiyohi County, the curriculum focuses on underserved minorities and adult learners. The first class graduated in June.
“These are the people who will continue to build our economy, build our community, knit together those two things, the economic and social fabric of the Willmar community,” said Diane Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the Southwest Initiative Foundation.
Elevate instructor Abdusalaam Hirsi speaks Dec. 17, 2021, about the program, which teaches entrepreneurs about starting and running a business. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune
The second class of the academy began in September. Throughout the 12-week course, students learned about a wide variety of business topics including daily record-keeping, budgeting, marketing, intellectual property and insurance. By the end of the hands-on course, students were able to write and present a business plan and marketing pitch. The classes are taught by trained instructors and mentors including Abdusalaam Hirsi, Connie Schmoll, Simeko Hartley and Swedburg.
“The Elevate Business Academy exists to elevate business for success through education and mentorship,” Hirsi said.
Graduation keynote speaker Hudda Ibrahim said being an entrepreneur can be hard work, but she believes the graduates are up to the task.
“You all have the tenacity, perseverance and patience” needed to be successful, Ibrahim said.
Keynote speaker Hudda Ibrahim gives advice Dec. 17, 2021, to the Elevate graduating class. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune
They also need to be passionate about what they are doing, innovative, disciplined and have a strong drive for success. The ability to control the fear of failure or not having the skills needed is also very important.
“If you have that passion and … you want to do that thing you want to do, you can overcome all those challenges,” Ibrahim said. “You have to fight for what you believe in.”
Carranza, chosen as the class speaker for the ceremony, thanked everyone for attending. He said one of the biggest takeaways from the academy was the opportunity the students had to learn not only from the instructors but from their fellow students.
“For 12 weeks we have grown together, learned from each other, laughed together and support each other in our career paths,” Carranza said. “Each of us has the potential to operate in bold confidence.”
Daniel Carranza, student speaker at the Elevate Business Academy graduation ceremony Dec. 17, 2021, in Willmar, says one of the biggest takeaways from the academy was the opportunity the students had to learn, not only from the instructors but from their fellow students. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune
Now that they have graduated, the students can look forward to putting what they’ve learned into action. They will also remain part of the Elevate family and have a group of people behind them, cheering them on and offering a helping hand when needed.
“Entrepreneurship is hard, but you are not alone,” Swedburg said. “Those that find themselves on this path after you will have seven incredible leaders to look up to and turn to for their support.”
Preparation for the third class will begin shortly. The class is set to start in spring 2022. The informational sessions — potential applicants must attend at least one — will be held in January and February. The 12-week course will start in March with graduation in June. While the class will be in English, moving forward the academy hopes to offer classes in Spanish and Somali, to bring this educational opportunity to a larger community of people.
“We already have a waiting list for a Somali class, of about 15 people,” Swedburg said.
The future for Elevate is just as bright as it is for the newest graduates. In November, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development awarded the academy a $76,000 Small Business Partnership Grant. In an interview with the West Central Tribune, Swedburg said the money will fund the next three Elevate classes, into spring 2023. A portion of the grant funding will also be used to offer a series of targeted educational lectures by the EDC and the Southwest Initiative Foundation. Swedburg said this would allow for a more in-depth dive into certain business management areas.
“It is huge,” Swedburg said. “It builds that stability.”
The program can also now call itself award-winning. At this year’s Association of Minnesota Counties annual conference, Elevate received the Minnesota Association of Professional County Economic Developers’ Outstanding Economic Development Award. The award celebrates economic development efforts and partnerships which foster economic growth and enhance quality of life.
It has been a lot of work establishing the Elevate program, which started with Schmoll at the EDC and Scott Marquardt, senior vice president at the Southwest Initiative Foundation. However, the success the program has had with the graduating classes, along with the grant and award, have shown it was a good idea.
“We know Elevate has a lot of potential,” Swedburg said. “This solidifies that this is worth our while and we are really excited we have invested so much into making this program get up and running.”