Inside Track: Entrepreneurs bridge a cultural divide

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Hamline University's "Middle East Education to Employment Exchange" of journalists, business people and others from several Middle Eastern countries who seek to get beyond state-and-religious conflicts through economic opportunity.

Commerce and collaboration can trump national borders and religious differences when it comes to planning a better future.

That was proven recently by Arie Bornstein, an Israeli; Fatmah Hindash, a Jordanian; Reem Mustafa, a Palestinian, and 17 other Jews and Muslims who are business people, journalists and social entrepreneurs from the Middle East.

They spent a month as fellows at Hamline University's Education to Employment Exchange Program, which fosters business and entrepreneurial skills. They visited YMCA Camp St. Croix for team-building exercises and watched and interviewed diverse teams working at 3M, Cargill, Wells Fargo, HealthPartners and other businesses and nonprofits to develop their own business plans.

The fellows are selected through national searches in their home countries with help from U.S. embassies' cultural attaché offices.

"We try with this program to bring leaders from a region where conflict -- religious, ethnic, or national -- is part of the landscape and the collective psyche of the peoples," said Arie Zmora, co-director of the exchange project. "By not being poster-personalities of either Israel, Palestinian Authority, Jordan or Lebanon ... the fellows interacted naturally with no chip on their shoulder. They came to know each other ... gain mutual trust and establish friendships.

"Hopefully, pragmatic economic joint ventures will take over the lead in moving Jews and Arabs to prosper while moving beyond the divisive historical, religious narrative."

The fellows collaborated on business plans that ranged from recycling plants to solar-powered refrigeration to talk shows that dispel stereotypes, children's health initiatives and technology education for women. Several of them are designed to transcend borders and religions.

Hamline and the exchange, supported by a U.S. State Department grant, bring together experts from its business school and the business and nonprofit communities to share their challenges and successes with fellows. Later this year, Minnesotans who worked with the Hamline fellows will visit them in the Middle East to assist and learn as the fellows plan and execute their strategies.

WOMENVENTURE TO FOCUS ON BUSINESS BUILDING

WomenVenture, which over three decades has helped 100,000-plus women improve their economic status, has decided to drop career-education programs and focus on helping female-owned businesses.

Its board this month concluded that career programs are offered at little or no cost by other nonprofits. The organization will focus on assisting women-owned businesses with microloans, working capital, education and ongoing consultation with female client owners.

Colleen Willhite, board member and acting president, said WomenVenture has expertise in that area, and the services are needed.

"Our default rate on microloans is less than 5 percent," she said in an interview. "And the clients we serves typically aren't able to get loans from banks, and they need to work with our consultants. These folks are successful, and they probably wouldn't get capital elsewhere."

In 2011, WomenVenture helped start, expand or strengthen 113 local businesses through entrepreneurial development classes and services. Those businesses created 74 additional jobs with an estimated $1.6 million in new salaried income. Through its microloan program, WomenVenture loaned $277,000 to 14 business development clients.

Meanwhile, Thia Breen, a Benson, Minn., native and North American president for Estée Lauder Companies, will be the keynote speaker at WomenVenture's October symposium, its single-largest fundraiser. Breen, considered an industry innovator and champion of family-friendly policies, will discuss her career and lessons learned. The event, sponsored again by Wells Fargo, is Oct. 12 at the Depot in Minneapolis. More information: www.WomenVenture.org 

NO MORE BILLABLE HOURS

Minneapolis law firm Nilan Johnson Lewis and its client Target Corp. have been recognized nationally as "value champions" by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) for creative collaboration in moving from the "billable hours" model to a retainer model for legal services.

Under the retainer model, the firm is paid a fixed, monthly fee.

Jim Rowader, general counsel for employee and labor relations at Target, said the arrangement allows its employee and labor relations team "to deepen the partnership with a key law firm that has been critical to the department's success, while simultaneously enhancing cost certainty for Target."

Joseph Schmitt, lead lawyer on the Target account for Nilan Johnson Lewis, agreed that the retainer model encouraged greater partnership with Target, which most years is the firm's largest-revenue client. It encourages a preventive legal strategy to avoid litigatin, he said.

"Their people can call me whenever they have an employment problem ... before it expands to a lawsuit," Schmitt said. "The Target HR people don't have to fear getting a bill. If you have a long-standing relationship with a client, you don't think the client is trying to squeeze you and you can provide a quality service."

The arrangement also includes an unspecified financial incentive to the law firm for timely, efficient work. The Target/Nilan Lewis Johnson partnership was one of seven cited nationally in the Corporate Counsel magazine.

SHORT TAKES:

Land O'Lakes CEO Chris Policinski, whose farmer-owned cooperative does a lot of overseas business, extolled public-private partnerships at a conference on food security and development assistance, sponsored this month by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington, D.C.

Land O'Lakes has 30-plus years of experience in international development, working on 275 U.S. government-backed projects in 80 nations involving about 5,000 businesses, nongovernment organizations, in-country farm groups and private investors.

"Public-private partnerships are essential to the success of international development efforts," Policinski said. "This isn't a role just for government or just for industry. The U.S. government's investment provides the impetus for investment from outside companies and other entities -- including private investment dollars generated in-country."

Policinski cited a Land O'Lakes-assisted project -- the Malawi Dairy Development Alliance in Africa. Every dollar invested by USAID generated nearly $4 of local, private investment. The $5.7 million business has significantly reduced poverty and hunger by strengthening Malawi's small-farmer dairy industry.

•Faced with a growing online business, Schwan's Food Co. this month chose the Minneapolis office of BBDO Proximity as its digital advertising agency of record.

"The agency understands consumers and their relationships with food," said Christine Hade, chief marketing officer for the Marshall, Minn.-based home food service of Schwan's Food. BBDO has a long history in the food industry, particularly in Minnesota where one of its principal clients has been Hormel Foods. Schwan's Home Food Service sells more than 350 products via home delivery and mail order -- from ice cream to pizza and seafood.

"With its direct-to-consumer model and extensive coverage in the U.S., there is great potential for Schwan's Home Services to unlock future growth ... through digital," said Neil White, chief executive of BBDO Proximity.

DAVID PHELPS

•Representatives of Ecolab, the St. Paul-based seller of sanitation and hygiene products and services, will share their expertise with China's largest state-owned restaurants and eateries. The effort is being arranged by China's Food and Drug Administration Institute for Executive Development as part of a five-year food-safety improvement plan to educate 700 restaurant workers, enhance public awareness and improve consumer confidence. Training, slated for Beijing, Wuhan and Baise, will focus on personal hygiene, proper equipment and facility operation, disinfecting and pest control.

DEE DEPASS

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