Brittany's idea of social change is rooted in human connection. For Erik, it's connection with the Earth. And for Haggai, it's connection between parts of the brain.
These three changemakers are determined to make these visions into reality by filling gaps in society's systems. They're building businesses from the ground up, but not alone.
The FINNOVATION Fellowship is an annual business development program that provides nine early-stage social entrepreneurs with curriculum-based training, one-on-one mentoring and a community of purpose-driven peers. Spanning nine months, the program gives fellows a $50,000 living stipend, funded by the Bush Foundation, allowing them to focus on their start-ups.
With this support, Brittany Clausen, 29, is expanding her racial justice consultation company. Erik Halaas, 38, is developing operations for an eco-friendly alternative for human burials. Haggai Simon, 27, is creating a homework management app for college students with ADHD.
Promoting entrepreneurial ventures like these is the purpose of FINNOVATION Lab, the organization that runs the program, said CEO Connie Rutledge. Located in downtown Minneapolis, the professional resource hub encourages positive social impact through economically sustainable business models and uplifts innovators who aim for change.
"At our heart, we really are a leadership development program," Rutledge said. "We always tell the fellows they're so early stage with their businesses, typically, that the whole point is that we are investing in them as a human."
Brittany Clausen — Centering racial justice in strategic planning
Even though this year's fellowship just began on Sept. 15, Clausen's entrepreneurial passions began at a young age, with vision boards and a beloved talk show host.
"So, my big picture is that I'm gonna be like Oprah," Clausen said.
The dream, Clausen said, is to expand her diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consulting firm, Envision Greatness, to include a TV show focused on mental health and cultural humility. She already has a podcast on racial equity that she plans to move to YouTube in the near future.
"I just have loved seeing how Oprah can interview anybody from all walks of life and still try to understand them," Clausen said. "Now, her interview style is a little different than mine, but I would say that's what I appreciate, is having a platform to really share the humanity between us and see how we can work together rather than tearing each other apart."
Founded in 2017, Envision Greatness provides racial-justice-centered coaching, professional development training workshops, motivational speeches and strategic planning for organizations.
Clausen, who is Black, said she started her business in response to acts of systematic racialized violence against her community. Her services focus on mindfulness, self-awareness and emotional intelligence to help people see diversity as a unifying strength instead of a dividing force.
"Because that's kind of where we're at, is so much judgment to the point where the judgment actually leads towards harm and destruction, and we see that the most when it comes to racism, violence, death and murder," Clausen said. "And I think that at this point, like, we need to get to know each other. We need to be in a room."
During the fellowship, Clausen will work on a supplemental instrument for her strategic planning services — a DEI assessment tool that gauges participants' unconscious biases for racism, sexism, ableism and other prejudices. The mobile app will have questions written by Clausen, who has a master's degree in social work and a certificate in DEI, and will be reviewed by an ethics board.
"I have a million ideas a day," Clausen said. "However, with that, I am kind of in a place where I really want to focus on the next best thing for Envision Greatness that will launch me into the next level."
Erik Halaas — The option for green burials
Halaas didn't know a year ago that he would be creating an organization centered around death.
It wasn't until he was co-teaching a course on innovation at the University of Minnesota that he discovered natural organic reduction, a form of burial in which the human body is turned to nutrient-rich compost. His co-instructor assigned a recommended reading on the topic, and Halaas quickly realized that is what he wants to do when he dies.
"It was like, wow, I can decompose naturally and be kind of reimagined in a natural environment," Halaas said. "And so, me being interested in that opportunity for myself sparked into exploration of the concept."
Halaas is working to make his business, Live on Minnesota, the state's first facility for natural organic reduction, also called "human composting." By offering this environmentally conscious process, he hopes to expand burial options.
"My goal is not that everybody in Minnesota becomes compost in their passing," Halaas said. "My goal is to create additional options that allow folks to have a choice in what is one thing in our lives that we don't get to choose."
Halaas had to help decide on a burial for the first time a few years ago, for his mother-in-law. Even though she died before he learned about natural organic reduction, Halaas often thinks of her in relation to the peaceful nature of the process.
"One of the pictures I have in my mind is of my mother-in-law's garden," he said. "And imagining her as a part of that garden, growing with her grandchildren, some of which she didn't have the chance to meet."
Natural organic reduction is not legal in Minnesota, although Halaas said there is a possibility that could change soon. In early 2023, the Legislature introduced a bill to legalize the process.
The issue, Halaas said, is that death is a taboo subject. During the fellowship, he hopes to spread awareness of the green burial option and normalize dialogue around the topic.
"It's about being comfortable talking about death, first and foremost," Halaas said. "And then it's about kind of opening our eyes to the possibilities and hopefully returning choice back to folks who are navigating loss."
Haggai Simon — Supporting students with ADHD
Discovering long-term career goals is what helped Simon get on track in college. Now, drawing on personal experiences with ADHD, Simon is developing a mobile app to help university students manage their academics.
"From the time I was like 7 years old until the time I was graduating college, managing homework was still really difficult," Simon said. "If you asked me at any given time, 'What homework do you have this week?' Probably not until my last year or two of college would I have actually been able to tell you off the top of my head what my homework was supposed to be that week."
Simon, who uses they/them pronouns, is utilizing behavioral science research as a foundation for their app, Diddit. By combining this research with interactive features, Simon will make the app customizable to the educational needs of every student.
Diddit will have functions catered to students with ADHD, such as interval-based timers for homework, study blocks that autofill from the user's class schedule and a dashboard that color-codes assignments as "do", "doing" and "done." Users also will be able to set designated study locations, and the app will remind them when to go there.
The purpose of the app is to reintegrate routines into the lives of college students as they navigate major life changes and increased personal responsibility, Simon said.
"How do you know when to do homework? Because when you have ADHD, 'whenever' just kind of means never," Simon said. "If you set an actual time and commit to that time, you're way more likely to do it."
During the fellowship, Simon is working toward conducting behavioral studies with college students, then hopes to partner with a university to gauge the effectiveness of the techniques.
When the app eventually is released, Simon plans to partner with disability centers at colleges so students with ADHD can access the resource for free. In the meantime, they hope to hone their leadership skills through the fellowship's curriculum and personalized training.
The FINNOVATION Fellowship "is extremely different from anything else out there," Simon said. "So, it's a super unique opportunity."
Jessy Rehmann is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune. Reach her at Jessy.Rehmann@startribune.com.