Aisha Wadud started her business to help others.
She could use a little help to make that business grow.
Which brought her to the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas and an innovative new program for entrepreneurs with big dreams and limited means.
Part business incubator, part boot camp, part crash course, the Community Entrepreneurship Program helps people who are trying to start or grow businesses in the face of obstacles that would stop most people from trying. People working two or three jobs on the side. Single parents drafting business plans at the kitchen table after the babies are in bed.
More than 30 entrepreneurs signed on this year, with dreams of their own trucking companies, gyms, fashion houses, beauty shops, bike shops and subscription snack services. There's a women's art collective. A chef who crafted a line of flavorful low-sodium spices after losing too many loved ones to heart disease.
There's Wadud, a massage therapist who opened Nura Holistic Massage & Bodywork in north Minneapolis, on a mission to help her neighbors heal.
"A lot of people have not recovered, really" from the trauma of the past few years of pandemic, unrest, violence and loss, she said. "They're just pushing through and trying to persevere."
The program connects entrepreneurs with mentors, resources and — in this final phase —the enthusiastic consulting services of St. Thomas undergraduate and graduate business students.
Liz Murphy, a St. Thomas senior majoring in entrepreneurship, and MBA candidate Brenda Hanson partnered with Wadud this semester.
"You guys are amazing," Wadud greeted them with a smile on a snowy Tuesday evening, eager to brief her team on everything that had happened since the last class.
"There's lots of things you can do every day as a business owner," said Murphy, who speaks from experience as the CEO of Perky Plant — a plant food company on a mission to promote mental health. "You prioritize them, maybe get done five things" while another "six, seven, eight are important and would really add value to your company."
That's where the students come in, serving as volunteer business consultants, marketing researchers, IT help desk, cheering section. Those last six, seven, eight items on the to-do list? "We can do them," Murphy said.
Murphy and Hanson helped Wadud research and craft her first Facebook ad — just $35, and she got five calls from potential clients in the first week. They set up user-friendly accounting software for her and talked through the pros and cons of hiring staff to expand Nura.
There's more than a letter grade riding on their classwork. This is someone's dream.
"We really care and we want to be part of their success, too," Hanson said. "We're excited to see how it's going to grow for them."
The beauty of the program is that everybody wins. The entrepreneurs gain knowledge, skills, connections and student consultants. The community gains new businesses to fill our neighborhoods with delicious spices and shiny new bicycles.
For the students, it's the difference between learning about market research and actually doing market research.
One of the entrepreneurs is trying to break into the luxury soap market. So students fanned out across the cities, visiting local Patina stores and neighborhood gift shops, talking to buyers about what they're looking for in fancy gift soaps, how much they pay, what it would take for a new product to stand out from the crowd.
"Entrepreneurship is all about learning," said Laura Dunham, dean of the university's Opus College of Business, who helped launch the program. "No one is going to hand you a manual."
The program is geared toward entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities — minorities, women, people working to build up neighborhoods torn down by highway projects, racist zoning, and decades of redlining that destroyed generational wealth.
Pop culture makes starting a business sound like an ordeal somewhere between swimming in a shark tank and tinkering away lonely years in your garage until you boot-strap your way into America's next great startup.
The reality is that Minnesota is full of people who got where they are with help, and are happy to return the favor.
Established businesses have donated shop space to startups, volunteered as mentors and spent hours helping students with market research into everything from soap to spices to seasonal bicycle repairs.
"People are always amazingly generous," Dunham said. "Sometimes the entrepreneurial journey is when you find that out."