Minnesota's business scene in 1981, when I first joined the Star Tribune, was dominated by the rise of the financial industry, conglomerates and deregulation.

It was a go-go time of growing wealth but also of frauds, failures and a squeeze on labor. Farmers consolidated, and their farms got bigger.

I wrote when one of our giant companies, struggling Pillsbury, was acquired by a British firm in 1989 and gave us a taste of what globalization meant. And I wrote as Dayton Hudson/Target successfully fought off a takeover attempt.

With since-retired colleagues John Oslund, Dave Phelps and Dave Hage, I covered the leveraged takeover of Northwest Airlines in 1989, which led to its near-bankruptcy and recapitalization as a public company during the 1990s. The 2001 terror attack, recession and mismanagement ultimately pushed Northwest to merge with Delta in 2008.

In four decades as a business reporter and columnist, I witnessed great leadership, wealth generation, stakeholder engagement, encouraging reinvestment and philanthropy by smart, grateful capitalists. Also, greed and failure.

Twenty years ago, I remember the labor analysts in the state jobs agency started pointing out that baby boomers like me didn't have enough children for Minnesota to grow the way it did in the late 20th century.

Their outlook led me to shift my attention away from the state's biggest companies and more to the entrepreneurs and emerging workforce, who were disproportionately people of color, including immigrants. They became increasingly important to Minnesota's growth.

And over the past decade, I've focused even more on the role of business innovators in improving our environment and transitioning to Minnesota-made clean energy.

At 69, I'm now joining my generation's big move into retirement. As a farewell, I wanted to spotlight a handful of Minnesotans I've met in recent years who represent our future and show why I'm excited by it.

Tykia Hess

Just a few months ago, I met Hennepin Healthcare nurse Tykia Hess, who was born to a low-income single mom and became a mother herself as a teenager. Now 36, Hess has worked her way up from nursing assistant through night college to a career nurse.

Even more, she's a mentor to others at the county's nonprofit hospital. She's raised a daughter, a student at Augsburg University who plans to be a physician assistant.

Minnesota needs more nurses, the front line of health care, who can make $80,000-plus.

Only 5% of nurses and 3% of the doctors in Minnesota are Black, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Those numbers are higher at inner-city HCMC. And they are starting to rise elsewhere.

People of color tended to start and finish their working lives in lower-level jobs in health care and other service industries. It's essential for qualified people to rise into higher-skilled roles as Hess has done.

Moreover, other data shows a welcome narrowing of Minnesota's stubborn racial disparities. DEED reported Thursday that the state's Black unemployment rate was 2.5%, based on a 12-month moving average. That's down from 7.1% a year ago.

Oriane Casale, DEED's assistant director of labor market information, notes the key labor-force participation rate for whites, as they age, is lower than that of Blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans.

Davis Powell

For five years, I've known truck driver Davis Powell, 39. He drives for an auto parts distributor after turning around his life following a prison stint for an impulsive attempt with a buddy and a gun to rob a suburban movie theater.

"That was pride and greed," said Powell, whom I wrote about in 2021. "That's been replaced by motivation, ambition, a plan and guidance from God."

Powell aspires to become an independent owner-operator.

One of the ways that Louis Johnston, an economist at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University who researches Minnesota, told me to think of the changes I've seen in my career is that human capital has become more important.

"Ironically, that's partly why we have [racial] disparities in education and income. We haven't done a great job of making sure everyone gets to take advantage," he told me. "Creating ladders of opportunity. We have to make sure people who don't go to college get the skills to navigate and get into networks."

That's especially hard for people such as Powell who make a mistake in life. But more and more Minnesotans recognize the value of second chances.

Donzel Leggett

Donzel Leggett is one of those people. He's an executive at General Mills and chairs Twin Cities Rise, the North Side nonprofit that works with people coming out of prison and other institutions.

Leggett, 55, earned graduate degrees in industrial technology and business and was a three-time Academic All-America football player at Purdue University.

"God blessed me with academic and athletic ability and parents who encouraged me to take advantage of opportunities," Leggett told me in 2021. "I had to use my gifts to do positive things."

Community colleges, and nonprofits such as Rise, Summit Academy, Emerge and PPL have contributed so much to the state's economy. Often, they just need to show people what's possible.

Marc Majors, DEED's deputy commissioner for workforce development, said: "We are a state that's more diverse every day. Black, Latino, Asian, African. If everyone is thriving, our economy thrives. That's the business case.''

Jenni and Tom Smude

In rural Minnesota in 2008, Jenni and Tom Smude, were nearly bankrupt due to drought and debt on their soybean and corn farm in central Minnesota. Today, they lead a family business headed for $12 million in 2023 sales and 30 employees. Smude Enterprises, a sunflower-based, no-waste consumer food-and-feed business, provides income for area farmers with a soil-enriching alternative crop. You can probably find their oil and popcorn in your grocery store.

Since I first visited in 2016, the couple and their family have expanded their on-farm sunflower-processing plant into a 55,000-square-foot facility that was nearly vacant in nearby Pierz, Minn. They are the second-largest employer in town, behind the school.

The operation includes a woodworking business they bought with the building in 2019. The got early financial support from Morrison County, DEED and a local bank.

Now with eight related enterprises, the Smudes show how homegrown specialty foods can command premium prices and why sustainability provides economic value.

One last scoop

I've been interested in energy and environmental stuff since the 1970s and long ago concluded that a cleaner, greener environment would lead to a better economy.

At that time, of course, Minnesota was mostly a consumer of fossil fuels from other parts of the country and world. But today, we produce much more of our own energy.

And as I encourage you to watch this transformation, I have one more scoop.

A report is coming next week that will say Minnesota generates 55% of its electrical power from zero-carbon fuels, including nuclear, solar and wind.

Minnesota is heading toward the creation of 100,000 renewable-energy and conservation-technology jobs in this decade, according to Amelia Cerling Hennes, managing director of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota.

The group, along with the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and BloombergNEF will report that Minnesota continues to outpace the nation in power sector emission reductions. They are down by half from 2005, while the nation has made a 40% reduction in that time.

Meanwhile, a renovated Albert Lea biodiesel plant and a carbon-offset project by a Minneapolis business that will yield thousands of carbon-absorbing trees are recent investments that underscore progress in reducing greenhouse gases. The plant will generate more energy than it needs from a 2.4-megawatt wind turbine.

Thanks for taking a read over the years. I'm betting on Minnesota.