Gender and racial diversity flowed through dozens of Twin Cities Startup Week events last week that celebrated, examined and showcased fledgling businesses.

Diversity is part of what makes America better at work — from cubicles at suburban Best Buy, which hosted 20-plus sessions of the national Blacks in Technology inaugural conference Saturday, to the intrepid folks who turn boarded-up storefronts into ethnic restaurants, workout studios, business incubators and art shops.

A woman whose parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s from India for more opportunity was a winner of the Minnesota Cup.

Black men and women who run firms that range from transportation to software to a craft-brewed-beer delivery service and a large Minnesota construction firm were feted at the “$1 million Challenge for Minority Entrepreneurs” sponsored by MEDA, the minority-business counselor.

Women and minorities, historically underrepresented, are now a growing part of small businesses startups, according to the Kaufmann Foundation, which tracks small business development. And it follows, as minorities, including immigrants, are the fastest-growing component of the Twin Cities population and workforce. That’s due to demographic shifts predicted for a generation, as well as aging baby boomers’ retirements.

Many of the companies that displayed their wares in competitions, such as the Minnesota Cup and the MEDA challenge, as well as through workshops and informal networking with funders, are hoping to land critical growth investments. A few of the participating businesses will land some cash as a result of last week’s work.

Others will at least come away smarter and better prepared.

Workshops taught by tech veterans and sponsored Thursday and Friday by Blacks in Technology included “Accelerate to Innovate,” “How to Grow Your Business in the Cloud,” Raising Capital,” “Protect Your Intellectual Property” and “Teach the Geek to Speak.”

In short, Twin Cities Startup Week, which started only in 2014, increasingly is becoming a more inclusive and valuable gathering that is equal parts entrepreneurial instruction, commercial showcase and coffee-spiked networking hub.

That’s a good thing. And it has its gritty moments.

“Venture capital [firms] employ women, but only 5 percent of those women are in decisionmaking roles,” said CEO Danielle Steer of St. Paul-based Lunar Startups, which provides an incubator and support for diverse small businesses. “The smart investors look around this room and see opportunity.”

About 100 people, mostly young, about half women and minority, turned up at a Startup Week panel at the Impact Hub above Finnegan’s downtown to learn about successes, setbacks and opportunities from diverse entrepreneurs.

“Black women are leading new business startups around the U.S. and Minnesota, but we’re not leading in success,” said Kenya McKnight, who seeks to build capacity and capital through her Black Women’s Wealth Alliance of north Minneapolis. “We’re not getting financial capital and resources.”

The traditional sources of capital for storefront entrepreneurs, particularly in less-affluent neighborhoods, range from savings to family to foundations, nonprofit and even government programs that have helped diverse Twin Cities businesswomen fix up a shop or cover initial inventory.

Some wealth managers and foundations have started “impact investing” and “patient capital” funds that demand less return and a longer duration.

“It’s very important for me to close the gaps,” said Sara Russick, a successful entrepreneur who sold the business she and her husband founded years ago to start the Gopher Angels investment group, and who also runs a fund that invests in women-led health businesses.

“The venture-capital industry was designed by white men who were successful entrepreneurs,” Russick said. “They went with what they knew. Only 6 or 7 percent of venture capitalists are women. Even less are people of color.”

The annual Entrepreneur Expo last week at the Minneapolis Central Library was a one-day, grass-roots smorgasbord of how-to-start-and-survive-in-business interactions that featured startups, veteran owners and nonprofit advisers, from SCORE to LegalCorps, WomenVenture, MEDA and three dozen other business-to-government vendors and resources. It drew hundreds.

The panelists hailed from food, arts, retail and service industries. They reflected the fast-growing diversity of the local small-business scene.

Mariam Omari of K’s Revolutionary Catering talked about how she learned to cook growing up, kept her day job as she built her business without a loan and how “every check we got the first year went back in the business.”

It’s a typical story for bootstrapped, low-capital entrepreneurs.

Chaz Sandifer, part of the community group in north Minneapolis that helped open the new North Market at the site of a former Kowalski’s that closed more than a decade ago, also runs the Camden Farmers Market and Noir Elite Fitness. She stressed the importance of understanding and complying with city regulators who oversee food-and-health rules.

Chef Lachelle Cunningham, a veteran restaurateur, caterer and instructor at St. Paul College, started with a predecessor to her Chelle’s Kitchen in a growing food incubator for small operators. She financed Chelle’s out of retirement funds.

The three small business owners similarly advised that dealing with the boring stuff is critical, starting with record keeping and quarterly tax payments once the cash flows. Several nonprofits, including the Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON) and Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), and Hennepin Library provide related training.

“You may not be able to afford accountants, but learn to keep things separate and accounted for,” Omari said. “A business can disappear fast.”


Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at