Women and minorities are emerging as key players in Twin Cities Startup Week that started Sunday.

Startup Week is the growing entrepreneurial potpourri of 200 panels, presentations, business competitions and beer talk for Twin Cities entrepreneurs and financiers that launched a decade-plus ago with a few events surrounding the Minnesota Cup business-plan sweepstakes.

Female and minority participation has been on the rise in recent years.

Several signature events, a couple of big ones driven by minority initiatives, are prominent on this week’s agenda. They seek to explore barriers for women and minorities and open opportunities to connect with funding and business opportunities.

“This is the first year that there has been some intentionality on the part of Startup Week,” said Shawntera Hardy, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. “We did a [Startup] program called ‘unlock the code’ in 2016 and had one of the first program panels during Startup Week. … It wasn’t happening three years ago.”

Hardy said Beta.mn, one of the event’s founding partners, and others are starting to recognize the importance of identifying a broader spectrum of entrepreneurism. “The messaging is more inclusive,” she said.

Adine Momoh, a business lawyer and the first black female lawyer to lead the Hennepin County Bar Association, said recently that diversity is being invited to the dance.

And the Startup dance floor seems to be getting a little more diverse, including a female-minority panel Monday on “Investing in Diversity.” There are sessions about growing diversity in IT, eliminating “unconscious bias,” a diverse-business expo at the Hennepin County Library and a career fair sponsored by the Blacks in Technology.

The Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA), the growing Minneapolis-based nonprofit business counselor and financier of small minority businesses, has added a national high-stakes “Shark Tank” style competition this week. It started with submissions from 200 minority contestants.

The event, in cooperation with the city of St. Paul, goes live Wednesday night with 21 semifinalists, half of whom hail from the Twin Cities area. The names include Casa Travel & Technologies, Genesis Adhesives, LegacyArmour, RiskAssist MD, Running Tap and UnderRecruited Preps.

Up to 10 finalists will advance to a “boot camp” round, which will include investor advice, business mentors and an entree to funding networks. The “final four” will be in January. The competition, including investments, is funded largely by a $1 million grant from the Philadelphia-based Next Foundation.

MEDA CEO Gary Cunningham, a veteran nonprofit and foundation executive, has expanded business-supported MEDA’s capital and prominence with good performance in support of many fledgling minority businesses that are not yet “bankable” by commercial lenders.

“MEDA has a wonderful legacy of creating economic opportunities for people of color,” St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said when the national competition was announced this summer. “This competition is a bold way to empower aspiring minority entrepreneurs, who will have means to create more living-wage jobs ... and help improve quality of life for many.”

The national conference of Blacks in Technology, expecting up to 1,000 attendees, will run Thursday through Saturday with a day at Target, at several sites in St. Paul and at Best Buy.

A key participant is CEO Clarence Bethea of Upsie, one of several recent minority-business entrepreneurs who went through the Target Tech Stars accelerator. He has raised $1.7 million in venture capital from Tech Stars and Matchstick Ventures in his quest to prove Upsie can cut into the costly and confusing electronic-products warranty business. He will participate in several sessions.

“We scheduled the conference during Startup week, we didn’t ask for permission,” said Sharon Kennedy Vickers, chief information officer of the city of St. Paul and head of the local chapter of Blacks in Technology. “We wanted to do this because so much is taking place and it would be good to have more technologists and business people of color visible and involved."

A big concern among the growing cadre of female and minority entrepreneurs is that they don’t have access to the capital and funding networks of mostly male majority entrepreneurs. Several sessions at Startup Week, and dozens of informal discussions, should help make more connections.

Melissa Kjolsing, who ran the Minnesota Cup for several years, said she was driven to bring more women and minority entrepreneurs into MnCup competition. She also is the entrepreneur behind Recovree, a Minnesota Cup finalist.

“When you look around the room at judges and mentors and competitors and you don’t see people who look like you, you think about making the table bigger,” Kjolsing said. “We needed more women. We also reached out to MEDA” and other community partners connected to minority entrepreneurs.

“We’ve seen a very steady and impactful increase from women and people of color,” Kjolsing said. “This year they have even greater numbers of participation. Conversations are taking place. It takes awhile.”

Bethea, of Upsie, struggled with fundraising until he was selected to be part of Techstars’ business accelerator at Target Corp. last year. He was one of three black entrepreneurs selected in development that raised exposure and investment.

“It’s definitely challenging being an African-American founder in tech,” Bethea said this year. “Probably the biggest reason is there aren’t many of us.”


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