Enterprise Academy helps businesses succeed

The Brainerd entrepreneur took part in the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation’s program, which supports small businesses and startup ventures within communities of people who “traditionally have limited access to financing and business development tools.”

Owner and head brewer Shawn Hopman talks about his business Ya-Sure Kombucha on Aug. 2, 2021, in Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“I think all entrepreneurs and small business owners face a lot of challenges in turning their dreams into reality,” said Brian Voerding, vice president for inclusive entrepreneurship at the foundation.

Participants who complete the course will have access to targeted business lending and customized one-on-one technical support areas that challenge new entrepreneurs — “from developing logos and handouts to creating a bookkeeping system or a pleasing store layout.”

A cooler is filled with Ya-Sure Kombucha, which was brewed at the store on South Eighth Street in Brainerd on Aug. 2, 2021. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“Stuff like helping you understand things that you didn’t maybe think about beforehand, like hiring employees … and just how much it costs you to have an employee in the first place and the kind of things you have to withhold from pay,” said Hopman, owner of Ya-Sure Kombucha.

The brewer of kombucha — a fermented, lightly effervescent brewer purported for its health benefits — opened a nonalcoholic taproom on Eighth Street in downtown Brainerd.

Owner and head brewer Shawn Hopman talks about the fermenting kettles on Aug. 2, 2021, at Ya-Sure Kombucha in Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Hopman said of the Enterprise Academy, “Tax things that they covered were some things you just don’t think about. You kind of go into business thinking, ‘Oh, I can write everything off’ and, well, you can’t … so they go through very, very well those different things”

Ya-Sure Kombucha features non-alcoholic drinks that can be enjoyed on the premises or are available for take-out. The brewery is located on South Eighth Street in Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The Enterprise Academy is a 12-week educational course that includes coaching, business planning, lending, marketing and technology assistance to help business startups and expansions, businesses like Hopman’s Ya-Sure Kombucha next to the Last Turn Saloon.

“I love a good challenge, I love to learn new things … and so I was very excited,” Hopman said of his experience with the academy while standing in the Ya-Sure Kombucha taproom. “It’s been very rewarding. … I constantly say my worst day here is better than my best day at my last job,”

A vintage wooden vanity features line drawings of early Brainerd at Ya-Sure Kombucha on South Eighth Street. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The Brainerd cohort of the Enterprise Academy graduated eight entrepreneurs in December. The virtual classroom portion of the program included presentations from business experts and encouraged students to develop their individual business plans.

“I’ve always kind of dreamed about being my own boss and so that was a little bit of an attraction. But once you start doing the mountain of paperwork — getting going with the state licensing and all of that kind of thing — it gets a little daunting,” Hopman said.

The Initiative Foundation strengthens the economy and communities of Central Minnesota through loans and financing of businesses that create quality jobs; grants and programs in organizations that make the economy strong; and donor services and charitable funds.

“The Enterprise Academy is just an evolution of the work the foundation has done since its inception in 1986 of just trying to provide opportunities for entrepreneurs and small business owners across the region,” said Brian Voerding, vice president for inclusive entrepreneurship.

Brian Voerding is the vice president for inclusive entrepreneurship at the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation. Contributed / Brian Voerding

The Initiative Foundation’s 14-county service area includes Benton, Cass, Chisago, Crow Wing, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Pine, Sherburne, Stearns, Todd, Wadena and Wright counties and the sovereign native nations of the Leech Lake and Mille Lacs Bands of Ojibwe.

“I think it really reflects our continuing efforts and growing efforts of serving folks from really broadly diverse communities, and most particularly through the Enterprise Academy program,” Voerding said of the program that is offered in the St. Cloud, Brainerd and Mille Lacs areas.

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The Brainerd cohort of the Enterprise Academy placed an emphasis on individuals interested in creating or expanding visible businesses in Brainerd’s River-to-Rail corridor and, secondarily, Brainerd’s other legacy commercial districts.

“We’re one of two kombucha taprooms in the state — the other being in Duluth — and we’re one of two nonalcoholic taprooms in the state — the other being in Minneapolis,” Hopman said.

Ya-Sure Kombucha on South Eighth Street in Brainerd features a room in the rear of the building for parties and gatherings. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Voerding joined the foundation after founding and serving as executive director of Engage Winona, a grassroots community initiative and social enterprise venture to ensure local people have access, voice and power in community planning, decision-making and change-making.

“How to be profitable and how to be sustainable, how to handle all the technical aspects of licensing and regulation and taxes, and kind of learning all of those pieces can be really challenging in a hurry if you’re not successful at them,” Voerding said of the academy’s topics.

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Hopman said he spent the last 16 years selling beverage gases, welding gases and other similar items, and setting up and selling CO2 systems for bars, restaurants and breweries.

“I just kind of got into a place where I was kind of looking for a change and looking to better myself,” said Hopman from his taproom that is housed in a former horse stable from the early 1900s where he brews fermented sweetened black or green tea and flavors it with real fruit.

Ya-Sure Kombucha Citrus Attack flavors fill a cooler at the store on South Eighth Street in Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Ya-Sure Kombucha’s story begins like many other brewers, according to its website, making homebrew that people enjoyed and encouraged Hopman to start selling his flavored kombucha teas that “taste great and different at the same time.”

“When we were in our hobby phase … we were just kind of sitting around and my wife goes ‘We should call it Ya-Sure Kombucha,’ like ‘ya, sure, you betcha’ … so it’s kind of born out of that conversation,” Hopman said of how his business became named.

Ya-Sure Kombucha bottles drain at their brewing location on South Eighth Street. in Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The Pillager resident has also made from scratch ginger beer, and offers homemade root beer and sparkling sweet tea as part of his business, which began from the 46-year-old’s desire to drink less soda and find a healthier alternative.

“I like bubbles and I like flavor, so water was out … and I just started brewing,” Hopman said of kombucha. “I just kind of fell in love with the process. I like the experimentation with the flavors — dreaming up new flavors and different ways to make my mouth excited yet still be healthy.”

Ya-Sure Kombucha is bottled at their location on South Eighth Street in Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Ya-Sure Kombucha’s batches take about two weeks, from start to finish, to make, and the brewery produces about 200-gallon batches, according to Hopman, but is poised to double that.

“We wanted the feeling of a brewery taproom with the accessibility of a coffee shop,” Hopman said of his downtown location. “Everything we have on tap — we have 14 flavors on tap, and everything we have is nonalcoholic — we’re able to send it to-go.”

Ya-Sure Kombucha’s offerings are even sold in area taprooms that offer its teas as a nonalcoholic option for their customers, in addition to the beverage being sold by co-ops, health food stores, gas stations and restaurants that expand the reach of the Brainerd-based business.

“One of our core elements of the foundation is lending and micro-financing,” Voerding said.

— Brian Voerding, vice president for inclusive entrepreneurship

Direct loans are possible in amounts up to $50,000 for successful graduates of the Enterprise Academy Entrepreneur Training Class and others who create a “realistic and robust business plan,” according to foundation officials.

“Access to capital is a challenge, and it’s a bigger challenge if you’re new or if you’re a startup and maybe you don’t have a lot of credit history or maybe you don’t have a lot of capital or equity to put toward a small business,” Voerding said.

Owner and head brewer Shawn Hopman serves Carole Matteson at Ya-Sure Kombucha on Aug. 2, 2021, in Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Enterprise Academy program borrowers — like the almost 80 entrepreneurs who graduated from the academy, for example — may also be able to access larger loan amounts through a traditional gap lending program, which requires a lead lender such as a bank or credit union.

“We started with a focus on the East African community in St. Cloud … and just a recognition that these are very entrepreneurial folks — it’s a very entrepreneurial culture — and what could we do to help foster that,” said Jeff Wig, owner of Heritage Consulting LLC.

Jeff Wig is the owner of Heritage Road Consulting LLC.

After serving more than five years with the Initiative Foundation, Wig retired in July but continues to work with the foundation in a consultancy role after Voerding succeeded Wig.

“There are entrepreneurs who already have $75,000 saved to invest in their business, they have a CPA and an attorney on speed dial … that they don’t need the kind of intensive help we’re talking about,” Wig said of the Enterprise Academy’s assistance.

Drawing an Aronia Berry kombucha on Aug. 2, 2021, owner Shawn Hopman fils the glass for customer Carole Matteson at Ya-Sure Kombucha in Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The Brainerd cohort of the academy was supported through partnerships with the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, the Brainerd Destination Downtown business coalition and a host of Brainerd area businesses and organizations, including Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures.

“We’ve served in the neighborhood of 200 to 250 diverse entrepreneurs since launching Enterprise Academy, including more than 100 this year alone as we’ve been expanding the program,” Voerding said.

Ya-Sure Kombucha is a non-alcoholic brewery located on South Eighth Street in Brainerd. The business features natural flavors of kombucha. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

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“This includes the class graduates, as well as folks we have provided free one-on-one consulting and technical assistance to, those who have participated in workshops and specific trainings.”

Expert consultants provide as part of the program’s one-on-one technical assistance services in areas such as recordkeeping, accounting, marketing and branding, web development, social media marketing and legal aspects of the business.

“This is more for entrepreneurs who may not have access to those kinds of resources and systems and may not have business training. This is really targeted at them,” Wig said.

The Brainerd lakes area graduates of the academy took classes that were held once a week for 12 weeks and featured training specifically tailored to each student, with one-on-one assistance available to help create a realistic business plan, like the Mille Lacs Tribal Economy cohort.

“The folks in our fall 2020 Brainerd cohort and spring 2021 Mille Lacs cohort are all still working on their businesses,” Voerding said.

The Mille Lacs cohort is made possible through a partnership with Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures in support of entrepreneurship in the wider Mille Lacs tribal economy, including six census tracts and the communities of Isle, Onamia, Wakhon, Hinkley and McGregor.

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“Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures, which is the business arm of the band, really has elevated entrepreneurship as a priority, and they’re investing energy and time into that so strongly,” Wig said.

The Enterprise Academy is based on the Entrepreneur Development Model, a program of the Neighborhood Development Center’s Build From Within Alliance. Primary support for the academy is made possible by a grant from Wells Fargo’s Diverse Community Capital program.

“Bradley Harrington has started a business that’s around using tech resources to help preserve culture the Ojibwe culture,” Wig said of Harrington, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and tribal liaison for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Bradley Harrington is a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. He is also the tribal liaison for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Contributed / Bradley Harrington

Harrington is the CEO of Wenji-bimaadizing Media, an Onamia business the 39-year-old father of seven started that bills itself as “Ojibwe knowledge at your fingertips!”

“I started it because there is a lack of resources, technological resources, and audio and video resources out there for knowledge-sharing and also artistic expression,” said Harrington, who took part in the Enterprise Academy’s offerings.

The Enterprise Academy program is part of the Build from Within Alliance, an association of organizations from across the United States that are implementing a similar comprehensive program of support for entrepreneurs.

“One part of it is building up the capacity and sustainability to create the resources like videos or podcasts and then also for artistic expression for shirts, cups, or posters, or anything else,” Harrington said.

The academy’s goals include: providing unique goods and services to the local economy; revitalization of communities and vacant properties; developing and lifting up community role models; strengthening local economies and broadening participation in the American dream.

“We’re primarily focused on creating content that is for Anishinaabe people to learn, and as well as anybody else that’s looking to learn, about history or culture or the Ojibwe language,” Harrington said of Wenji-bimaadizing Media, the business he started in June 2020.

Melanie Benjamin of Onamia is the chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. She wants to start a business catering to other American Indians that she hopes to open by December.

Melanie Benjamin of Onamia is the chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Contributed / Melanie Benjamin

“What I wanted to do was an online mall experience that focuses on cultural and indigenous casual and business wear, and also items that you need for possibly ceremonial responsibilities and also social, like, pow-wows and things of that sort, the regalia,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin is a business administration major from Bemidji State University who runs the tribe. She also did business development for the Minnesota Chippewa tribe before 2000 and prepared business plans for individuals. She completed the Enterprise Academy program.

— Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe

“It was very helpful because it provided some basic things that, if you’re thinking about a business, I don’t think individuals realize what that entails in terms of the financial responsibility, marketing responsibility, the business plan as your roadmap to success,” Benjamin said.

Support for the academy is made possible by grants from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development; the U.S. Small Business Administration; the Central Minnesota Community Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and the Neighborhood Development Center.

  • Name: Enterprise Academy.

  • City: Brainerd, Mille Lacs and St. Cloud area.

  • Number of employees: One full tme, one part time.

  • Interesting fact: The Enterprise Academy expanded upon a five-week training project supported by an Initiative Foundation grant in 2016 to help three dozen Somali residents from the St. Cloud area create a business plan.

  • FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.

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