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Connecting Minnesota’s entrepreneurial communities

Aerial view of Staples, Minnesota, the location of the 2021 conference.
Aerial view of Staples, Minnesota,
the location of the 2021 conference.

Minnesota's communities thrive when entrepreneurs have the opportunity to flourish. Entrepreneurs help build businesses for the future and grow the local economy — and during times of economic change and uncertainty, this is more important than ever.

In September, Extension convened the third annual Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities (CEC) conference in Minnesota. The event helps entrepreneurs and communities connect, learn from each other, and share resources.

This year’s conference in Staples, Minnesota focused on helping communities across the state create environments and pathways to support entrepreneurs. Along with highlighting the entrepreneurial resources available throughout Minnesota, the event also aims to connect existing and aspiring business owners, economic development professionals, and other community leaders who support Minnesota’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Considering the ongoing uncertainty of COVID-19, conference organizers provided a hybrid experience this fall — offering sessions both in-person and online. University of Minnesota Extension Educators Rani Bhattacharyya, Jennifer Hawkins, Neil Linscheid, and Eric King led this year’s planning efforts.

“After so many virtual learning sessions, it was great to be back in person safely at the 2021 Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities conference," says Emily Kurash Casey, rural programs manager at Rethos.  "This conference is so unique in its focus, and I greatly value the opportunity to meet folks from around the state doing great work with, for, and as entrepreneurs to learn from them and share ideas.”

“We are grateful for everyone who attended in person, as well as those who were able to join online,” Bhattacharyya adds. “Our goal with the CEC conference is to reach a broad and diverse audience and to get resources to people, regardless of where they are located.”

The panel of keynote speakers at the 2021 Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities conference.
The panel of keynote speakers at the conference.

The event kicked off with a keynote conversation featuring owners of two local hospitality businesses, an industry hit hard by the pandemic. A discussion moderated by Katie Bobich Heppner, executive director of the West Central Economic Development Alliance, Ashley Doebbeling of Drastic Measures Brewing, and Nick Miller of 3 Cheers Hospitality stressed that, despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, they had found ways to adapt, innovate, and give back to the community.

A discussion at a breakout session during the 2021 Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities conference.
Conference participants in a breakout session.

Following the keynote, people attended breakout sessions organized into four thematic tracks: agriculture and environmental innovation; community and regional personality through retail, hospitality, and food; arts and culture entrepreneurship; and entrepreneurship services. Presenters from across the state shared their knowledge and experiences with participants at several locations in downtown Staples.

Participants at the 2021 Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities conference at a breakout session in a local business.
Attendees at a breakout session in a
local business.

“It’s important for us to get people out into the communities that host the conference,” King says. “We want to showcase the vibrancy of places like Staples, which might not get as much attention as other well-known destinations but have just as much to offer in terms of amenities and support for the business community.”

The conference itself is the result of months of planning and collaboration. “Partnerships are critical,” Hawkins says. “Not just in terms of organizing a successful conference like this but for local and regional economic development. We’re grateful for the Staples planning team, the statewide steering committee, and the sponsors who help make the CEC conference a great event and contribute to their communities’ wellbeing all year long.”

Ultimately, the goal of the conference is to start the conversation. “If we did our job well, participants will leave the conference energized and inspired to make a difference in their communities,” Linscheid adds. “We want everyone to continue to share ideas and test out solutions to help more people become successful entrepreneurs.”

This year’s event was sponsored by the Staples Motley Area Community Foundation, Great River Energy, Hill Capital Corporation, Launch Minnesota, Star Bank, and gBETA. Meeting space was provided by Timbers Event Center, Sourcewell, Great River Regional Library, and Los Corrales Mexican Grill.

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