By Anita Lin
After our first year of business school, my three teammates and I set off for a month-long road trip. We started in our backyard city of Detroit and made our way over to the St. Paul, Minn., area, Fargo, N.D., and Minneapolis. We drove the 1100+ miles in a bright red pickup truck, eager to work with the entrepreneurs we’d been in contact with. A plethora of questions kept running through my mind. What would our entrepreneurs be like in person, and how would they receive us? What would their businesses, industries and communities be like?
These previous blog posts cover the scope of our projects, but here are snapshots of some of the deepest impressions I have from the experience.
Cory Wright and Andrew Chmielewski, founders of Mitten Crate in Detroit, oozed entrepreneurial spirit, a sense of fun and adventure, creativity and passion for good food. As serial entrepreneurs, their previous ventures had varying levels of success. They learned from those experiences and turned them into stepping stones for what is now a thriving business that shares the goodness from other food-focused small-business owners in Michigan with people across the country.
Andrew also started and runs Dave’s Sweet Tooth Toffee, using the toffee recipe from his father, Dave. If you’ve never tried it, do your taste buds a favor and get some! My team got to see Andrew and his father on Good Morning America while eating breakfast at our hotel. The two received a generous surprise check on the show for the work they’ve done to support the local community.
Flipgrid sits in a loft-style space in a downtown Minneapolis mid-rise building. The firm works in the “edtech” space and makes apps for educators. We heard how their work in Minneapolis touched the lives of students around the world. We heard how one student, normally shy to speak in class, found her voice after continued practice of videorecording her answers to her teacher’s prompts through Flipgrid’s unique videorecording platform. We also heard how, after one teacher died, students pulled together to create a collection of short videos through the platform to commemorate the deep impact their teacher had had on them. When Flipgrid employees were invited to present awards to students for their learning achievements, they wanted the kids to be extra excited to walk up in front of everyone, so they bought minion costumes to present the awards in.
The Flipgrid team was full of energy, optimism and hope for the future. A practice that I believe supports their positive culture is the team’s standing (literally) Monday morning meetings. All 30 or so team members gather in a large circle. They each share something positive that has happened and their main focus for the week so that they can help each other out as needed.
Just outside the border of St. Paul, in Maplewood, we visited Garden Fresh Farms. A few of us on the team are particularly interested in developing sustainable food systems, so we welcomed the chance to work with an urban farm. We toured the facility, an old warehouse that was repurposed into an aquaponics and hydroponics farm, run with technology developed with experts from the University of Minnesota. The setup was unique and hyper-efficient, allowing for a closed-loop system of growing herbs with nearly no waste.
We met with the farm’s Board of Directors and interviewed several of them, including an angel investor and several agribusiness industry veterans. A few questions came up repeatedly: How might the company continue to raise funds in a space where investors cannot expect to see a quick return? How might they make the technology more affordable for other small businesses to use so they face less financial risk? How can they attract younger talent to carry on operations down the road? What does the rest of the human capital landscape of urban agriculture look like?
As I mulled over this experience while taking an urban agriculture class, more questions than answers came up. Among them are how aquaponic and hydroponic farming can help develop a more sustainable food system, particularly an urban one; and how indoor, backyard and large-scale commercial farms should contribute to creating a sustainable and equitable food system.
In Fargo, we worked with Emerging Prairie, which supports the city’s ecosystem of entrepreneurs. To aid the organization in its mission to strengthen the community and make it a place where more people want to live and work, we dove in to see for ourselves the opportunities and bonds that people could create.
We used Emerging Prairie’s co-working space—called the Prairie Den—a brightly painted, inspirational open-concept area where numerous entrepreneurial ventures got their start and where a handful are now housed. We met and interviewed members of Fargo’s Economic Development Corporation. We joined a women’s coding meetup group one morning at a small bakery, meeting incredibly courageous women who were supporting each other in pushing themselves forward in a heavily male-dominated space. We joined Fargo’s 1 Million Cups event, hearing the story of an entrepreneur who had won a business startup contest and was well on her way to getting her idea off the ground. We bonded with a young entrepreneur who had recently come from Detroit. We sat in on an entrepreneurship class taught by a former winner of Shark Tank, and a local entrepreneur who had started a bakery cooked us a delicious, five-course vegan meal. We were amazed by Fargo’s vibrant, welcoming community.
My teammates and I were humbled to have had the opportunity to step into our entrepreneurs’ worlds and get a taste of their most rewarding moments and most burdensome challenges. I look forward to working with my classmates to carry on the spirit of Open Road, bridging divides and using business to create a more whole, sustainable and equitable society.
Anita Lin is a second-year dual-degree student with the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan.