FERGUS FALLS, MINN — Elke Richards of Alexandria and Rachel Stone of Moorhead have been named West Central Minnesota Initiator Fellowship recipients.

“This is a new program for our nine-county region that provides support for aspiring social business entrepreneurs,” said Anna Wasescha, president and CEO of West Central Initiative. “It’s an incredible opportunity for our selected Fellows to fast-track their ideas, grow their social and professional networks and develop their community leadership skills.”

The Initiators Fellowship program, which named seven total recipients today in three rural Minnesota regions, is sponsored by West Central Initiative (WCI), the Initiative Foundation of Little Falls and the Southwest Initiative Foundation of Hutchinson. The program provides a $30,000 annual stipend along with an executive-level mentor, comprehensive programming, educational opportunities and support from dedicated staff members.

Inspired by the legacy she’d like to leave, Alexandria’s Richards' venture is Venn Hagen, a market that offers locally raised, sustainable foods with a focus on food security and waste reduction. Also central to her vision are living-wage pay and growing a healthy community. "Venn Hagen will be the business leader in plastic and food waste reduction, food security, and growing a healthy rural community," says Richards. “We will be the community hub for healthy, local food and educational opportunities. All are welcome, no matter a person's social economic status.”

As an educator, Stone's venture is to equip young people in need with the knowledge and skills required to manage daily activities and confidently face new situations while creating pathways to educational and entrepreneurial opportunities. “Our communities are growing and becoming quite diverse,” Stone said. “We envision thriving communities in which all members are supported & connected through meaningful relationships & experiences to achieve success by bridging gaps, building together, finding solutions, and inspiring others, especially our youth. We want to build our youth and encourage them to grow and invest in their local communities.”

“We expect that Initiator Fellows from our region will become ambassadors for the movement, demonstrating how and why this kind of entrepreneurship is valuable and contributes to both the social and economic vitality of West Central Minnesota,” Wasescha said. “We hope that this program will provide exactly the kind of support that entrepreneurs in our communities need to take their very good ideas and preliminary hard work to the next level.”

Jeff Wig, vice president for entrepreneurship with the Initiative Foundation of Little Falls which graduated the first cohort of Initiator Fellows last year, said “Our finalists brought forth tremendous social enterprise ideas that hold so much potential for Greater Minnesota. It’s a testament to how much potential there is for central, southwest and west central Minnesota to truly lead the way in building greater good through entrepreneurship.”

This cohort of the Initiators Fellowship runs from January 2020 through December 2021. The goal is to strengthen each Fellow’s leadership within their respective communities and to support the growth and development of their social enterprise ideas in order to help Greater Minnesota communities thrive.

The Initiators Fellowship is made possible by generous funders, including Granite Equity Partners, an original founding funder and partner, along with the Bush Foundation, Sourcewell and CliftonLarsonAllen Foundation.

West Central Initiative is a regional community foundation serving the nine west central Minnesota counties of Becker, Clay, Douglas, Grant, Otter Tail, Pope, Stevens, Traverse and Wilkin, along with the White Earth Nation. WCI invests resources in our communities for regional success, using the tools of economic development and community development, and by promoting philanthropy. Learn more at www.wcif.org.