Entrepreneur Fund Supports Rural Business in Minnesota, Wisconsin
Success stories are among our favorite tales to tell, and that’s certainly the theme of our work with the Entrepreneur Fund.
Like Dakota Resources, Entrepreneur Fund is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that lends capital and provides services in order to diversify the regional and rural economy in northern and central Minnesota and, since 2022, in rural Wisconsin as well. Born out of a need to diversify industry on the Iron Range in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, Entrepreneur Fund was founded with two main priorities: to support entrepreneurs to start and grow small businesses that would create steady incomes for themselves and others, and to renew the entrepreneurial culture in the region.
Entrepreneur Fund’s connection to Dakota Resources began in 2017, when Beth Davis, who served as the President for Dakota Resources at the time, connected with Entrepreneur Fund’s Shawn Wellnitz and encouraged him to engage in a business plan training course, which was held in rural South Dakota. This training further engaged Wellnitz in cultivating Entrepreneur Fund’s connection to Dakota Resources. Wellnitz attributes a lot of Entrepreneur Fund’s early successes to Dakota Resources’ support and what he calls our organizations’ “tight alignment on rural.”
“When you’re based in a rural area, you have a hard time raising capital because there’s a lack of big banks in the area,” Wellnitz said. “When Beth shared her intention to find ways to support the Entrepreneur Fund with capital through Dakota Resources, we were truly in jeopardy at the time of running out of capital. As we’ve grown and scaled beyond those days to now serving 29 counties across Minnesota and Wisconsin, Dakota Resources has become one of the biggest capital providers we have.”
Today, Entrepreneur Fund supports a variety of small businesses, from startups to higher-growth corporations. From microloans and gap financing projects to revenue-based financing for businesses who want to scale or are planning to execute a transition in ownership, Entrepreneur Fund was named Minnesota’s 2022 Microlender of the Year by the United States Small Business Association (SBA).
“As a CDFI, the sweet spot of our work is when capital and service-based support can come together to support an entrepreneur,” Wellnitz said. “Our work supports the business owner that is seeking out opportunities to scale and grow, and we as an organization are constantly cultivating new ways to offer different capital and services to support entrepreneurs as they progress up the chain of business.”
As a part of our Community Development Loan program, and Capital Investment Fund in particular, Dakota Resources serves as an intermediary lender to other CDFIs like Entrepreneur Fund, creating further impact in remote rural places throughout the nation. They are then able to turn around and decide how they want to lend that money to the entrepreneurs that they support. According to Dakota Resources’ President Joe Bartmann, our decision to expand our lending has helped grow our impact. “Entrepreneur Fund was the first organization we ever invested in outside South Dakota. That was a big decision for our board at the time,” Bartmann said. “The work they do to help rural business owners makes it easy to feel good about that move today.”
One such rural business owner is Jason Wobbema, CEO of Advanced Machine Guarding Solutions (AMGS), which is based in Hibbing, Minnesota. Specializing in steel perimeter guarding, which protects employees from the dangers of large-scale machines and robotics, AMGS and Wobbema are on a mission to grow and to diversify the economy in the Iron Range while also supporting the local steel industry. Wobbema, an Iron Range native, has decades of experience in robotics and automation, and he worked with Entrepreneur Fund to support the business’s cash flow projections and to connect him with additional funding opportunities.
In the time since Entrepreneur Fund helped connect Wobbema to city government, financial partners, and other economic development partners in the region, AMGS has seen sales increases by 20-30% every year for the last five years. Moreover, looking ahead to the next 3-5 years, AMGS is planning for future growth, both in terms of job opportunities, commercial expansion, and community support. Wobbema plans to work with local organizations in Hibbing, such as schools and technical colleges, to assist in the development of technical skills so that instead of leaving home for a high-paying technical job, people can have that right in their hometown.
Wobbema points to the Entrepreneur Fund’s support as a pivotal spoke in the wheel for the rapid growth of AMGS. In turn, Entrepreneur Fund CEO Shawn Wellnitz gives credit to Dakota Resources for its foundational support of their ventures as a CDFI, as well as our tenacity in working on behalf of rural communities.
“Dakota Resources is a smart and innovative CDFI, and their mission and competencies align really well with ours,” Wellnitz said. “As we go after capital and work with big banks, it can be difficult to be the first of our scope and size to approach investors at that level. In many cases, however, Dakota Resources is unafraid to go first, to ask first, and to be bold. Then, when others, like Entrepreneur Fund, follow, the path forward is much less daunting.”
TAKE ACTION: Are you a CDFI supporting rural initiatives in your work? Learn more about our Community Development Loans program by visiting this page.