Micro-entrepreneurs create major impact

Mia Oi had a pop-up stand inside Corner Coffee in the Camden neighborhood during Saturdays in February and March, ending March 30. to make and serve Japanese-style crepes. Photo by David Pierini

Mia Oi had a pop-up stand inside Corner Coffee in the Camden neighborhood during Saturdays in February and March, ending March 30. to make and serve Japanese-style crepes. Photo by David Pierini

By Cirien Saadeh Staff Reporter, Additional reporting by Datelle Straub

These days everybody seems to have a side hustle, a side gig, a freelance job, some sort of something they do as a creative outlet and to make ends meet. Some are running their businesses on the go, not tied down to a specific location, but working to build a brand. Some work out of their own kitchens, some in their dorms and lockers; other times they're popping up in the community at local coffee shops, farmers' markets, or others' brick and mortar businesses. These are micro-entrepreneurs.

Micro-entrepreneurs are small business owners that employ less than ten people (and in some cases, just the one), who work with small amounts of capital (financial and physical resources) that typically work locally

North Minneapolis is filled with successful micro-entrepreneurs.

“A lot of the businesses that I'm working with really see this as a way of kind of changing the trajectory of their lives,” said Ann Fix, who works for the Northside Economic Opportunity Network in their Food Business Incubator Program.

According to Chris Webley, CEO of New Rules, one of the great challenges of becoming a micro-entrepreneur is not just about finding the resources one needs to do the work, it is about getting started.

“One of the challenges we see, how do you get started with what you got? And how do you grow what you have right now? For example, one of our members who just got a grant for building a housing foundation for a thousand bucks. And, I was pushing him to really think about it,” said Webley. “If you're running a business, then how are you investing this thousand dollars to grow that to two thousand, five thousand, or ten thousand. Helping him put it into that context of, this is not a project, this is a business; helping him build sound strategy that enables them to continue to sort of ‘flip their money up.’”

Northside micro-entrepreneurs experience different and often greater challenges than those that are based and operate in other parts of the city.

“Within North Minneapolis, there's such a lack of trust with the government, with banking, with lawyers, all of those things that you need to start a business,” said Fix.

Additionally, because North Minneapolis has been historically underserved, the community has a greater challenge accessing the physical and financial resources they need to build their work.

“Northside has been underserved forever,” said Fix, “But a lot of the young entrepreneurs right now are, they're just jumping in and trying it, right? So they need someone to help them understand how to open a bank account and how to apply for a food license.”

According to Webley, a collaborative work space on Lowry Ave., the future of micro-entrepreneurship is about collaboration.

“A big part of our motto is unlocking the potential of microentrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs in this space. From our vantage point, micro-entrepreneurs are going to be the future. I think you'll start to see more businesses moving away from this sort of large corporate idea of needing a ton of folks and things of that nature,” said Webley.

"What we're saying to micro entrepreneurs is, you got your business, I got my business, and we're all bringing all of our businesses together to collaborate,” he added.

For Webley, supporting micro-entrepreneurs means creating collaborative spaces and partnerships that connect people together. Right now, they’re working in partnership with the formerly defunct Lowry Business Association, as well as First Avenue, on a block party. The event will bring together several micro-entrepreneurs, as well as New Rules, and other businesses on the Lowry Ave business corridor in the planning. “

Not one business is at the center of this,” said Webley.

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Fix echoes Webley’s comment. With NEON’s support, pop-up restaurants are popping up all over North Minneapolis. Chef Gerard Klass, for example, hosts Soul Bowl MN at Breaking Bread on Sunday mornings. Additionally, starting in April, Breaking Bread will be hosting two pop-ups on Monday, one in the morning offering breakfast burritors and a vegan pop-up in the evening. And, further North, Ichigo Tokyo Style crepes, owned by Mia Oi, is selling crepes at Corner Coffee Camden, every Saturday from 9am-2pm, through the end of March.

“The pop-up means we could provide food for the community and build a brand, build clientele, work on advertising, work on portion sizing, and do all the work we would need to do to sustain a business,” said Klass. “We wanted to open up a storefront and we launched a Kickstarter, but it failed. We tried working on getting a loan and that did not work out either. We said fine, it’s going to take longer than we wanted, so we’re continuing to do the pop-ups, saving money and building the brand and waiting for the right opportunity to unfold.”

The West Broadway Coalition is in on the work too. According to Executive Director John Bueche, WBC is currently working to build up its pop-ups, bringing North Minneapolis to Downtown Minneapolis skyways, and expanding the popup scene in the Northside.

“Beginning April 1 we will host two Shop Northside spaces downtown in the Gaviidae Commons downtown Minneapolis, in partnership with the Downtown Council and Chameleon Consortium, leveraging the excitement around the final four, and building on the Northside Holiday Boutiques we hosted in vacant skyway spaces in 2015 and 2016,” said Bueche in an email to North News.

According to Bueche, WBC has been working since 2016 to “activate" vacant spaces on West Broadway, using them for pop-ups, which serve the organization’s vision for community-driven economic development.

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Patrick Henry High School juniors Avery Lewis and Titan Harness-Reed look at micro-entrepreneurship as an opportunity to make money while filling a need at their school, despite the school’s repeated warnings to not do so. They sell snacks and sodas out of their lockers and backpacks to fellow students.

“We were broke, so we decided, we're young black men, I was thinking that we should put our two heads together. We could come together, get some money some way, so we decided we were going to sell snacks out of our locker. We took inspiration from this dude that was doing it before. Titan's dad was working at Walmart at the time, so we used his discount to get snacks,” said Lewis.

For Lewis and Harness-Reed, their work as micro-entrepreneurs gives them a chance to earn money and grow a business they would not otherwise have access to. At the same time, micro-entrepreneurship gives them, for example, financial and work freedom they would not otherwise have.

For example, at just 18 years old, Philli Johnson is an artist, curator, and event coordinator who has been doing the work for over three years.

“Well, I don't necessarily have a name for the business, but what I'm doing now is essentially prototyping,” said Johnson. As part of his work, Johnson curates spaces for young artists to present and share their work, in community. His first project was at Gallery 15 in Downtown Minneapolis.

“It is quite hard for a young artist who is serious and invested into their work to get the proper support and respect in their field, so I put together this gallery exhibition downtown and brought a group of Northside artists into the space and also some of my peers in Chicago as well. That was the first project,” said Johnson.

There are other benefits. Marissa Abara is a young multimedia design student at the University of St. Thomas, who is also partnered with New Rules.

“I love taking my ideas and then trying to make them a reality. I like working with other people, I find that super rewarding and being able to combine ideas with others and make them “our ideas.” I don't like really working alone so I find it really rewarding working in groups because I feel like my work is always enhanced so much more,” said Abara. “It’s very fulfilling.” Fix notes that while the benefits are real, the work is hard.

“When you're an entrepreneur, you're going to work harder than you ever have in your life. You're going to be challenged so much. You're going to be so stressed beyond any stress you ever felt. But at the same time, it's yours. You own it, and you're creating something that you can pass down to your kids someday. Even if it's a small part-time gig, at least it's something that you are creating and has potential to build into something bigger. But it takes great discipline, and it takes working smart, not necessarily hard. It takes really focusing on what it is that you want to ... It isn't easy. I guess what I'm trying to say is it isn't easy, but it's definitely worthwhile,” said Fix.

Cirien Saadeh