Brianna Edwards has a big, bold and flavorful dream.
The creator behind a line of low-sodium spice mixes, LOV3 IT S3ASONING, Edwards wants to see her bottles on store shelves across the country. To get there, she’s turned to the University of St. Thomas and the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship.
Edwards is part of the very first cohort of the Community Entrepreneurship Program. The 10-month, hands-on program, offered in conjunction with the Small Business Development Center, supports aspiring Twin Cities entrepreneurs as they develop big ideas and prepare for life as small business owners.
“I’m a really big dreamer,” Edwards said. “I’ve had to learn to take it step by step. This program helped me figure out that this is a marathon not a sprint.”
Edwards is one of more than 30 entrepreneurs who are part of the program. All of them have grand ideas on the way: a woman-owned trucking company, a pet taxi service, and the first Black-owned professional beauty B2B in the state.
A four-act play of sorts, entrepreneurs begin the program with a six-week business training boot camp before moving into several months of one-on-one mentorship. From there, they receive consulting support from St. Thomas undergraduate and graduate business students enrolled in a course called "Consulting and Community Entrepreneurship". The final act brings the opportunity to apply for a microgrant.
The entire process is designed to give aspiring business owners the time and tools necessary to get off the ground successfully.
“I’m taking an idea and I’m working to put it out into the world,” Edwards said. “Working with this program has allowed me to prioritize my business and get my business in order.”
In September 2022, Edwards began working with her student consultants, Rachael Rinehart, a part-time MBA student, and Brady Gruenhagen ’23, an entrepreneurship and real estate studies double major. Together, the trio has researched how to market LOV3 IT S3ASONING to stores across the Twin Cities.
“Brianna has this dream of becoming the next big seasoning company and helping people really change their lives through their nutrition," Rinehart said. “Being able to walk through the store with her and see tangibly where her product would live and how it would help people has been super rewarding.”
Beyond marketing, the consultants have worked with Edwards on tasks large and small, from accounting to setting up the proper bank accounts.
“We’re really trying to give them the tools, give them the expertise, give them the knowledge just to use our runway to take off,” Gruenhagen said.
The student consultants receive credits through a blended course, but they know it’s much more than their grade on the line. How they perform in this course could make or break someone else’s dream.
“It’s really cool to see the actual impact of the work that these entrepreneurs are doing,” Rinehart said. “What’s rewarding for us is to be able to help them have the strategy and the tools so they can transition this into their livelihood.”
The program, inspired by a similar initiative at the University of Notre Dame, is designed to serve visionary communities across the Twin Cities who have long had to grapple with underinvestment. All of the participants are either women or come from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities.
“I think that they are feeling a great deal of support,” said Diane Paterson, director of the Small Business Development Center and co-leader of the program. “I think they also appreciate the fact that they are being listened to. There are some participants who’ve heard ‘no’ quite a bit. Here we’re trying to emphasize, ‘yes.’”
With the formal 10-month program wrapping up for the first crop of entrepreneurs, leaders say the work is far from over. Alumni lunch-and-learns are already being planned for the next year.
“I believe in this program because it is very high-touch and has a high level of engagement,” Paterson said. “And we will continue to be that resource even when this cohort wraps up. We are looking at this program as a long-term resource, with continuing education opportunities and growing our pool of mentors with our program graduates.”
As 2023 begins, Edwards is getting ready to launch her spice mixes into stores and eventually establish a distribution center.
“Any help is good, but the people at St. Thomas are phenomenal and they really believe in you and they’re really proud to see your journey,” Edwards said. “Hopefully they’ll have me back and I’ll be the ‘I made it’ story presenting to future cohorts down the road.”
The application process is now open for the 2023 cohort, which begins in March with the business boot camp. Early registration is suggested as spots are expected to fill up quickly.