WE (Women Entrepreneurs)at the Table

Changing southeastern
Minnesota’s entrepreneurial ecosystem
By Melissa McNallan

It began with coffee and a conversation at Dunn Brothers Coffee on Elton Hills Drive NW. Dr. Christine Beech had an idea for something new to provide Rochester’s evolving entrepreneurial ecosystem: an academically focused forum for women entrepreneurs. She wanted to run that idea by Heather Holmes.


Beech is the director of the Kabara Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies and a business professor at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. “I create connections between our students and the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Beech says of her current work, expressing the importance of the practitioner and scholar coming together. 

Entrepreneurship reaches beyond the academic for Beech. Prior to becoming an educator, she built up a business line that spun off when it reached $21 million. She also started a boutique consulting firm that she ran for 15 years. “I have a particular passion for women entrepreneurs,” explains Beech. “Little has been done to empower them. I didn’t have a lot of role models. I didn’t have a lot of people saying, come here let me show you how this is done.” 

Heather Holmes is a project manager for Journey to Growth, an economic development initiative with Rochester Area Economic Development, Inc. (RAEDI). She also runs her own marketing communications business, HH Solutions. Holmes used to call herself a solopreneur. “Some people feel that they are an entrepreneur, but are less recognized for their contributions because they are service-related, not product-related. I provide a service.” Holmes now identifies more as an entrepreneur. 


Beech and Holmes planned their first WE Forum, “Funding Sources.” They planned an opportunity for women entrepreneurs to participate in tabletop discussions on the topic of funding and to join a research study on the funding of the women entrepreneurs in southeastern Minnesota. A panel of experts in venture capital, angel investing, revenue generation, lending and grants shared their thoughts on funding female entrepreneurship and offered tips for navigating the challenges of fundraising for female founders.

More than 90 people signed up to attend the event held on January 22, 2019 at the Cascade Meadow Campus. Despite the weather and school closures, venture capitalists made the drive (from as far away as Minneapolis) to share their expertise, and approximately 50 women made it to the event that morning. 


Following their first successful event, the duo hosted a business planning workshop in March 2019. In the workshop, Beech taught attendees how to use the Business Model Canvas, an interactive and simple tool for focusing on the nine building blocks of a business model. The goal was for attendees to walk away with their own business model for success. 

In April 2019, they held a panel called “WE Women in Leadership—Building on Your Strengths.” Five panelists discussed everything from pervasive micromessaging and embracing power to the collisions between ambition and parenthood. Panelists included local leaders: CEO of Custom Alarm Melissa Brinkman; executive director of Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency Lisa Clarke; Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce president Kathleen Harrington; mayor of Rochester Kim Norton, and community development director for City of Rochester Cindy Steinhauser. “They didn’t try to sugarcoat anything,” says Holmes, who moderated the event. “It felt like being inside an intimate conversation.” 

More than 100 women attended the April event. “More and more women are coming to the table,” Holmes observes. “We’re not going to wait anymore to be invited.”


“We were just going to do one,” says Holmes. “Then, the response was phenomenal. That’s when we started to put together a series.” The series is comprised of alternating panels and workshops, with panels preceding workshops. The workshops relate to the prior panel discussion. 

“The workshops offer entrepreneurs the nuts and bolts they need to improve an aspect of their business,” says Beech. “It’s free education given in the hopes to fill in some knowledge gaps that entrepreneurs may have.” She points out that many entrepreneurs haven’t gone to business school. Instead, they’ve taken an idea or passion and built a business around it. “The workshops give real solid, usable skills that women can use for whatever path they’re on—however they identify themselves,” says Holmes. 

WE is for women going out on a gig, starting something new or evolving their corporate work into a solo pursuit. Sometimes business people define themselves by what they practice, rather than as an entrepreneur. Beech and Holmes do not view entrepreneurs as limited to those with a high-growth technology, or a store front. “If we do that, we’ll miss the backbone of the economy,” says Beech.

WE events are open to the public and not exclusive to women, though women entrepreneurs are the target audience. WE programming provides valuable content and encouragement women entrepreneurs need to help them take their businesses to the next level. 

• July 18, 2019, Becoming Known—Effective Marketing Strategies for your Business A panel of experts who have taken businesses or themselves from unknown to known share what they know about becoming known.
• September 19, 2019, Marketing with a Team of One— Promoting your Business without a Marketing Department A workshop on how to become more known will provide concrete tools for taking the next marketing steps.
• October 17, 2019, Turning Challenges into Opportunities— Navigating Potholes on the Road to Success
• November 2019, Date and programming has yet to be determined.
• December 12, 2019, Evaluating your Business, Pivot or Fresh Start 

Melissa McNallan is a freelance writer and blogs at 40fitnstylish.com.