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Meet the Fellows

2022-2023 Fellows represent Central, Northwest, Southwest and West Central Minnesota

Eight Chosen to advance their social enterprise ideas

From a community journalist with a goal to surface community-centered challenges and solutions to an entrepreneur creating felon-friendly employment to a grocery store owner creating food access, the field of eight fellows for the 2022-2023 Initiators Fellowship cohort promises to lead the way in building greater good in Greater Minnesota through entrepreneurship. Read their profiles in the spring 2022 edition of IQ Magazine.

Central Minnesota Fellows

Nora Hertel

St. Michael: Community Journalism

The news landscape is changing. It has been painful to see traditional news outlets lose staff and reduce coverage. It’s bad for democracy, as there’s less accountability journalism and fewer stories to bring communities together. It’s a factor in increased political polarization.

I worry about the future of democracy, civic engagement and journalism. But I also see an opportunity. Stories, art, and conversations can bring people together, inspire problem-solving and spur optimism, which we will need to face the challenges pressing on the world. Project Optimist is using solutions journalism and bridging conversations to do this work in Greater Minnesota. To do this work sustainably will require a nonprofit structure and digital innovation.

Project Optimist seeks to inspire and inform people. Our solutions journalism features responses to environmental, social and business problems. The stories aren’t prescriptive, but they provide useful facts and data and answers to curious questions. Solutions journalism provides a sense of possibility.

We also feature local art to serve as a pallet cleanser for people burned out on traditional news. We want to challenge the pessimism that pervades news and public discourse.

The goal is to make the world (starting with Central Minnesota) a more optimistic place by countering ignorance and division and by motivating the problem-solvers in our audience. In short, I want to encourage more solutions, beauty and community.

Learn more about Project Optimist at

Fardowsa Iman

St. Cloud: Addiction Treatment

My inspiration for my social enterprise came out of a need I saw in my community early on in my college career. My Somali peers were struggling with substance use, and their parents didn’t know what to do. They would send their children to Africa in hopes that an environmental change would help them recover. However, they would come back traumatized and start using substances again. I went into the field of addiction counseling because I wanted Somali individuals to have a clinician who understands the culture and how to incorporate it into treatment. I want to give the Somali/Muslim community other options in getting their loved ones the help they need.  

The social impact I want to achieve with my clinic is to help Somalis and other Muslims struggling with mental health and addiction. My clinic will offer culturally-competent clinicians to help navigate recovery. Culture and religion play a huge role in helping individuals obtain and sustain recovery. With this clinic, I aim to help the Somali/Muslim community receive education about mental health, addiction and treatment options using a holistic approach to connect treatment methods to cultural and religious practices to reduce resistance. My hope is by educating my community, the stigma of mental health and addiction will not be a barrier to receiving treatment. This clinic, will help our community be better equipped to thrive in Central Minnesota. 

Northwest Minnesota Fellows

Daniel Barrientez

Bemidji: Felon-Friendly Employment

I was incarcerated from 2005 to 2010. Upon release, finding a job was next to impossible because of my criminal record. I still struggle now because of my record, and it has held me back from many opportunities. My dream is to help people like me who have struggled to find employment because of their criminal records. I plan to start an enterprise that employs people with criminal records. I would like to show my community that although my employees have a past, they are moving forward in a positive direction. All anyone needs is a chance. 

I want to employ people in my community with a criminal record who are having difficulty finding a job. I would like to teach them the skills needed to keep a job and one day own their own enterprise. I believe this could create real change within my community for marginalized people. I also plan to buy all my food from locally-owned businesses and, whenever possible locally-grown vendors. This is a great way to teach my employees and customers the importance of buying locally and community.

Brenna Rollie

Fosston: Wellness & community-Building

The impact threading through this project is a collective and communal healing that extends down to our roots and from our roots on through our youth. The crises loom large—mental health, substance abuse, incarceration and housing, to name a few—and are signals showing us where the hurts are most deep. Health and wellness require that as we work to heal our bodies, we work to heal broken and unjust systems and structures that cause so many crises and diseases.

I want to increase health and wellness for rural Minnesota communities by providing classes, community events and youth camps with an emphasis on healing, community-building and culture.

Southwest Minnesota Fellows

Khalif Ahmed Bashir

Willmar: immigrant homeownership

I am constantly inspired by the local immigrants who work hard daily to ensure they provide a quality of life for their families and are yearning to become part of the true American story. I find amazing ingenuity in the community and stable housing on their own is a key to helping them be able to find greater stability and become more civically engaged. I envision a future where immigrant communities in Minnesota can make the transformational leap from renting to owning a home.

Local immigrants have aspirations to own homes since they have lived in Minnesota for many years. The desire to bridge this gap has inspired me to start Azania Real Estate, where we can build residential properties to sell to these families. The goal is to increase access to homeownership for immigrants and refugees from all financial backgrounds. Homeownership will help families find a path out of poverty and increase graduation rates. Parents can pass these life-management skills to their children. 

Kristine Shelstad

Madison: community-Building

I am inspired by the people in my hometown and region who work hard to keep rural towns relevant and vibrant. They deserve all the amenities that bigger cities offer, including a place that provides opportunity, fosters growth and promotes pride in our community. 

Our organically-grown Madison Art and Innovation Center is a home for art, innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship and community building for the people in our region. The community will benefit by having an accessible, inclusive, equitable and intergenerational space to gather, work, learn and grow. Area service organizations and nonprofits will have space for their endeavors and the opportunity to build their volunteer and client base. Our arts spaces will bring beauty and music to an underserved but deserving region. Entrepreneurs will find accommodating studio and office space to launch their dreams. Our co-working space will encourage people to bring their transportable jobs to Madison, and our local foods coop will benefit both growers and consumers. Our ultimate goal is to build a vibrant, connected, caring and growing community.

Learn more about the Madison Mercantile at

West Central Minnesota Fellows

Alex Ostenson

Evansville: food Access

I have been working in the field service industry for several years. This work is physically demanding and generally comes with uncertain and varied hours. Many other people living and working in rural Minnesota are in similar situations. It’s hard to find a traditional store that is open after normal retail hours, making it difficult for many people to access necessities like healthy foods. This challenge of availability is the driving factor in creating a unique grocery store, which mixes a traditional grocery shopping experience with a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week option for those who find difficulty in accessing groceries.

My goal is to decrease food deserts and food-related insecurities in rural communities by providing a hybrid-model grocery shopping experience that combines traditional shopping with 24-hour, 7-day-a-week accessibility. Food deserts and food-related insecurities can cause significant health concerns, from obesity to poor nutrition to mental health challenges. We want to be a cornerstone in the community that helps to reduce these challenges related to food deserts. We also work hard to ensure we sell local goods when possible.

Noreen Thomas

Moorhead: Sustainable Farming

As a farm family member, I see how difficult it has become to source pure inputs for growing crops, fruits and vegetables. Big corporations are gobbling up and locking in fertilizer, leaving behind many of the smaller farms. The smaller farms are paying three times the price for fertilizer. It is economically important that all farm families have access to nutrient-rich compost to grow good food. With the breaks in food chains in our communities, people have become uneasy and many would like to be more self-reliant. Providing good, locally-sourced compost ensures we can continue to grow high-quality food and helps mitigate the impacts of drought and flooding. I think recycling food waste helps to retain valuable minerals and nutrients, which are needed to replenish our soils and keep these nutrients recycled and not in a landfill. This project will solve food waste issues and help to grow good food and crops. 

I want to help provide cleaner waterways by ensuring less fossil fuel is used for fertilizers. I want to make local, clean, sustainable fertilizer to reduce methane emissions from food waste rotting in our landfills and capture nutrients from food scraps to grow clean, nutritious food. Eventually, I hope to provide fertilizer resources in the area without importing from thousands of miles away. I will work to provide a point of community enrichment by instilling a can-do attitude and independence from long supply chains.