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UMD’s ‘cultural entrepreneurs’ offer creative solutions for societal problems

University of Minnesota Duluth entrepreneurship student Bella Murphy, who suffers from seasonal affective disorder, talks about a proposal to open a café that would help people ward off the seasonal depression as classmates Amber Sorenson (left) and Kari Urness listen. The three were part of a group of five students presenting the plan Monday at Teatro Zuccone in downtown Duluth. (Steve Kuchera /

A business degree can conjure, for some people, images of a staid and buttoned-downed educational existence.

“I’m one of those people,” said University of Minnesota Duluth junior Bruno Figueroa Grigñon, who wore his dreadlocks in a ponytail Monday at the Teatro Zuccone, where the University of Minnesota Duluth continued to showcase one of its newest majors: cultural entrepreneurship.

The event, “CUE & A,” afforded eight teams within the cultural entrepreneurship program the chance to present business plans to a group of judges and a theater-sized audience. The eight teams were there to earn part of their individual grades, to receive feedback and to show off just what the cultural entrepreneurship program is all about.

For the uninitiated, it’s less about selling widgets and more about solving cultural dilemmas from the private sector. It appeals to people like Figueroa Grigñon who are business-minded, but not in the traditional sense.  

“It’s an excellent way to turn around society’s view of the economy,” Figueroa Grigñon said. “A cultural entrepreneur strives for development versus growth. It’s not all about expanding into a franchise.”

Take, for instance, Figueroa Grigñon’s group, “Hope in Despair: The Bisan Weaving Initiative.” Figueroa Grigñon and his group have gone beyond the proposal stage and are already “tabeling” textiles from tiny Bisan, Guatemala, around campus. The business idea is to import the Bisanese textiles, the likes of which can be found in abundance in Guatemala, and sell them in Minnesota and beyond, where they would have a chance to stand out for their quality and beauty. A successful enterprise would allow the group to support the poverty-ravaged Mayan village with a water pump and solar stoves. The people of Bisan would be able to stop spending hours per day hauling water and wood and more time on weaving their vibrantly colored textiles for sale throughout the global economy. A wildly successful venture might even allow the men of Bisan to work alongside their women and children, rather than in other industries hundreds of miles from their homes.

Figueroa Grigñon is a Guatemalan native. His passion for the project showed through.

“We feel it could be a model for helping an indigenous community preserve its way of life,” he said.

Another group, titled “Splendens,” presented a business enterprise that could offer UMD students and other Duluthians suffering from seasonal affective disorder a way out of a weary winter. The Splendens Café was named with the Latin word for “brilliant.” The café would offer light booths, where customers could drink tea and enjoy a 20-minute light bath, using lamps that replicate sunlight, to help combat doldrums.

“Who here is sick of winter?” asked group member Bella Murphy. “It’s my first time in Duluth and I suffer from SAD.”

Murphy and her group described a campus interconnected with tunnels and walkways to both good, and bad, effect.

“Those things can be dark and cold and sad,” said Amber Sorenson, who said she knows students who don’t own a pair of winter boots. “They prevent people from going outside.”

The judges were as harsh as a cold winter’s day in citing Minnesota’s many winter outdoor opportunities as a potential impediment to the prospective business.  

The UMD group was undeterred. They fought back with youthful vigor and figures, saying one in 10 people in Minnesota suffers from SAD, to show there could be potential for a light café on campus.

“Because there’s a lot do to, doesn’t mean people don’t suffer from SAD,” Murphy said.

Group member Nick DeRosier said there comes a time when he just wants to put his skis away, no matter how much powder there is on Spirit Mountain.

The students at the event were undergraduates, and most of the groups’ businesses will never leave the incubation of the classroom. Still, the point was made. UMD’s cultural entrepreneurship program is taking business in new directions.

“It’s a project for school,” Sorenson said, “but it’s plausible.”