As Duluth’s creative economy — made up of startups and entrepreneurial businesses — continues growing, some are working to ensure underrepresented communities aren’t left behind.

Startups owned by people of color and women face more challenges when accessing resources such as capital or business training, things needed to launch businesses, some say. A group of local programs, including one that just wrapped up in late August, are working with these creative businesses to help them make it.

“If we are to ever have a thriving economy in Duluth, we have to open the door for individuals from diverse communities to be able to be a part of it,” said ChaQuana McEntyre, a social worker, owner of Najen LLC, and founder of Family Rise Together.

The expansion of the Lincoln Park Craft District, which is made up of a multitude of creative businesses, was in-part motivation for Creative Startups. Some noticed a lack of diversity among the new business owners, said program facilitator Lars Kuehnow.

“This initiative is a response to that challenge that we were doing a great job of resurrected labor (but) people weren't getting an equal opportunity to participate,” Kuehnow said.

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Creative Startups was a year-long business incubator program that connected 23 participants to capital and business training — all of which are needed to successfully launch businesses, said Kuehnow and Olaf Kuhlke, another facilitator.

People of color and women each made up 40% of the cohort. This, both said, addressed their goal of working in communities that need better access to necessary factors.

“Barriers to entrepreneurship — for people of color and for women — are historically higher, especially when it comes to borrowing money,” Kuhlke said.

Lovisa sings in the Pinnacle Pointe Studios sound booth. Steve Kuchera /
Lovisa sings in the Pinnacle Pointe Studios sound booth. Steve Kuchera /

With new businesses launching with help from the program, others may be influenced to do the same.

“They're now the leaders of that effort in our community. And that's exactly the best outcome. Now, we have to keep feeding the system, fostering the system and keeping it moving forward,” Kuehnow said.

One was the participating businesses was Pinnacle Pointe Studios, which opened its West Duluth doors in May.

Although Pinnacle co-owner Victor Martinez has run a business before, in the class, he gained access to a needed network of people who offer support as they all go through challenges associated with new businesses, he said.

“You kind of burn yourself out if you don't have the appropriate people surrounding you, because … you rely on yourself almost too much,” Martinez said.

Pinnacle would have opened even if he and his fellow co-owner, Tony Miller, didn’t go through program, he said. But, it’s been a refresher on how to financially managing a business.

Creative Startups is a national program that has programs located in cities across the U.S. The University of Minnesota Duluth’s College of Liberal Arts, Family Freedom Center, Family Rise Together, American Indian Community Housing Organization, Integrative Re-Sources and Duluth’s Local Initiatives Support Corporation ran the Duluth program.

McEntyre, who helped facilitate the Creative Startup program, is also an entrepreneur herself and leads Family Rise Together’s business planning program.

Family Rise Together’s course is shorter than the others, as it’s a 12-week workshop. It opens the door to the business community to people from underrepresented communities, McEntyre said. It’s for those who have a business idea to people who are several years into running the business and are looking to rebrand or restart.

Launching new businesses ran by diverse owners further bolstering Duluth’s economy, McEntyre said. With a high unemployment rate in Duluth’s African American community, “I believe entrepreneurship is the door to change that,” she said.

The Cultural Entrepreneurship Program major housed in UMD’s College of Liberal Arts is another path for people to learn about getting businesses off the ground.

The major is based in problem solving and hands-on work. Kuhlke, who helped found the program, said this gives the students an edge when launching businesses.

Now, local leaders are turning their attention to yet another initiative to help new businesses: raising capital.

Kiva, run by Family Rise Together, is a capital initiative that will match funds raised by a business up to $5,000. It will launch in November, and will start taking applications in a few weeks, McEntyre said.

In five years, McIntyre said the business community will look “vastly different” in the region.

“It will be through the support of diverse business owners — women business owners — that is truly going to change the economic system of our community,” she said.