A new Rochester network creates a home for minority entrepreneurs

Nov. 30—ROCHESTER — Michelle Clark hopes to have a commercial kitchen to call her own one day.

But first, she has to find the kitchen. She wants to share her passion for food with the Rochester community, more than the catering she does through Shell's Kitchen.

"It's just a matter of having a ... location to do it out because you can't do too many things out of your home. That's my biggest, biggest dilemma," Clark said.

To fully open her business of fast food, soul food and the variety of food items people request, Clark is hoping the

Minority Owned Business Network

will help meet her goal. The network offers resources, education and mentorship for minority business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs.

"I'm hoping I get to network with someone who's willing to say, 'We're willing to take a chance on you. We're willing to help you get this up and running,' something with grants," Clark said. "I just want to stay home in Rochester because this is who took care of me so I want to take care of them."

As the Minority Owned Business Network starts in Rochester, Tawonda Burks aims to create a "safe space" where entrepreneurs rely on each other and point one another to resources, like the Black Entrepreneurship Team and Southeast Minnesota Region Small Business Development Center.

The network, which officially launched in November 2022, started as Burks' idea about two years ago to serve the needs of minority entrepreneurial community and guide business owners through the many

barriers minorities experience

. Those barriers include access to funding, resources, education and experienced entrepreneurs.

"A lot of entrepreneurs find that it's hard to navigate in this space in a journey by themselves so I just want entrepreneurs to know that this is home for them," Burks said. She is also the owner of ELOCINA Consulting & Customization. "We've all experienced a lot of the barriers that many of them are going through and ... we have lived experience to help them navigate that space."

From videographers to bakers and food truck entrepreneurs, some of the businesses in the network are often considered a "side hustle," as Burks said, but many want to make them full-time. Many also run businesses out of their home. Others are in transition to online or opening a store, such as Popus Gourmet Popcorn.

Burks hopes to see more businesses make it to a brick-and-mortar location in the community. The network is starting in Rochester and Red Wing, and will expand through Southeast Minnesota.

"If you can imagine these same amount of entrepreneurs that we have here in a brick-and-mortar downtown right now that would make a huge difference," Burks said.

As a not-for-profit organization, Dena Hankerson, founder of Only God Can Ministries, helps serve homeless people at parks, the women's shelter, The Landing MN, Catholic Charities warming center and the Cronin Home for the past five years. But in her partnership with Hy-Vee, she needs credentials to continue receiving donations. People like Andre Crockett in the network are guiding her with the credential paperwork.

"I would like to grow my business and be that bridge that there's no shame in asking for help, there's no shame," Hankerson said.

While growing her business, Hankerson said, "I'm looking forward to giving back to the community." She is one of many entrepreneurs who see a need in the community and work to meet those needs. And a key is partnerships.

"The more people invest in minority-owned businesses, the more thriving communities will be, that's just a known fact ... of the impact that it would make for minority businesses. But not just that any small business but we know of the disparities that exist for minorities," Burks said.