Finnovation Lab Celebrates its First Cohort of Fellows
When Finnegans Founder and CEO Jacquie Berglund was a young social entrepreneur with a vision of “turning beer into food,” she didn’t have much guidance. But flash forward nearly 20 years later, and Finnegans is the first beer company in the world to donate 100 percent of its profits back to the community. It’s also one of the largest beer companies in Minnesota, quite a feat during a craft beer boom.
When the Finnegans House moved in to the KA Block in 2018, it was about more than fulfilling Berglund’s goal of having Finnegans’ first taproom. It served as a catalyst to guide, support, and inspire the next generation of social entrepreneurs that have similar goals. Housed on the fourth floor of the building is the Finnovation Lab, which provides office space and mentorship for young entrepreneurs who want to make an impact on their community.
And the Finnovation Lab had much to celebrate in June. It marked the completion of its first-ever Finnovation Fellowship, a nine-month program that supports young social entrepreneurs in the early stages of a bold idea for sustainable, systems-level change. Five fellows participated in the inaugural program, and they were supported with a dedicated workspace, living stipend, a curated curriculum to guide their startups, and one-on-one mentorship with experts in their field.
From a cookie company that supports initiatives addressing domestic violence, to a social enterprise that works with Minnesota-based companies on LGBTQ workforce issues, the five cohorts are addressing diverse social issues in unique ways.
Connie Rutledge, Managing Director of Finnovation Lab, was there to see the many triumphs and challenges of the fellows over the past nine months. As she reflects on the first year of the fellowship and looks ahead to new faces entering the Lab in September, Rutledge is energized and inspired by what she has learned.
Shaping Social Impact Leaders
Q: How would you describe the Finnovation Fellowship?
CONNIE RUTLEDGE: This program is really a leadership skills development program. The way we approach it, by building great entrepreneurial leaders, you get innovative social businesses. We’re investing in the people behind the idea. It’s definitely idea-oriented, and part of the initial focus of the program is to really do a deep dive into the context of the issue that they’re passionate about. Toward the end, it gets serious about finishing business plans and presentations.
Q: How are the fellows supported at the Finnovation Lab?
RUTLEDGE: The fellows are provided office space at Finnovation Lab and are given a living stipend so they can focus their energy on their business. We provide curriculum one day per week, and each fellow is matched with a mentor. They meet with them independently, but we encourage them to meet once every four to six weeks. They meet with the program manager as well, just to make sure that things are on track. They develop a fellowship plan early in the process, and we check in with them periodically to see how things are going and to make sure they’re meeting the goals they established for themselves.
Celebrating the First Cohort of Finnovation Fellows
Q: What are you taking away from your first year at the Finnovation Lab?
RUTLEDGE: Any time you do something for the first time, you always learn a lot. So we’re furiously trying to figure out what we take from the first year to make the second year even better. The ideas are great, the people are super fun to work with, and in the end, I think the bones of the program are really strong. We’ve got the right kind of programming – it’s just a matter of making it exactly relevant to where the entrepreneurs are. We’re a young organization, so we see a lot of things changing in the next two years. We’ve got plans developing to provide additional programming, as well as creating more consistent community-oriented events and getting more traffic through the space.
Q: How has Jacquie Berglund’s original vision for Finnegans come to life through the Finnovation Lab?
RUTLEDGE: The Finnegans Community Fund is one of our supporters, but other than that, our key linchpin is that Jacquie Berglund is the founder of both Finnegans and the Finnovation Lab. She’s not officially a staff member at Finnovation Lab, but she’s a wonderful mentor to both myself and she actually mentors one of the fellows. The inspiration for Finnovation Lab was really wishing that she had this kind of support when she first started. She’s one of the longest-running social entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities, so she knows the deal.
Q: You’re beginning the selection process for the second cohort of fellows. What is that process like?
RUTLEDGE: We have a group of volunteers in the community that read through the applications. They have worked in all the sectors that would be relevant, and we divide the applications among them. In July, we have a separate group of judges that hear those pitches and interview the candidates. From there, we select the final cohort of nine. The volunteers are all people who are in the industry who have either been social entrepreneurs or supported social entrepreneurship in some way. We have people that really know the context in the market reading these applications for uniqueness and viability of the ideas, and the leadership potential of the applicant.
There’s a lot of demand. In each application period, we’ve had well over 100 applications and we only had five slots for our first year, and then our second cohort will be nine. So there are a lot of people interested in this arena and need the support to launch those businesses. We’re encouraged by that.
Q: It has to be bittersweet to see the first cohort moving on from the program. How does that feel?
RUTLEDGE: It’s totally bittersweet. Most of them were out of town one week, and I thought ‘It’s so weird to not see you guys!’ They have the option to work out of the space for the rest of the summer, so I hope to see them return. They were all such great people to work with, but it’s exciting to welcome new faces.View Comments