Five companies that can help elevate your St. Paul-area business — or bring it to fruition

16 July 2023

Whether your business is turning six-figure profits or just getting started out of your home, there is a lot to learn.

If you’re looking for community or financial support, legal advice, marketing tips, or all of the above, someone before you has been there, done that, and made it through. Whether you can spare $1,000 a month, $50 or just need some free advice, there are local resources you can turn to.

Here are five organizations recommended by local entrepreneurs that have helped them launch, grow and sustain their businesses:

Lunar Startups

Based in St. Paul, Lunar Startups is a six-month cohort accelerator program that helps Black, Indigenous, other people of color, LGBTQ+, women and nonbinary entrepreneurs take their businesses to the next level.

Once accepted into the program, members of the cohort have access to weekly workshops that cover topics such as how to manage a team and the importance of trademarks and crafting a budget, said Tierra Anderson, program manager.

In addition to weekly workshops, business owners have access to a network of more than 100 local experts to answer questions as they come up and are paired with a coach they meet with throughout the course of the program.

Anderson said one benefit that sets Lunar Startups apart is its free legal service that members are encouraged to use for up to four hours a month.

Tameka Jones, owner of St. Paul’s Lip Esteem near the corner of Selby Avenue and Victoria Street, took part in Lunar Startups’ program two years ago. She said the admission process is selective, but through it she was able to find a group of like-minded entrepreneurs who were all learning how to scale their businesses.

To join the program, prospective members must fill out that year’s application, which is released in January, and make it through additional interview phases.

Anderson said depending on one’s business type, certain benchmarks have to be met in order to be considered. For example, if you have a consumer packaged goods business, your product doesn’t need to be on retail shelves, but you do need to have a product to show.

The annual program is funded through grants and donations and generally takes between 12 and 17 people, Anderson said, and costs members $100 a month to participate.

Once the program is done, Anderson said participants will have “a hype squad for life” in the alumni network. “(Entrepreneurism) is a very lonely road so we take pride in taking the community aspect seriously,” she said.


SCORE is a primarily online resource for entrepreneurs that helps businesses through every stage — from launch to growth to passing it down to future generations, said Chris Wicker, chairperson of SCORE Twin Cities.

There are three main pillars of service that SCORE offers: one-to-one mentoring, education and an online library of resources.

Wicker, who first started as a SCORE client in 2013 with his cleaning business, said mentors can answer questions covering such topics as writing a marketing strategy and creating cash flow for a lending request. “I talked to my mentor every week for a year and a half,” Wicker said. “I am the poster child for using SCORE exhaustively.”

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When it comes to education, Wicker said entrepreneurs can find online or in-person workshops teaching them how to write a business plan or become an accountant for their business. The online resource library also includes previously recorded workshops in addition to tens of thousands of documents and templates.

“Anyone can become a client,” Wicker said, but businesses that are about to launch are those that can most benefit. “We are for the people sitting at their desks daydreaming about their dream business,” he said.

The Twin Cities SCORE chapter is unique for a variety of reasons, Wicker said. Although SCORE is a nationwide resource, the Twin Cities SCORE chapter is the seventh largest, serving over 10,000 clients a year with more than 200 business experts in the area.

SCORE Twin Cities also has enough local support, including from the U.S. Small Business Administration, that its services are free to use.

ConnectUP! Institute

Based in St. Paul, ConnectUP! Institute specializes in teaching Black, brown and rural-based entrepreneurs how to handle the “back-office” parts of non-tech businesses, said founder and executive director, Y. Elaine Rasmussen.

Back-office support includes understanding the business’s vision, strategy, marketing, communications and of course, finances. “You need to have a relationship with your finances,” Rasmussen said. “Every time you meet with your bookkeeper or accountant, you should come up with a question,” she said, and chase the answer until your next meeting.

ConnectUP!’s ideal customer is someone with a second-stage business who is looking to grow their business into a full-time job, she said.

“Think of it like a baseball game,” she said. “A lot of folks can get you from home plate to first base. … We also have a lot of support to get from third base to home plate.” ConnectUP! is working to bridge the gap between first and third base that Rasmussen calls “the missing middle.”

ConnectUP! offers business owners a variety of programs and events that can fit in with their schedules as well as their budgets. One program launching in October is a 90-day due diligence program that will focus on essential documentation that often gets overlooked, Rasmussen said.

The program will cost between $500 and $1,000 and once completed, businesses will be “capital ready,” she said. “If you successfully complete our program there is no reason that any financial institution should not consider your business,” Rasmussen said.

For those who complete the course, there is also an opportunity to be considered for ConnectUP!’s capital fund, which could invest up to $70,000 in your business based on the capital plan created during the program.

The organization also offers small group options for $25 to $50 where business owners can meet with each other and a subject-matter expert to get their questions answered. Also launching this fall is an online community platform that will have instructional toolkits, videos and templates for entrepreneurs to use, Rasmussen said, noting that some will be free and others behind a paywall. ConnectUP! also hosts yearly summits that are usually catered toward a specific industry, Rasmussen said, noting that an upcoming event will be geared toward the cannabis industry.

“We are very intentional about the human behind the business,” she said. “How do we grow the business in a way that makes sense for them?”

ConnectUP! is supported by organizations including the Bush Foundation, Community Credit Lab and the Neighborhood Development Center.

Allied Executives

Allied Executives is a CEO peer group community in the Twin Cities aimed at helping second-stage businesses connect and learn from each other, said founder and CEO John P. Palen.

Launched in 2000, Allied Executives has grown to include 200 members across 18 different peer groups, Palen said. “Participating in the peer group is a learning exchange process where (entrepreneurs) explore how to run their business and figure it out together,” he said.

Mike Kaeding, CEO of Forest Lake housing manufacturer Norhart, said being a part of Allied Executives’ peer group helped him learn from other business owners who were at the same level of growth as his company, which has more than 200 employees.

In order to match a business owner with a peer group, Palen said they conduct an interview process to ensure the right business owners are in the right group. “The value of the group is who is sitting at the table,” he said.

The peer groups, which are funded by membership dues, meet once a month and are led by a hired peer group director who is usually a business coach, mentor or a consultant, Palen said. Depending on revenue, business owners pay between $650 and $1,150 a month to participate.

In addition to the peer group, participants gain access to educational workshops and events hosted by best-selling authors and local experts as well as social opportunities designed to help entrepreneurs network and connect, Palen said.

BrainTrust Founders Studio

The BrainTrust Founders Studio was created to help Black business owners in the beauty and wellness industry “create an ecosystem of winning,” said founder and CEO Kendra Bracken-Ferguson. “As Black founders, the lack of access and information is a leading barrier to success,” she said.

BrainTrust, which is an online membership-based organization, helps Black business owners by connecting them with mentors, hosting financial information sessions and bringing in advisers ranging from financial experts at JPMorgan Chase to global retailers like Sephora and Target, Bracken-Ferguson said.

De’Vonna Pittman, owner of Arden Hills-based Nature’s Syrup, said she was able to qualify as a Macy’s merchant thanks to the support from her community and the groundwork laid by BrainTrust.

Of the organization’s 200 members, Bracken-Ferguson said they have helped 27 get into Macy’s online marketplace to sell their products. At the end of June, Nature’s Syrup, which  specializes in products for textured hair, also joined Macy’s online ranks.

“No one entity is going to have all of the answers,” Bracken-Ferguson said, “That is why we encourage our advisers to come in and speak.”

BrainTrust also offers paying members access to a knowledge salon, Bracken-Ferguson said, where they can connect with experts to learn about topics ranging from marketing to brand development to manufacturing.

BrainTrust offers three levels of memberships to meet entrepreneurs where they’re at. The first level is free and for pre-revenue founders. The second tier is for founders looking to grow their businesses that are bringing in between $10,000 and $1 million and costs members $66 per month. At $199 a month, the final tier is for those making more than $1 million in revenue and looking to scale their operations.

“Equity is derived from access to information and technology,” Bracken-Ferguson said, “We need all of those pieces so we can play in these spaces.”

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