FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Jeney Christensen spent the better part of a decade working in sales, but her lifelong dream of owning a bakery was never far from mind. Until a few years ago, that business dream seemed out of reach.
Christensen’s turning point came in the winter of 2018. She was nearing the end of her maternity leave and dreading going back to a “soul-sucking” job at an insurance company. In those long, cold months, she knew something had to change.
So Christensen walked away from her desk job and took the first step toward her bakery dreams. She launched Peney Cakes from her kitchen in Hewitt, Minn., specializing in gourmet cupcakes, cheesecakes and desserts — many of the recipes passed down by her mother.
After moving to Fergus Falls in 2019, Christensen took her ambitions a step further and opened Peney Cakes food truck. With help from the Greater Fergus Falls Entrepreneur Initiative, her business really took off.
“It went from being a hobby that people paid me for to an actual business in less than a year,” Christensen said.
Nationwide, entrepreneurship is on the rise. Since the start of the pandemic, millions of Americans have left their corporate jobs in favor of something more flexible and something that fuels their passions. Women are at the center of that surge, and Fergus Falls — a community of around 13,000 people just a 45-minute drive from Fargo-Moorhead — exemplifies the trend.
To date, Christensen is one of more than 130 people in the Fergus Falls area to take part in the Entrepreneur Initiative, and 70% of them have been women, according to NeTia Bauman, CEO of Greater Fergus Falls, the local economic development nonprofit.
Greater Fergus Falls launched in 2018 in response to several big-box retail stores leaving town. The city knew it needed a new strategy for attracting and retaining businesses, and Greater Fergus Falls was designed to help businesses of all sizes and types flourish. That includes everything from helping new businesses select sites to its latest initiative to help new, small businesses get off the ground.
The Entrepreneur Initiative kicked off in 2020 and while it isn’t exclusively for women, that’s been where the strongest interest has come from, Bauman said.
While Fergus Falls isn’t the only community, regionally or nationally, trying to retain and attract entrepreneurs and especially women, Bauman said she believes there’s something special happening in Fergus.
“Women are really dominating the entrepreneur ecosystem here,” she said.
Bauman notes that there are women in leadership roles throughout the community — the Chamber, service organizations and businesses — and that provides a strong foundation for other women and may help them feel more comfortable and confident to step forward.
Tara Kempfer, a local optometrist and member of the Greater Fergus Falls board of directors, echoed that.
“We have a seat at the table here … we have a say,” said Kempfer, whose eye clinic employs 17 people, all but one is female. “It’s been fun to lead by example and show them (the female business entrepreneurs) they can be leaders too.”
And then there’s Bauman. Many of the women who have leaned on Greater Fergus Falls cite Bauman and her leadership as an inspiration to dream big.
Baumann is at the helm of a successful and growing economic development organization and yet she has no formal background in economic development. Rather, the Lidgerwood, N.D.-native has a criminal justice degree from North Dakota State University and spent the first part of her career working with public safety and counterterrorism training and education programs. What she lacks in institutional background, she makes up for with her steadfast passion for Fergus Falls and for small-town life.
The Greater Fergus Falls Entrepreneur Initiative offers several key resources to those wanting to launch a business.
There are business labs, which provide free startup coaching, business management coaching, entrepreneur roundtables and professional development panels.
They rely on regional business entrepreneurs to provide the coaching and support to individuals, as well as consultants from the Rural Ideas Network , a national association of rural businesses and community leaders.
This past April, Greater Fergus Falls also launched its Entrepreneur Mastermind Series. This is a free monthly peer-to-peer mentoring series for innovators, entrepreneurs and existing business owners to share lessons learned. The first event featured Stephanie Hoff, a Fergus Falls woman who is communications director of Otter Tail Power Company but who also is launching her own coaching business, aimed at helping women redefine their success and path forward.
So far, the Greater Fergus Falls Entrepreneur Initiative has assisted people in a variety of fields, from food service businesses like Christensen’s to consulting businesses like Cardinal Consulting , started by Amy Johnson.
As president and workforce strategist for the company, Johnson’s mission is to teach employers how to find and create inclusive workplaces for misunderstood talent pools. For example, members of the military, those from different cultures and backgrounds and people with disabilities.
Johnson, who has a human resources background, said she started her business because she was motivated to find solutions to emerging workforce challenges, many stemming from the pandemic. But as a military wife, she also has seen first-hand the unexpected difficulty for active duty military members to transition into the civilian workforce. In her business, she brings all of that together and is finding success.
“This is a personal mission for me,” Johnson said.
Next up for Greater Fergus Falls is expansion into a new downtown space called The Foundry. Located in the heart of downtown Fergus Falls, the building will officially open this fall, providing space for hybrid/ flex working, coaching, meetings, and will even offer some pop-up retail space.
Greater Fergus Falls Board Chair Rebecca Petersen said there are still a lot of important economic development issues to be tackled and notes that it won’t all happen overnight. But, she said, there’s reason to be optimistic because of all that Fergus Falls has to offer families and businesses.
“I’ve always had this hope that Fergus Falls would be a destination,” said Peterson, director of development at West Central Initiative, a nonprofit community foundation serving a multi-county region. “People would know that there are opportunities to start a new business.”
Plus, Fergus Falls is the ideal location, she said: “We’re not situated on the lakes the way Alexandria and Detroit Lakes are, but we are situated in the middle of everything.”
The Greater Fergus Falls Entrepreneur Initiative launched in March 2020. The following numbers show program participants and the number of actual business start ups that year. In each case, participants might start the program in one year and launch a business the following year. Participants utilize a variety of business resources through Greater Fergus Falls.