Mary Mathews headed into a well-earned retirement this week. While hers may not be a household name in our region, it should be— if only because she has done more to build a strong and stable economy in northeastern Minnesota than almost anyone we could name.
Mary, for those who don’t know, started the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund back in 1989. It was an era when two of the region’s primary industries, mining and timber, were struggling and Mary figured that our economy would never be a healthy one unless we could build it from the grassroots—relying on the talents, creativity, and ambitions of our own people.
She knew that our region had plenty of talent, but that many residents just needed some basic business skills, technical assistance, and access to modest amounts of capital to turn that talent into successful small businesses.
Two of its very first clients, way back in 1990, were from Tower. The Timberjay and Vermilion Shear Image both benefitted from the Entrepreneur Fund’s work, and both remain healthy small businesses today.
Since then, the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund has assisted over 1,300 small businesses across the region, including at least one in every community in our local area. Some were start-ups. Some were existing businesses looking to expand. Whatever their circumstance, the Entrepreneur Fund provided critical resources at the right time to allow them to succeed. Over the years, that’s helped area businesses create or maintain more than 3,500 jobs.
That’s an enormous contribution to the economic vitality of our region. And it’s not only about the number of jobs created. It’s about the number of small businesses— nearly 450 to date— that have been helped along the way. That diversity is key to building a sustainable and healthy economy that is buffered from the boom and bust cycles inherent in extractive industries, like mining and timber. Building an economy a handful of jobs at a time is challenging work, and it usually doesn’t attract the gushing headlines that we see if a major employer comes to the area offering 200 jobs at a crack. But when that big company shuts down its plant, or call center, and moves somewhere else, those small, locally-based businesses still remain in most cases. A diverse economy is stronger than one built on just one or two industries.
Our region has, so often, experienced the downside of over-reliance on one or two industries, from the effects of the cyclical boom and bust, to a cultural and political dependency that is often dismissive of small business and the value of entrepreneurialism in general.
Perhaps the most important work of the Entrepreneuer Fund is providing a bit of a counterweight to that notion. It turns out, we can do the hard work of building a stable and sustainable economy in our region. Mary Mathews helped show us the way.