At stake is $50,000 in Forbes advertising and another $50,000 in investment capital. Forbes unveils the winner this week.
Win or lose, Femrite, 34, caught our interest on a bunch of levels.
She has an interesting story to tell. She manufactures clothing from bamboo fibers. She's passionate about her ideals and working to find the financing and momentum to keep it rolling. Married with two small children, she also juggles family life.
I interviewed her recently as she waited for her child's pre-school to finish up.
Ticking off a long list of the ecological benefits and comfort of bamboo fiber clothing, she adds, "What I'm trying to do is potentially huge for the U.S. economy and the planet."
I broke the interview up into chunks below. As you read, keep in the back of your mind: Can Minnesota build its its economic future around entrepreneurs like Femrite? Can it capitalize on the "green," sustainable movement? What if it can't?
Family of entrepreneurs
Femrite didn't plan to be in business. Her background's in education and counseling. She was a career counselor at St. Olaf College. But she comes from an entrepreneurial family. Her father had several companies, including a tank car cleaning operation.
Her older brother buys walnut trees and sells them to companies for furniture. They were mulling over new ideas in 2007 when he came over with a newspaper article on bamboo fibers and how they could be made into all kinds of breathable, hypoallergenic clothing. "It just kind of snowballed," she said, "almost like a calling. I was supposed to do this."
She spent the next few months researching bamboo fiber, fabric and sewing manufacturers then started producing clothing using a "fair labor facility in China. " Since then, she's moved production locally establishing partnerships with "ethical sewing facilities in Minnesota and California who will now be making all future Naturally Bamboo lines."
Financing and marketing challenges
The business is pretty much self-financed, Femrite says. She's been able to turn some monthly profits but "it's still a struggle."
Funds come from a home equity credit line, business credit cards and a business credit line from a bank and a loan from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.
"I don't have any free money," she says.
About 75 percent of her business come from online sales but she's also picked up a retail outlet in Canada. The hardest hard part, she says, is trying to build a brand name clothing line with no marketing dollars. "I'm still pretty much doing it all by myself."
We've written a lot at MinnEcon about Minnesota's shrinking and aging workforce and asked aloud what happens if Minnesota can't keep it's best and brightest?
Femrite's staying, even though it might be cheaper to go elsewhere.
"I envision my headquarters always being here. We're not doing the bamboo planting and processing in Minnesota, but my cut-and-sew operations are in Prior Lake," she said. "Could I do it cheaper in Mississippi or South Carolina? Maybe, but probably not that much to make it worthwhile."
What about the tax climate? "It's not going to sway my decision," she said. "It's more about labor pool, quality of life, family, outdoors. You're not going to see us move someplace that doesn't have lakes and rivers," she said. "It would be really hard to go somewhere else."
The state's $1.2 billion budget deficit likely means cuts are coming, and that has county, city and other municipal officials worried about how much of the state's loss they will be forced to absorb.
Last year, when state government cut aid to municipalities, Aitkin County let workers go in the sheriff's department and in the health and human services division, according to Gord Prickett, chairman of the county's planning commission. Waseca County Commissioner Rick Morris said his county escaped 2009 without layoffs by not filling vacancies.
"It looks like we'll have to add other alternatives to our list of options," said Morris.
He and Prickett are sources in MPR's Public Insight Network who responded to questions about the effects of the state budget deficit on government programs and services.
An MPR analysis of job numbers gave a more nuanced picture of what's happening. State Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) job figures from 2001 to 2009 show the local municipal workforce fell by 2,200 jobs or about 1 percent. Meantime, state government jobs increased 10,100 or 11.5 percent.
At first blush, the numbers suggest the state workers have been less affected by budget cuts than those employed by local government. But there are mitigating factors to consider, said Steve Hine, labor market analyst at DEED. State numbers include figures from the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and University system. In 2009, about 59,100 out of the 97,900 state jobs were in higher education. And higher education jobs rose by 15 percent from 2001 to 2009. The rest of the state workforce grew at 6.4 percent.
On the local level, Hine says 6,000 jobs were lost in the health and human services sector due, in large measure, to reclassification of jobs at the Hennepin County Medical Center. That's because in late 2006 the hospital went from county-owned to a county subsidiary run by a non profit. The job numbers were taken out of the local government numbers, but the jobs were not lost.
"You can dig into these numbers and see deeper reasons for jumps and dips," Hine said.
Even so, government officials in the Public Insight Network said they will have to look beyond job cuts and consider raising revenue if the state pulls back on local government assistance to balance its budget.
In Aitkin County, Prickett says, the planning and zoning department already has raised permit fees "two and three times," to cover department expenses.
I looked at revenue data from the state's office of Management and Budget and, after adjusting for inflation, found that county, city and townships saw a 14 percent cut in state aid from 2001 to 2008. During the same time period, they increased property taxes 11 percent and other taxes and fees 13.5 percent.
But it's also interesting to note that during the same time period, state aid to local school districts rose 33 percent, when inflation is factored in. Meanwhile property tax revenue raised by local schools dropped 17 percent.
Finally, some counties have to delay or scrap projects to save money. Brent Olson, a Big Stone County commissioner, says they'll scrutinize economic development and road projects, "simply because those are the sort of things that can be delayed."
To see the full range of comments on this topic, click on the map icons below to read what public employees and officials in Minnesota said about budget cuts... then share your story.