A new local nonprofit is enhancing opportunities for connection and support for rural women, especially business entrepreneurs and community leaders.
Called Wel Collective, the organization kicked off in January 2020, and its members have been navigating the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic together.
With a mission to “empower all rural women to thrive” and a goal of reaching as many women as possible, the Wel Collective is planning two large events in 2022: The Aspire Summit and Lady Boss Pop-Up Shop. Both are designed to bring local women together, to network and share resources.
“As a business owner, I just was feeling a lack of connection and support when I started my own business, and was really wanting to provide some sort of resource for myself and other women in the local area to be able to connect, share and bounce ideas off each other,” said Leona Cichy, founder and board president of Wel Collective.
Cichy is the owner of Roots and Wings Wellness in New York Mills, a nature immersion program that opened in 2017, and the related Roots and Wings Wildlings Forest School for kids.
Members of Wel Collective have attended events, workshops and coffee meet-ups together in the past, though the 2022 structure will be a bit different. Membership details will be posted on the Wel Collective website, as board vice president Emily Farniok said.
Members are from around the Lakes Area, with 25 members currently. Women, whether members or not, can also join the Wel Collective Facebook group to ask questions and converse.
“Being so rural and away from everybody, it’s nice to have that connection with other business leaders, and everyone is kind of in the same boat as you even though we’re at different levels,” Farniok said. She is a Beautycorner consultant, works at a local agricultural company and writes a “Country Mom Life” blog.
“Partnering, too, has been something really cool that we’ve seen with Wel Collective, in that our members meet other members and then do things together,” Cichy said.
In the midst of some “pivots of the pandemic,” as she described, Wel Collective held some smaller events like coffee hour or happy hour meet-ups, and also held a Boss Lady Pop-up event in March 2020. Their most recent event, in October, was a smaller gathering again. All women are welcome to attend the events.
“We put a bunch of different vendors together that don’t necessarily have that brick and mortar business, so this is where people that have an online business can really thrive and get in touch with people and really do their networking and meet their customers face to face,” Farniok said. “It’s great to see everybody thriving, and then you also get to shop (from) your fellow people, too.”
One of the group's big focuses for 2022 is the Aspire Summit, which is a half-day event including brunch, motivational speaker Rebecca Undem and a workshop. Undem is from rural North Dakota and will speak about how to connect and make an impact in a rural community. The event will be take place on International Women’s Day, March 5, 2022, from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at The Cactus in Perham. Tickets will be available in January.
“We really wanted to provide that opportunity for connection and engagement amongst the women who are there and give them that opportunity to chat,” Cichy said, “maybe meet somebody new, talk about ways that they’re looking to make an impact in the area or asking, ‘How can I make an impact?’”
A women-owned business directory is available on the Wel Collective website, and a printed version will be distributed in 2022 at the summit and at area businesses. And to support young women leaders, a scholarship for a high school senior will be given yearly.
"It’s nice to have that connection with other business leaders."
— Emily Farniok, Wel Collective board vice president
Farniok and Cichy said sharing resources on things like marketing and figuring out ways to grow a business are valuable for members of the collective.
“We’re all in this rural area together, so you have that word of mouth; you’re able to communicate with people a little easier and it also makes people connect more on an intimate level,” Farniok said. “In bigger cities, yeah, you’re going to have a lot more communication with people, but you’re not going to know them one-on-one. You’re not going to know them individually. I feel like we definitely get to experience that here.”