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Rallying around women-owned rural businesses: Wel Collective holds its first Aspire Summit in Perham

"Our zip code holds us back no more," Rebecca Undem, a motivational speaker and rural businesswoman from Oakes, N.D. said at the summit. "The size of your town isn't the thing holding you back."

Leona Cichy and Rebecca Undem pose for a picture together inside The Cactus in Perham during the Aspire Summit on March 5.
Leona Cichy and Rebecca Undem pose for a picture together inside The Cactus in Perham during the Aspire Summit on March 5.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus
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Rural areas aren't bad for business, despite what conventional wisdom may teach us. In fact, as a large number of lakes area businesswomen are proving, the community connections and support that small towns are famous for can actually be a boon.

Many of these women were gathered together on March 5 for the first-ever Aspire Summit, hosted by the Wel Collective — a lakes area nonprofit created to help rural women thrive — at The Cactus in Perham.

"Our zip code holds us back no more," Rebecca Undem, a motivational speaker, coach, and rural businesswoman from Oakes, N.D . said at the summit. "The size of your town isn't the thing holding you back."

The summit included a brunch and workshop with Undem, and gave participants a chance to network, develop their skills, and promote their businesses amongst each other.

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The Wel Collective's first Lady Boss Pop-Up Shop, held in March 2020, was well attended.
Contributed / Wel Collective

"It's harder to find a network of people (in big cities)," said Leona Cichy, the founder and board president of Wel Collective. "Whereas in a rural area, people have more of an ability to connect with you… If you have a desire to start a business, you can take that idea and find connections in the community and move forward with it. That's something that happens in rural communities, where you're able to make those connections."

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In fact, that's how Wel Collective itself got started. Cichy was feeling disconnected from other businesswomen in the area, so she reached out to a couple of other women around her, and now, two years later, nearly 100 women attended the Aspire Summit to connect with one another.

Undem believes events like the Aspire Summit are important because the biggest struggle of being a rural woman in business is the sense of loneliness that can come along with it. That loneliness can cause fear, and that fear can hold people back.

"That's why the Wel Collective is super important for this community," Undem said. "It's impressive. I work in a lot of small towns, and I've never seen anything like it."

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Leona Cichy is the founder and board president of Wel Collective and owner of Roots and Wings Yoga and Roots and Wings Wildlings Forest School in New York Mills.
Contributed / Wel Collective

Undem believes fear, jealousy and other negatives of running a business are universal and can affect business owners wherever they are. But the positives that come with being a rural business owner are exclusive to small towns: an enhanced sense of pride, community support, and the ability to make a big impact on the community.

"On the whole, people want to support people who get into a business in a small community," Undem said. "We rally around each other. That's what we do."

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Businesswomen from throughout the Perham area chat and network during brunch at the Aspire Summit March 5.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

Undem's hometown of Oakes had a population of about 2,000, and in her youth she always believed she had to move to the "big city" in order to fulfill her dreams and "live big." But that was in the early 1990s, before the internet became a part of everyday life. And that's changed the game.

"The internet allows us to be connected with all sorts of people," Undem said. "The way we are now didn't exist when I graduated, so I couldn't imagine myself living in Oakes."

Undem moved back to her hometown 13 years ago — and she's found success through her Oakes business, her book, her podcast, speaking engagements, coaching, and more.

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"I feel like my life is so much bigger than I ever dreamed it could be, and it's because of where I'm at," she said. "Living big is fluid because our lives are fluid."

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Rebecca Undem speaks to local businesswomen at the Aspire Summit in Perham, held March 5 at The Cactus.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

Cichy, who lives in New York Mills, owns Roots and Wings Yoga and founded the Roots and Wings Wildlings Forest School, in addition to her work with Wel Collective. She grew up in a city with a population of about 56,000.

"In a rural area, you're able to look at your passions and strengths and how you want to make an impact on your community," Cichy said. "Once you have an idea or identified your passion, just start. You're never going to feel ready. Start before you're ready. The connections and opportunities will come to you if you just start and put yourself out there."

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Nearly 100 businesswomen attended the first-ever Aspire Summit in Perham.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

Perham's Angela Quam, a manager at The Title Team, agreed that any woman interested in getting into business should just jump in. While Quam has faced some challenges along the way, she said at the summit that she's enjoyed it.

Another attendee at the Aspire Summit, Julie Bloom, a plant director at Shearer's, moved to the Perham area about 10 years ago. Since then, she said, she's loved being a part of the community. She emphasized how many different opportunities for young women there are in lakes country, from science to math to engineering to hairdressing to more.

"For all the women that came (to the Aspire Summit) today, I hope they're really proud of themselves," Undem said. "To all the women who didn't, look for the next opportunity and follow along with Wel Collective… Whatever fears you may have about attending the next thing, put them aside and take a chance on yourself."

Next year's Aspire Summit will held March 4 — the summits will always be held the Saturday before International Women's Day.

For more information on Wel Collective, visit welcollective.org or email hello@welcollective.org.

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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