Elke Richards of Alexandria has been named the recipient of a Minnesota Initiator Fellowship.

The fellowship aims to help aspiring social entrepreneurs fast-track their ideas, grow their social and professional networks and further develop their business and community leadership skills, according to sponsor West Central Initiative, a nonprofit regional foundation covering nine counties and based in Fergus Falls.

The program provides a $30,000 annual stipend along with an executive-level mentor, comprehensive programming, educational opportunities and support from dedicated staff members.

Richards' business venture is Venn Hagen, a market that offers locally-raised, sustainable foods, with a focus on food security, waste reduction and living-wage pay.

"Venn Hagen will be the business leader in plastic and food waste reduction, food security and growing a healthy rural community," said Richards, who was raised in Nisswa and Red Wing before moving to Alexandria.

“The two biggest reasons we looked at living in Alexandria was because of the excellent public schools and because of the beautiful lakes,” she said. “There is a diverse economy here with industry, farming and health care leading the way.”

Her business was one of three finalists in the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission's first Pitch Your Plan business contest earlier this year.

She is one of two west-central Minnesota Fellowship recipients, joining Rachel Stone of Moorhead. Five other recipients were named in the other two regions.

“We expect that Initiator Fellows from our region will become ambassadors for the movement, demonstrating how and why this kind of entrepreneurship is valuable and contributes to both the social and economic vitality of west-central Minnesota,” said Anna Wasescha, WCI's president and CEO. “We hope that this program will provide exactly the kind of support that entrepreneurs in our communities need to take their very good ideas and preliminary hard work to the next level.”

The Initiators Fellowship is also supported by the Initiative Foundation of Little Falls and Southwest Initiative Foundation of Hutchinson. A total of seven recipients were named from within the three regions.

“All of the 15 finalists brought forth tremendous social enterprise ideas that hold so much potential for Greater Minnesota," said Jeff Wig, vice president for entrepreneurship with the Initiative Foundation of Little Falls. "It’s a testament to how much potential there is for central, southwest and west-central Minnesota to truly lead the way in building greater good through entrepreneurship.”