ST. CLOUD -- It's year two for business start-up program gBETA Greater Minnesota/St. Cloud, and director Precious Drew says, COVID-aside, things are going well.

gBETA, located in cities around the United States and Canada, is a free, seven-week support program for anyone in the early stages of launching their own business.

In her role with gBETA, Drew leads cohorts of budding entrepreneurs, chosen through an application process, and connects them with area companies, mentors and regular networking opportunities. The gBETA program offers lunch and learns, one-on-one coaching sessions, and mentorship meetings with business leaders and local investors.

This year, Drew says the program, which kicked off on Sept. 4, is all being done over Zoom.

“We made some pretty quick changes back in March when quarantine first happened,” Drew said. “We were pretty easily able to convert all our programs across the country to online.”

Drew says program participants have adapted to the online model very efficiently.

“It definitely wasn’t easy to do,” she admitted. “But we’re very good at it now, I’d like to think.”

This most recent cohort of entrepreneurs meets multiple times each week over Zoom with Drew, one another and local business leaders and mentors.

“It’s really just as if we were meeting in-person,” she said. “I meet with the companies twice a week during the seven week program. We’re still able to bring in our various mentors every week of the program."

And, the virtual format has had unexpected benefits for participants.

“The one-on-one meetings are an important aspect of the program and also introducing them to people in the business community,” she explained. “And, what we’ve found by switching to virtual is that we’re able to connect them with more people across the state of Minnesota. We don’t have the hurdle of traveling around the state, so we’ve really been able to broaden our horizons.”

There are four companies involved with this session of gBETA - and unlike the last session, they are dialing in from other regions of the state, not just central Minnesota.

“Of course, we’re very heavily focused on central Minnesota and the St. Cloud area,” she said. “But, what we wanted to do with this cohort is let people from greater Minnesota take advantage of this program. So, we’re really happy to have people participating from state line to state line in every direction.”

Central Minnesota is represented by Kimball-based software startup Sproutary.

“Sproutary streamlines the administrative process for preschools and daycare providers,” Drew explained. “And, a cool thing they’re recently implemented is the ability for admins and kids to track who the kids have come into contact with, should there be any sort of COVID outbreak so they can notify other families.”

The first year of gBETA was very heavily focused on participant recruitment by Drew. Since that successful inaugural program, Drew has been fielding a lot interest from fledgling Minnesota entrepreneurs.

“It’s still really important to keep getting our name out there, but what I saw this round were a lot of inbound requests,” she said. “People really wanted more information and wanted to connect and get to know each other better. I’m glad to know the gBETA name is out there.”

“It’s a good problem to have,” she added.

In addition to 1:1 meetings with the four participating companies, the gBETA program offers virtual lunch and learns for any interested community members. The program will wrap on Oct. 22 with a public Community Pitch Night in front of potential investors. Last year’s pitch night drew over 130 attendees.

“It’ll be virtual this time, so we’re hoping to exceed that number this time,” she said. “It was an amazing turnout, especially for our first time.”

Drew says she's learned a lot since last year's program, and adjusted some of her leadership strategies.

“I think one thing I’ve changed this year is getting even more people involved,” she said. “I’ve been continuously surprised by how many business leaders and experienced entrepreneurs want to help people in the beginning stages. They’re willing to make so many awesome connections for these entrepreneurs because they’ve been in their shoes and they understand how leveraging a network can be super beneficial."

"So, I’m going out of my way to make sure they have as many connections as possible," she added.

To learn more about gBETA Greater Minnesota, visit their website.