Did you know that the 23 million small businesses in America account for 54 percent of all U.S. sales? Small businesses employ 50 million Americans - and even more impressive is that 20 million people are employed by businesses with fewer than 20 employees. These are remarkable numbers and the reason we choose to join in celebrating the month of May as National Small Business Month to recognize the nearly 30 million small businesses and their impact on American culture and economy.

Here at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), we are proud of the small businesses in our region. We know that entrepreneurs have tremendous impact within our communities. Not only do they provide jobs, they also contribute to the quality of life. Small business owners form the backbone of their local communities: they work in their businesses; most live near their businesses; they participate in community activities; they support local charities; and they share community concerns about the environment, crime, and other community issues. A reported 90 percent of entrepreneurs donate money to charitable causes - and 70 percent donate both time and money to local philanthropic organizations.

In Fairmont, we have supported Blue Box Bridal LLC, named after the jeweler Tiffany's famous blue boxes. Started by two friends and nurses, Michelle Morris and Karla Boettcher have turned their enthusiasm for the bridal industry into a successful enterprise. In Albert Lea, we have supported Six Two Graphics, which specializes in the field of graphic communications and digital printing media, primarily in automotive wraps. While still in his early 20s, owner Aaron Haggerty has grown a business doing something he loves. These are just a handful of examples of how real people have turned their passion into a sustainable business.

It is often said that small businesses drive job creation in the United States. Small businesses are often undervalued for the role they play in the economy because of their size; however, there's nothing small about the impact of these businesses on our region. We know from our experience that many of these small business operations can grow into large companies, which support the economy of our communities.

In Faribault, Kim Halvorson started Bio Wood Processing when her independent turkey farm, Halvorson Farms, needed quality animal bedding. With such a high demand for her own farm, Halvorson, who hired her son-in-law to design and operate the business, opened her own business recycling wood products, including pallets and untreated building materials, into animal bedding and mulch. Today, Bio Wood Processing employs seven and continues to grow.

Similarly, Blue Star Power Systems in Lake Crystal is a fast-growing manufacturer of diesel and gaseous generator sets. The business, which employs 40, came to SMIF through a valuable partnership with the Small Business Development Center in Mankato. We are fortunate to collaborate with other economic development agencies and banks that believe in the power of small businesses as much as we do.

Collectively, SMIF has provided over $24.7 million to businesses across southern Minnesota. This includes 190 start-up businesses and 277 expansions. In all, SMIF has contributed to the success of over 460 businesses and helped create over 3,200 new jobs. In addition, we have provided over 10,000 hours of one-on-one technical assistance and training. We know that absent this technical assistance, many of these businesses would not have succeeded.

We're excited about our Foundation's role in providing resources to local entrepreneurs. If you want more information about how we can help you start or grow a business, visit our website at www.smifoundation.org or call (507) 455-3215.

Tim Penny is president/CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Fund. He welcomes your questions and comments. You can reach him at timp@smifoundation.org.