Minnesota Small Business Administration honors twelve local leaders

Minnesota business owners and supporters recognized in celebration of Small Business Week

By Anne Kopas
Fri, 2017-05-05 11:55


The U.S. Small Business Administration’s Minnesota office has honored twelve local leaders in entrepreneurship and small business leadership. The awards come in acknowledgment of Small Business Week, celebrated nationwide this week from April 30 to May 6, 2017. These winners were chosen in recognition of their success in running a small business or helping small businesses grow in Minnesota, and in celebration of their commitment to giving back to the local community.  


Check out the twelve leaders, entrepreneurs, and small business gurus: 

Small Business Person of the Year 

Shirley Joann Wikner, CEO of Aviation Charter and Executive Aviation (Eden Prairie) 

You wouldn’t know it now, but Shirley Joann Wikner once suffered from a fear of flying. She overcame this fear by earning her private pilot’s license and eventually went on to start Aviation Charter/Executive Aviation in 1988 alongside her late husband, Roger. The company provides private corporate and passenger flights, flights for both organ transplant teams and their patients, and airline freight transportation. Wikner unexpectedly became the business’ sole owner in 2012, after her husband passed away. With this came financial and leadership challenges, but Wikner has kept Aviation Charter alive and thriving. For 25 years, she and her company have been primary sponsors of LifeSource, a medical nonprofit organization that promotes and assists organ, eye, and tissue donation. 

District Director Award Recipient  

Glenn Ford, Instructor for Minnesota SBA’s Emerging Leaders program (Minneapolis)  

Glenn Ford is being honored as a top instructor and mentor in the Emerging Leaders program. This program was created by the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2008 to help inner-city business leaders promote growth in economically challenged communities. The program lasts seven months, and has been called a “mini-MBA.” Participants work with mentors (like Ford), attend workshops and network with other business leaders in the community. Since its beginnings, the Emerging Leaders initiative has trained over 4,000 business owners in inner-city communities nationwide. 

Encore Entrepreneur of the Year 

Massoud Kazemzadeh, Ph.D, co-founder and COO, and Ann Jones Kazemzadeh, president of Kay’s Processing and Kay's Naturals (Clara City) 

Dr. Massoud Kazemzadeh started Kay’s Naturals nearly twenty years ago to help his wife, Linda, who had Type 1 Diabetes. Linda needed high-protein, low-carbohydrate, low-sugar snacks, and Kazemzadeh worked to develop products that would meet these dietary needs. Linda has since passed away, but Kazemzadeh went on to marry Ann Jones, and the husband-wife team now works together to turn their business plans into action. Ann Jones Kazemzadeh has worked to bring Kay’s Naturals to national retailers, increasing its success. The business frequently contributes to local fundraisers such as annual scholarships and a new community swimming pool. 

Family-Owned Small Business of the Year 

Jeremiah Watson, CEO of Watson Recycling (Oronoco) 

Watson Recycling has grown from a tiny business with fewer than five employees to a multi-million dollar enterprise.  Rodney Watson founded Watson Recycling in 1980, picking up glass, paper, tin, and aluminum from local restaurants to recycle them. Rodney’s son, Glen Watson, purchased the business in the 1990s, and the company now has eight family members in its employment and will recycle over 55 million pounds of metal this year alone. “Our family owes a debt of gratitude to all those who have helped us over the past 35 years including the SBA and its affiliates,” current CEO Jeremiah Watson told the SBA in a press release

Minority-Owned Small Business of the Year 

Milissa Silva-Diaz, CEO of El Burrito Mercado (St. Paul) 

El Burrito Mercado began in 1979 as a dry grocery store founded by Mexican immigrants Tomas and Maria Silva. Today, the business is run by their daughter, Milissa Silva-Diaz, and has grown from a tiny grocery store to a multi-million dollar Mexican marketplace with its own restaurant and catering business (not to mention its own state fair booth). Silva-Diaz is passionate about advocating for diversity through culture, food and music, and she uses her business expertise to make this happen.  

Small Business Development Center Excellence & Innovation Center of the Year 

North Central Region Small Business Development Center, Central Lakes College (Brainerd) 

The mission of the North Central Region Small Business Development Center, according to its website, is to provide “assistance to small businesses in order to increase the number of new business start-ups, expand existing small businesses, and reduce the number of small business failures.” In this, the center has certainly succeeded. In 2016 alone, it helped 24 new businesses open in the 11-county north central Minnesota area and raised almost $24 million in start-up and expansion funding. The center is currently led by director Greg Bergman, who has been with the program since 2001. “Minnesota has an excellent network of SBDC offices located throughout the state, so to be chosen for this award is a great testimony to the valuable work of our staff over the past year,” Bergman told Minnesota Business magazine. 

Veteran-Owned Small Business of the Year 

Scott Sinclair, managing principal of National Facility Solutions (Hastings) 

Scott Sinclair, a veteran Air Force Civil Engineer Officer, served tours in Kuwait and Iraq, working to design and build facilities for the Iraqi Security Forces in Baghdad. He now puts his skills to use back in Minnesota, where he is the managing principal of National Facility Solutions, a company that specializes in engineering and designing energy-efficient and code-compliant buildings.  

Veteran Small Business Champion of the Year 

Dr. Denise Elizabeth Williams, assistant professor at Metropolitan State University (St. Paul) 

Dr. Denise Williams serves as an assistant professor of entrepreneurship and leadership at Metropolitan State University. She was the program director for the university’s “Build Your Dream” workshop, which offered information and advice about career paths in entrepreneurship and innovation to women veterans. She is also the CEO of DEW Consulting Group, a management firm which offers education, mentorship, and leadership development with a community focus. 

Women-Owned Small Business of the Year 

Anna Tsantir, owner and founder of Two Bettys Green Cleaning Service (Minneapolis) 

The daughter of immigrant entrepreneurs, Anna Tsantir has entrepreneurship in her blood. She founded Two Bettys Green Cleaning Service, an eco-friendly cleaning service for residential and small commercial clients, in 2007 with her late business partner, Sam Meyers, who passed away in 2013. Since then, Tsantir has been running the company on her own, and has grown it past the 100-employee mark. The company frequently supports local environmental, artistic, and social advocacy groups. 

Women’s Business Center of Excellence of the Year 

WomenVenture (Minneapolis) 

For over thirty years, WomenVenture has supported Minnesota women, helping them achieve their dreams of starting a small business or achieving economic success. In the 2016 fiscal year, WomenVenture helped women entrepreneurs launch or grow 614 small businesses that produced almost $50 million in sales and created or retained over 1,300 jobs. Over two-thirds of these women were from low- to moderate-income communities, and 32% were women of color. “We are continuously looking for innovative ways to help women entrepreneurs succeed,” Executive Director Elaine Wyatt told the Small Business Administration in a press release.  

Women Small Business Champion of the Year 

Buffie Blesi of We Spark Growth (Minneapolis) 

Buffie Blesi is the CEO and founder of We Spark Growth, which helps small businesses through providing office support, bookkeeping support, business coaching, and more. The goal is to free business owners from the small tasks that get in the way of creating new ideas and a greater vision for the company. “I found out that I have an undying love of helping people be financially self-sufficient,” Blesi writes on the company’s website. “And I figured out that I could make a difference in the world by intertwining my gift of the fix, my passion for learning and sharing what I know, and love of business for the power to change people’s lives.” 

Young Entrepreneur of the Year 

Dalton Outlaw, Founder and CEO of Element Gym (St. Paul) 

Dalton Outlaw is both a pro boxer and a small business owner. In 2011, he launched Element Gym (formerly Element Boxing and Fitness), a unique fitness center with a community focus. Element uses the sport of boxing to teach fitness, empower both young people and adults, and to give its members the discipline to channel their strength into productivity for the good of the community. “Our team will not stop until the community becomes a healthier place through the ventures, projects and programs we put towards our legacy,” states Element’s website. Outlaw was also recognized as one of Minnesota Business magazine’s Young Entrepreneurs in 2016.  


The Minnesota Small Business Administration will honor the 2017 award winners at a luncheon celebration on May 4, 2017, during Small Business Week.