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Among participants at a recent Million Cups event in Bismarck are, from left, Michael Schwieters, Chance Schmidt, Janelle Hartford and Kelsey Phillips.

Entrepreneurial engagement is surging in Bismarck-Mandan.

Any given Wednesday morning at Dakota Stage in Bismarck, 85 to 90 people gather for the weekly edition of 1 Million Cups, an event aimed at supporting startup companies in the community and state. When the event started five years ago, it attracted about 20 attendees.

Since the beginning of the year, attendance at the weekly event has doubled, organizer Janelle Hartford.

“There is, in Bismarck, a group of people wanting this type of event,” she said.

The event had good momentum already, but organizers have been working even harder to pique more people’s interest through live streaming and marketing, according to Hartford.

“It’s really picked up,” said Jared Stober, entrepreneurship program manager for the North Dakota Department of Commerce. “Rewind five years ago there wasn’t really anything (for entrepreneurs) — maybe a couple mixers here and there.”

Focusing on startups has brought in a different and growing crowd.

“One thing I’ve noticed since Janelle stepped into the organizer position is she’s been able to attract a wonderful, broad spectrum of speakers,” said Bismarck Mayor Mike Seminary, who regularly attends the event.

Hartford invites local entrepreneurs to speak but also those from Fargo and Grand Forks, infusing the Bismarck-Mandan entrepreneurial community with new ideas.

"For us to hear what's going on in other parts of the state, that gives us new perspectives," said Stober of companies that may not be on locals' radar. "The entrepreneurial ecosystem has grown and is going to continue to grow more diverse in Bismarck."

As the event has evolved, organizers have tried to cross sections with the arts community too. Each edition features what Hartford calls “Random Acts of Art."

Kayla Schmidt of the North Dakota Humanities Council came in to perform her short, four-act play — a romantic comedy set in North Dakota.

And the group gave away tickets to a production of "The Producers" by Bismarck State College’s theater program. Hartford said it’s an effort to highlight things going on in the community and get people to events they may not have otherwise attended.

For Bismarck-Mandan's creative crowd, an event called Makewell has served a similar purpose to 1 Million Cups, selling out event after event. Unique entertainers perform — a hula hoop artist, live painting — boost the creative atmosphere.

Organizer Ashton Hauff said creatives, especially in Bismarck, love what they do but were finding themselves trying to tackle issues alone.

"Nobody knew about each other because nobody gathered," Hauff said, and now having a place to do so has given them partners in helping combat those struggles.

Event attendees have since expanded geographically to include makers from across the state, Montana and Minnesota making up about a third of participants.

"When we started this was very much a Bismarck supported event," Hauff said. "We want to be a regional hub for makers."

The next event is a Workshop Marathon, the first Makewell is opening to the public, with 10 local creatives and small business owners — Crabapple Floral, Butterhorn, Brick Illustration — teaching their skills, from candlemaking to coffee tasting.

On a smaller scale, Makewell hosts local movie screenings and "Cash Mobs," an event held every other week where 10 to 20 participants all show up to shop at a local business. For example, they went to Peacock Alley to taste Edwinton Brewing beers that will be served at restaurateur Dale Zimmerman's brew across the street in The Depot when it opens. 

"The whole point for all these events is to connect entrepreneurs with each other," said Stober, pointing out that it is important for small business people who need a sounding board or place to share ideas.

Seminary said he sees this at 1 Million Cups, where upon entering Dakota Stage, the lobby is full before each presentation. Don't walk into the auditorium too soon, it will be empty. The entrepreneurs, in the lobby, are engaged in conversations about their latest business news.

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Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com

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