Kelsy Johnson
Kari Warberg Block (Submitted photo)

She has owned eight different businesses, from a lemonade stand to a successful manufacturing company. The entrepreneurial itch drove her to follow the ideas that were most important to her.

In January, Kari Warberg Block took the knowledge and experience gained from a lifetime of success and failure as an entrepreneur and brought it all to Fargo for the North Dakota Women's Startup Weekend.

Block is the founder and CEO of Earth-Kind, a company that specializes in non-toxic rodent control. She has won several state and national awards, including the Ernst & Young Entrepreneurial Winning Women award and the 2013 North Dakota Small Business Person of the Year.

Her journey to entrepreneurial success wasn't easy. As a child, she attended a different school every year, finding herself a year or two behind her peers. She was told she would never go to college.

Then, she found her passion. A mouse crawled up her pant leg while she was in the cab of a tractor on her family farm, and she was hit with a dilemma. She wanted keep rodents away from the farm equipment but she didn't want to kill them.

"I was p----- off enough at the time to do something about it," Block said in her kickoff speech. "Thousands of others were p----- off, but I did something about it."

That was in the year 2000. Now, Block owns a company with a headquarters in Bismarck, a manufacturing facility in Minnesota and a global market. Her patented product, Fresh Cab, is sold internationally and it is Environmental Protection Agency certified.

Building the ecosystem

As a nature lover, Block describes the conditions needed to succeed in business as an ecosystem. Each organism has to find its own niche in order to survive.

"Community support for entrepreneurship is paramount," she said. "It has to be celebrated when you succeed."

North Dakota provides many of the conditions necessary for entrepreneurs to succeed and has ranked near the top nationally as a result. Forbes listed the state as the second most business-friendly state in the country, and CNBC ranked it at number three.

Fueled by economic expansion in the oil and natural gas industry, North Dakota offers a lot of opportunity for people to start small businesses. Block says one of the keys to this ideal climate is that the economy is diversified across many business sectors. This makes it easier for people with big ideas to find a place where they fit.

Block sits on several boards and committees that support small business owners. She serves on the advisory board for Pride of Dakota and was the chair of the Women's Business Center, a program funded by the federal government and the North Dakota Department of Commerce. She now mentors informally through the Women's Business Center, providing feedback one-on-one with new female entrepreneurs. Giving back to support other entrepreneurs does more than just help others. It improves the economy, as well.

"All of us come together with diverse backgrounds to help restart our economy," Block said. "It's all about rebuilding our ecosystem."

Startup events are especially beneficial for women, who make up the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the world. Startup Weekend organizers noticed, however, that very few women actually participate in events. To combat the problem, they decided to host weekends especially catered to female entrepreneurs.

"It's important for female entrepreneurs to see other female entrepreneurs succeed. Then you can believe you can do it," Block said. "Women are more inclined to use role models than men."

Sharing lessons learned

The Women's Startup Weekends are staffed by volunteer coaches from across the technology and business sectors, and they're sponsored by local businesses. A number of sponsors jumped at the opportunity to sponsor the weekend in Fargo.

Startup Weekend brings all of the resources would-be entrepreneurs need to build on an idea under one roof. The weekend starts off with opening pitches. Anyone with a business idea can pitch to the group, and the best ideas are chosen. The participants form teams around the chosen ideas, and they work throughout the weekend to develop them.

Coaches help teams work on their business plan while utilizing their own networks and experience to save the participants time and money. They discuss intellectual property rights, marketing and other important factors. Startup Weekend gives women the encouragement to take risks and the support to avoid costly errors.

At the end of the weekend, teams present their final product to a panel of judges.

In her kickoff speech at the Women's Startup Weekend in Fargo, Block shared some of her business knowledge with the participants.

She told the participants to narrow down their focus to just the things they are most passionate about. The most successful people do a couple of things. Block admitted that, by not saying "no," she has wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars in her business.

"You must know when to say 'no,'" she said. "We only have so much time."

Block said events like the North Dakota Women's Startup Weekend reignite the passion for entrepreneurship, even among seasoned veterans. Using her experience as a model, she helped provide the framework for other women with big ideas to follow their passion, as well.

"It's not as hard as you think once you see it," she said.

Kelsy Johnson, a native of Bismarck, works as a freelance reporter and nonprofit writer in Fargo. She divides her time between her two passions: storytelling and martial arts.