Denise Pieratos, who grew up on the Bois Forte Chippewa reservation in northeastern Minnesota, started her career after Tower-Soudan High School as an iron miner.
Recession cost Pieratos her job in 1982 at the former U.S. Steel mine near Virginia. She enlisted in the Army for the G.I. Bill in order to finance the college education that always had seemed a distant dream.
"The recruiting sergeant looked at me like, 'What is this Indian woman doing?' " Pieratos recalled. "I scored so highly on the entrance test that he showed me a lot of jobs."
Pieratos became a Russian-language specialist in Army intelligence and rose to sergeant. And that wasn't the last time Pieratos surprised those who underestimated her.
She was a double-major honors student at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s, in fine art and graphics design.
Her mentor during an internship at Walt Disney Co. recommended architecture school. Pieratos won a scholarship to MIT in Boston. She earned a master's degree in 1998.
That led to a 12-year design career at architecture firms in Minneapolis and in New York City.
Pieratos, then a divorced mother of two, moved back to the reservation from New York in 2010 to care for her father, who was dying of heart disease and diabetes.
Pieratos attributed that to bad diet.
Pieratos, who is now 62, and three other Chippewa women are co-owners of Harvest Nation, which is leading a promising effort to build an indoor aeroponics farm that would serve hundreds of customers with fresh produce year-round from the reservation, near Tower and Lake Vermilion.
These entrepreneurs also were seeded in 2019 with a $35,000 feasibility grant by Blandin Foundation.
CEO Tuleah Palmer, president of Grand Rapids-based Blandin, praised Pieratos and noted that less than 5% of such investment lands in rural Minnesota and less than 1% with tribes.
"As I admire the work Ms. Pieratos has advanced, her ingenuity and determination, I wonder how many more people like her are out in Minnesota's small towns and villages without access to capital,'' Palmer said.
"Scarcity is a dangerous narrative; it is long overdue that that changes."
Harvest Nation, a semifinalist in the 2019 Minnesota Cup entrepreneur sweepstakes, has been working with a business-development mentor and is one of the 13 finalists this week in the third-annual Meda Million Dollar Challenge for minority-led firms.
The national competition, the largest such entrepreneurs-of-color competition in America, has resulted in $3 million invested in 12 minority businesses since 2019.
Other finalists have attracted post-competition growth capital.
"We're like 'Shark Tank' without the teeth," quipped Meda CEO Alfredo Martel. "2020 has been a tough year for most and to see these exciting companies persist is inspiring. We are excited to see the results of their hard work."
Dani Pieratos, 32, Denise's daughter and the sales and marketing director for Harvest Nation, said the four founders are encouraged by hundreds of reservation, commercial-and-residential Iron Rangers who have expressed interest in becoming fresh-produce customers.
"Our traditional, native-food economy was wrecked and we started eating all those mass-produced processed foods," said Dani Pieratos, who also works full time in food distribution for the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency.
"Investing in healthy bodies and minds is the best 'asset-management' strategy for any community."
Pieratos said Harvest Nation is talking to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources about siting a demonstration project of around $1 million, of a full-sized production farm inside the old Lake Vermilion-Soudan iron mine that would cost up to $4 million. The mine is managed as a state park by the DNR. The temperature is a near-constant 55 degrees.
Harvest members would pay about $50 per week for a big box of fresh vegetables weekly.
Aeroponics may be best demonstrated in Minnesota by "Living Greens" of Faribault. The company has raised millions of dollars to build a 7,000-square foot-building in the middle of farm country. It combines technology, agriculture and science to produce tons of year-round fresh salads, microgreens and herbs on 60,000 square feet of space, mostly elevated.
Aeroponics, a growing trend, uses misting and "dosing" systems to grow year-round crops that need 98% less land and 95% less water than traditional farming with no herbicides or pesticides.
The Harvest Nation founders want to generate green economic growth and better health on the range, to supplant some of what must be trucked in most of the year.
They also are seeking investors for their long-odds aeroponics farm.
Minneapolis-based Meda, a nonprofit adviser and financier, was founded in 1971 by business leaders to foster minority-business expansion. It has grown in recent years to serve businesses with total revenue of $1 billion and 6,000 employees.