Our Story


Nicolet College currently leads a collaborative economic development partnership called The GRID (Guiding Rural Innovation and Development). Created in 2019, the GRID is structured as a department within the Economic and Community Development division of the college. The GRID acts as a one-stop connection to a wide-ranging list of business resources for entrepreneurs and small businesses in Northern Wisconsin. The GRID works with local community navigators to identify the most suitable business resources for entrepreneurs and small business owners to meet their specific situations and type of business.

The GRID region consists of eight underserved rural counties of North Central Wisconsin (Florence, Forest, Langlade, Lincoln, Marinette, Oconto, Oneida, and Vilas Counties) and includes three tribal communities (Forest County Potawatomi, Lac Du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and the Sokaogon Chippewa Community). Rural areas of North Central Wisconsin often lack adequate broadband access and typically are not reached by awareness and communication campaigns from organizations that provide business resources, thus residents are unaware of services and programs that are available and are unlikely to reach out for assistance.

To ensure reaching targeted businesses, a focused direct outreach effort will be conducted by trusted and knowledgeable community navigators. Navigators are local champions for businesses within their communities and are equipped with the knowledge of relevant federal, state, and local relief programs. Local navigators meet business owners where they are to discuss their needs, challenges, and concerns. Following an in-depth assessment of needs, navigators will provide direct assistance to entrepreneurs and business owners to assist them in accessing appropriate resources and specialized support (e.g., accounting, tax, financial, legal services) available through the GRID’s extensive network of business mentors, counselors, and public and private resource partners.


The GRID’s mission is to promote entrepreneurship and small business growth in North Central Wisconsin by networking and strengthening the innovation community and connecting business builders to the resources, education, expertise, and social connections they need to succeed.

Toni Van Doren

Meet Toni Van Doren is the Innovation Center Manager at Nicolet College and Manager of the GRID.  Toni is a Certified Program Planner, a certified facilitator, has a certificate in project leadership, and is a Six-Sigma certified green belt in project management. In other words, she is rocking it here at Nicolet College and the GRID! All while juggling everything extremely well!

Thomas Wartman (Tommy)

Tommy Wartman is the Project Coordinator for the GRID and the Wisconsin Northwoods Navigators (WiNN) Grant.  Tommy has a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences in Business and Psychology. Tommy is highly skilled in operations and process management, has an amazing ability to streamline processes, and is a spreadsheet guru!! In addition, Tommy brings the perspective of being a small business owner from Minnesota.

Angi Schreiber

Angi Schreiber is the Operations Assistant for the GRID and the Wisconsin Northwoods Navigator (WiNN) Grant at Nicolet College. Angi has a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with an emphasis in Public Administration. Angi’s background consists of entrepreneurship, small business, and community development and offers experience in strategic planning, event planning, and marketing. She has a strong passion for small business development and can manage challenging situations professionally and effectively.

Nicolet College and Economic Development Partners Receive $1 Million Grant to Advance Economic Development in the Northwoods

Nicolet College and several regional economic development partners will have significant financial resources to serve entrepreneurs and small businesses in the Northwoods thanks to a $1 million grant the college received from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).

Nicolet College and their partners came together to apply for this grant in July of 2021. The college will serve as the lead organization and project coordinator. Outreach services and small business assistance will be provided through the partners, which include the Florence, Langlade, Oneida, and Vilas County Economic Development Corporations, Grow North Regional Economic Development Corporation, Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council Inc., and the Lac Du Flambeau Tribal Community through their Business Development Center.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for us to open access to resources and provide training and support to small businesses in virtually all corners of our Northwoods region,” said Sandy Bishop, Nicolet executive director for Economic and Community Development. “Without question, this generous grant will help with small business recovery and growth which are essential for a vibrant Northwoods economy.”

The Small Business Administration announced that out of 700 applications, 51 had been awarded funding.

“Project activities will address the needs of the smallest and most underserved businesses throughout rural northern Wisconsin, a region with a high concentration of businesses in the tourism and hospitality sectors.” said Toni Van Doren, Nicolet’s manager of Innovation and Business Development. “These businesses and communities were particularly hard-hit by the pandemic and are struggling to adapt to post-pandemic consumer expectations.”

By leveraging the power of The GRID, an innovation-focused regional economic development partnership, Nicolet College will collaborate with a network of economic development organizations, other regional stakeholders, and statewide resource providers, to support an array of project activities to immediately aid in business recovery, stimulate innovation and lead to a vibrant, more diversified and resilient economy.

“The Community Navigator Pilot Program is a crucial addition to our SBA programs because it helps us to connect with small businesses that have historically been underserved or left behind. These businesses – the smallest of the small in rural and urban America, and those owned by women, people of color, or veterans – have suffered the greatest economic loss from this pandemic,” said SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman. “We’ll be using a hub and spoke model in local regions across the nation to bridge the gap between local entrepreneurs and SBA’s resources and programs. If we’re going to build back better, we need to ensure that all entrepreneurs have the support they need to recover.”

The program offers funding to nonprofits, state and local governments, colleges and universities, and tribal entities to partner with SBA at the center of a hub and spoke network. These hubs then support spoke organizations and individuals, who will connect to specific sectors of the entrepreneurial community to provide assistance during the economic recovery.

In February of 2021, Congress met to provide a blueprint for assistance to small businesses with provisions under the American Rescue Plan. Members of Congress met with constituents to discover at local levels the impact of the pandemic and the effect it is having on businesses that may have been left out in early rounds of relief.

In May of 2021, the SBA announced that it would be launching the new Community Navigator Pilot Program. This new initiative, established by the American Rescue Plan, leverages a community navigator approach to reach our nation’s smallest businesses, with a priority focus on those owned by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals, as well as women and veterans.

The project builds on existing relationships among The GRID’s partners, local service providers, and their networks of trusted, community, and culturally knowledgeable mentors and will equip these “navigators” with the resources, tools, and training necessary to provide exemplary support for business builders and provide focused outreach efforts to engage underserved businesses, including those in the region’s three tribal communities.

Our Funding Support

The GRID operates with the generous funding of donors and corporations, federal and state grants, partner in-kind contributions, and a legion of volunteers seeking to impact the regional economy by fostering a culture of innovation. Major funding sources: