Beyond BHM: Voerding tapped to lead Initiative Foundation | Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose Schools
March 8, 2024

Beyond BHM: Voerding tapped to lead Initiative Foundation

Montrose native applying lessons learned at BHM

“I don’t volunteer to make myself feel good. I volunteer (because) one person can make a difference in someone’s life.”

Brian Voerding, a 2001 graduate of Buffalo High School, shared that thought in a feature article about students serving others in the 2000 edition of the BHS Tatanka yearbook. 

Two decades later, Voerding has earned his way to a key position that allows him to help others on a scale far grander than he may have ever imagined as a high school junior. 

In November of 2023 the Montrose native was named president of the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting the people, businesses and organizations of a 14-county region in Central Minnesota, including Wright County.

Voerding said his success is the fruit of a growing process that started in Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose Schools, continued through college and early work as a journalist and entrepreneur, and ultimately led to his current role.

“I had a great experience at Hamlin, where I went to college, but some of the teachers in Buffalo had a more profound impact in my life and where I am today,” Voerding said.

Starting in Montrose
As the president of an organization dedicated to helping rural communities thrive by supporting local entrepreneurs, businesses and organizations, Voerding now has the perspective to fully appreciate what a local school can mean.

“Something I think about much more deeply now as an adult who does rural economic development is the fact that there was an elementary school within walking distance of our home that really built a community around it,” Voerding said. “That’s such a powerful, vital thing for any community, especially a smaller community. When you’re 7 or 8 years old you don’t realize what a special experience it is to be part of a small crew of kids just collecting each other in the neighborhood and walking to school.”

Voerding remembered music teacher El Gervasio being a particular influence, as well as rich experiences with spelling bees, plays and other extracurriculars.

“The opportunity to explore a lot of different things at a young age was really important. I loved that about Montrose Elementary,” he said.

Growing as a leader
Given the strong sense of community cultivated in his early Montrose years, Voerding recalled some trepidation about starting middle school in Buffalo. 

“But I think there was a lot of really good thinking around connecting the Montrose kids to different activities, thinking about the classes, thinking about supporting them, and building social connections,” Voerding said. “From a social standpoint, I felt like it was easy to integrate, and some of my best friends ended up being from Buffalo.”

In high school, Voerding said all of his teachers, but particularly those in the music and English departments, began to shape him into the leader he has become. He developed into a standout trumpet player in the concert and jazz bands, went to state with the Knowledge Bowl team, joined mock trial, and pitched and played first base for the baseball team.

“There was an investment in all of us as learners, as leaders and as humans,” Voerding said, naming former English teacher Joel Squadroni and band director Lee Kjesbo as particular influences. “It was a really expansive experience that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. They held us accountable for our own growth and gave us opportunities to explore who we were and what we wanted to be. They helped us see how we could use those things we were really passionate about to contribute to the places and people that we planned to be around after high school.

“Reflecting on that now, 20-plus years later, I still feel so much gratitude for having such a positive, powerful experience with folks who cared so deeply about the kids they were educating. I mention those two teachers because I loved music and English and that’s where I invested most of my time, but across the board, I had really good experiences with everyone.”

Although he was reluctant to take on leadership roles, Voerding said his teachers saw the potential in him, prompted him forward, and helped prepare him for success in that capacity. 

“In music I learned deeply what it meant to be part of a really effective high-performing team of people, what it meant to really listen hard, to be responsive, and to collaborate with other people, even if we had very different ideas of how to proceed,” Voerding said.

While musical endeavors were particularly helpful in that regard, those points of emphasis were not limited to the band room, and they are still reflected in the school’s core values today.

“I know that was a rich part of the culture of education at Buffalo High School: teaching kids to find what they love and what they want to pursue, but to also do that in a way where they are accountable and a model for others,” Voerding said.  

College and career
Inspired by Squadroni and former BHS creative writing teacher Jean Pehl, Voerding left for college at Hamline University intending to pursue a future in writing. On the way to earning degrees in behavioral psychology and music history, Voerding also started writing for the weekly Hamline newspaper and found his career of choice.

Following graduation, he went to work for the Winona Daily News for a few years, then returned to the Twin Cities area to freelance and became one of the first reporters at Minnpost. Eventually he returned to Winona to marry Mollee, who is now his wife of 15 years, and he became the editor of Winona Daily News from 2011-17. 

While at the newspaper, he participated in a Blandin Foundation community leadership program, which led to a group of Winona individuals starting a non-profit called Engage Winona. Voerding then left the newspaper to become the organization’s first executive director, and helped it grow substantially for four years. The next step to the Initiative Foundation was a natural one, and he was hired as its vice president for inclusive entrepreneurship in 2021 before assuming his current role as president.

Foundation president
“This was a really incredible opportunity to come back to the region where I grew up and do the same work on a larger scale,” Voerding said. “We walk alongside our rural communities to support their long-term vitality anywhere we can. We make loans and grants, we train people, we support nonprofits, and we support entrepreneurs and folks starting businesses for the first time.”

In the sense that his current mission is to build strong communities, Voerding says his work is not unlike that done by a school district.

“The Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose School District creates really good people who contribute to the world,” he said. “I’m grateful to be part of this much larger story. All of the opportunities I was given – the chance to be well-educated and prepared – have led to where I am today.”

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