Bemidji graduate Joel Peterson nominated for prestigious entrepreneurial award (2024)

Joel Peterson got a taste of the business world when he was a student at Bemidji High School. As part of the industrial arts program, half his school day was spent at a trade-related job.

In Peterson’s case, that meant punching in at the Gambles store for an afternoon shift, assembling and repairing lawnmowers and bicycles.

Fast forward some 40 years and Peterson has turned that early business experience into a world-class operation. As founder and chief executive officer of iSpace Environments, a Minneapolis-based company, Peterson has been nominated by Ernst & Young as an Entrepreneur Of The Year award finalist in the seven-state Heartland Region.

The winner will be announced at a June 20 celebration, then move on to be considered for the national Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

Peterson started the company in 1993 at the age of 27, selling office furniture. It has since expanded to include architectural design, technology and professional services, operating around the globe with 100 employees. Its revenues exceed $60 million a year.


“In the last five years we’ve installed projects in 1,100 zip codes outside the state of Minnesota, and in seven countries,” Peterson said.

Not a bad resume for a kid who used to pick used clothes out of a donation bin at Oak Hills Christian College, where his parents worked as missionaries.

Now 58, Peterson plans to convert iSpace Environments into an employee-owned company at the end of this month.

“That’s always been my dream for my succession plan,” he said.

From rags to riches

Joel was the youngest of five children in a family that lived at Oak Hills.

“We had no money,” he said. “We were brought up on government milk and cheese. They used to have a thing called the Missionary Barrel where people would come and drop off their used clothes, and then missionaries could come and dig through it when they were home on furlough. And guess where I used to get my clothes?”

Peterson attended grade school at Horace May and graduated from Bemidji High School in 1983. He found the BHS industrial arts program to his liking.

“You went through that program assuming you were going to work in the trades for the rest of your life,” he said. “I think besides an English requirement and a math requirement I took all industrial arts classes. Then once you got to a certain point in the program half your day was being embedded in a trade-related job, almost like an internship. So I did that, which has nothing to do with owning and starting my own business.”

He also joined the BHS downhill ski team and remembers life lessons learned from his coach, Dick Phelps.

“Some of what I learned from him has transferred into running my own business,” Peterson said. “He just really taught me a lot about goal setting. I was really out of shape and overweight, and he taught me a lot about holding myself accountable and treating myself better, setting some goals around it. His influence on me has stuck with me in my adult life as a business leader.”

Phelps, now a Realtor in Bemidji, said Peterson was a quiet team member.

“But he was a listener,” Phelps recalled. “I knew the wheels were turning. He wasn’t the best skier on the team, but he was constantly trying to find a way to be better. Joel worked his butt off, and he turned out to be a pretty good skier. He was more of a visionary, and maybe that’s what helped him in business.”

From the ground up

Peterson enrolled at Bemidji State University for his first two years of college, studying marketing and economics while also starting his first business.

“I started organizing spring break trips to Mazatlan,” he said. “It was called College Tours. By the time I got out of it, I think we were taking 3,000 kids out of 68 different colleges out of MSP. That’s when I first got an appetite for starting, building and owning my own business.”

Bemidji graduate Joel Peterson nominated for prestigious entrepreneurial award (2)

Contributed / Aaron Smith, Smitty's Workshop

He did that while continuing his college education at St. Cloud State, and kept College Tours going until he was 23.

“That’s when I first pivoted and got into the business that I’m currently in,” Peterson said.


His parents had relocated to Minneapolis, and his mother worked at an office furniture company.

After visiting his mom at work, he became intrigued with the business.

“I went to some leadership at that company and said, ‘I want to learn about this business.’” Peterson said. “They said I had to start out in the field to learn it from the ground up.”

He started as a furniture installer, then moved into sales, and within a year became the No. 1 sales rep.

The company eventually ran into financial problems, and Peterson decided to go out on his own, creating WorkPlace, the company that has morphed into iSpace Environments. Its client list includes all of Polaris Corporation’s offices, Piper Sandler investment bank, and Arctic Wolf Networks, a cybersecurity company. Its fastest-growing division furnishes car dealerships throughout the region.

When Bemidji’s Sanford Center was built in 2010, iSpace furnished the ballroom and meeting rooms.

“I’m proud to say that from 2019 to today we’ve basically doubled the size of the company,” Peterson said. “We’ve done that by our team’s ability to pivot. I have the greatest team of employees and the greatest leadership team that is going to do great things with this business into the future.”

Bemidji graduate Joel Peterson nominated for prestigious entrepreneurial award (2024)
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