Varilek to Lead Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development

Initiative Foundation president transitions to top state economic development role in June; search for successor will soon be underway.

Matt Varilek headshot
Matt Varilek to take over as Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development commissioner in June.
Contributed / Initiative Foundation

ST. PAUL — Matt Varilek, president of the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation, will lead the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

"Having grown up in a lower-income household, I'm passionate about helping more people enjoy greater economic prosperity,” Varilek said in a news release. “I'm deeply grateful to Governor Walz and Lieutenant Governor Flanagan for the opportunity to join the talented team at DEED at this pivotal moment. The department has just been entrusted with an unprecedented set of tools and resources, and I'm eager to help put them to work for the benefit of businesses, workers, and families across Minnesota." 

Gov. Tim Walz announced Varilek's appointment Thursday, May 25. Varilek will replace Kevin McKinnon, who has been serving as temporary commissioner since March. The Department of Employment and Economic Development is the state’s principal economic development agency, promoting business recruitment, expansion and retention, workforce development, international trade, and community development.

“From strengthening the economy and communities of Greater Minnesota to advocating for small businesses on the federal level, Matt Varilek brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his new role driving our state’s economy forward," Walz said in a news release. "I look forward to working with him to grow Minnesota’s strong, vibrant, and diverse economy and support our workers and businesses.”

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Varilek was named Initiative Foundation president in 2016. Prior to joining the Initiative Foundation, he served as chief operating officer for the U.S. Small Business Administration in Washington, D.C. His transition to the DEED commissioner role will occur on June 20.


“Matt Varilek is a steady, thoughtful leader who brings tremendous experience driving economic development and prosperity in diverse communities across the state,” said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. “Having partnered with him to advance family economic security and child care in the past, I am confident in Matt’s ability to work within and across communities — from Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities to our tribal nations – to build a more equitable and inclusive economy that works for all Minnesotans.”

Previously, Varilek was the chief operating officer for the U.S. Small Business Administration, a regional administrator for U.S. SBA Region VIII, and a candidate for Congress for the at-large district of South Dakota. Varilek was also an economic development director and speechwriter for the offices of U.S. Senators Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson and served as the director of policy and research for Natsource LLC.

Varilek earned his bachelor's degree from Carleton College, his Master of Philosophy in economic development from the University of Glasgow, and his Master of Philosophy in environment and development from the University of Cambridge.

“Matt has been a tremendous friend, leader and organizational culture-builder for the Initiative Foundation,” said Kim Ellingson, chair of the Initiative Foundation Board of Trustees, in a news release. “While his transition will be bittersweet, we’re in full support of his appointment as DEED commissioner. His steady and inclusive leadership style, and his experience and focused work on small business, workforce development, childcare and more will translate perfectly to an agency that influences economic development in every corner of Minnesota.”

As part of its succession planning, the Initiative Foundation Board of Trustees anticipates naming an interim president and will undertake a professionally supported search for Varilek’s successor. Details about the search will follow in the weeks ahead.

“The Initiative Foundation has never been stronger,” Ellingson said. “Our board and staff are fully committed to serving the region without interruption during this time of transition.”

Reactions to the appointment, included:

“Matt brings an incredible background for this role, including experience with state and federal policy, deep relationships in business, nonprofits and foundations, and an important perspective from rural Minnesota,” said Minnesota Council on Foundations President Susie Brown, in a news release. “I’m so pleased that Minnesota’s philanthropic community has a strong and positive relationship with Commissioner Varilek. We look forward to working with him and the DEED team to support Minnesota’s economic development opportunities.”


“Matt Varilek is a true leader and a consistent champion for businesses in Greater Minnesota,” said Joe Nayquonabe, Commissioner of Corporate Affairs for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, in a news release. “He was a driving force behind the Enterprise Academy program within the Mille Lacs Tribal Economy and as CEO of the Initiative Foundation, he led a convening of other foundations across the state, promoting a ‘better together’ mentality. I’m confident he’ll bring that same leadership to the office of DEED and create an environment of innovation and growth.”

“When I served as board chair of the Initiative Foundation, I got to see Matt’s steady and inclusive leadership style in action – welcoming diverse voices and helping to find a direction everyone could feel good about,” said Wyoming Machine, Inc. Co-President Traci Tapani. “As a business owner, I’m excited that he brings extensive knowledge of workforce development, small business lending, and other issues that are important to businesses, large and small.  Matt is exceptionally well equipped to work productively with the business community as DEED’s next leader, and I congratulate Governor Walz and Lieutenant Governor Flanaganon a great choice.”

For more details about the agency and its services, visit the DEED website at

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