Building Fort Wayne's creative economy with data

In the last decade, Minnesota has become the top state in the nation for per capita public funding for the arts.

This is largely thanks to the state’s Legacy Amendment, which has provided $200 million to artists and arts organizations since 2009, fueling an explosive creative economy with innovative projects and active community theatres. Jasmine Russell

For the past four years, Jasmine Russell, 31, has enjoyed this atmosphere firsthand.

A former Fort Wayne resident and Northrop High School graduate, Russell moved to Minneapolis in 2014 to pursue opportunities in the evolving field of digital analytics.

While there, she started working with creative individuals and community leaders as a curator for TEDxMinneapolis, and she discovered something missing in the state’s creative growth.

Although organizations and individuals had the funding to pursue projects, they didn’t have the strategic data and technology acumen to learn what was working and how to maximize their results.

So Russell and two fellow creatives, Kurt Blomberg, 32, and Cassie Utt, 28, combined their interests in the arts and technology to launch a new venture called Monicat Data, “The Business Behind Creativity.”

Today, their work involves helping creative businesses—both individuals and organizations—with three core services: Strategy, Data Management & Research, and Technology Design & Tool Development.

As Russell and her co-founders look to expand Monicat beyond Minnesota, they're considering Fort Wayne as a potential market.

“There are so many things developing in Fort Wayne’s creative economy,” Russell says. “Small- to mid-size cities in the Midwest are really being overlooked for creative progress, and with cities like Fort Wayne, there’s so much opportunity.”

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Russell to learn more about her business, her path in the tech industry, and her interest in bringing Monicat Data back to her hometown.

Russell was the speaker curator and emcee for TEDxMinneapolis from 2015-2017.

IFW: Tell us about your background. What was it like growing up in Fort Wayne?

JR: It was a fun time, growing up.

I was born in Westchester, Pennsylvania, and my family moved to Fort Wayne when I was about three, so I pretty much grew up in Fort Wayne. Most of my family is still there.

I went to Northrop High School, Shawnee Middle School, and Memorial Park Elementary.

My grandma, Thelma Russell, owned the Gingerbread House in Fort Wayne, where she ran the pre-school for many years, so my family is connected to the community.

I grew up simultaneously being involved in the arts and sports. I did visual arts, musical arts (the clarinet), and sang with the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir.

I also danced at a studio that is still run by my cousins, SheeKriStyle Dance Academy of Dance, and I did track and field in high school, which was very competitive.

IFW: After college, you became a young part-time MBA, working two jobs in Indianapolis while pursuing your masters at IUPUI, Kelley School of Business. How did that lead you to starting your own company?

JR: I’ve always wanted to master one thing at a time, so throughout grad school, I stuck with my data focus.

Then, in my spare time in Indianapolis, I attended networking events where I talked with local leaders and technologists about data being used in alternative models and industries.

These events and conversations provided me with a grounded perspective of where I wanted to go after grad school.

Once I came to Minnesota, similar conversations with creatives here continued to shape my view of the need for strategy, data, and technology support in the creative economy.

My fellow co-founders, Kurt, Cassie, and I all shared that desire to focus on an industry we care deeply about.

Kurt has a background in dance and education. (He danced professionally for six years.)

Cassie has a background in computer science and vocal performance. (She is an opera performer in her spare time.)

Together, we realized that although creative businesses bring great joy and inspiration to communities, they’re often some of the most overlooked businesses, as far as processes and operational support goes. So we created Monicat to fill that gap.

Monicat Data hosts data and technology workshops in Minneapolis.

IFW: You launched Monicat Data in September 2016. How did you get started?

JR: When we originally launched, we were super scrappy—while at the same time, putting in the work to do our research.

We reached out to state art boards, creative individuals, funding organizations, event planners, entertainment labels—key people who were part of the area’s larger creative economy.

We asked them questions like: How do you operate? And what are key issues you see with your creative systems?

We saw that creative businesses don’t always receive the support they need due to being understaffed, under-resourced, or unaware of the opportunities.

There’s a whole business behind what creatives do that needs stability, and that’s really our focus: Providing stability to creative businesses.

IFW: How does Monicat help creative businesses achieve stability? Russell was featured as one of the Power 50 by Minnesota Business magazine in 2017.

JR: We’re helping creative businesses of all sizes enhance their daily tasks and operations with data management and technology solutions.

As a creative, there’s often a process of being inspired and working out of creative inspiration. Or even as a nonprofit that supports creative businesses, you might find yourself selecting projects to fund based on the notoriety of a particular artist rather than a sound interest from the community.

But with data, you can analyze the sales and realize how you can reach audiences better or build out your management systems to create new revenue streams for your work.

IFW: Can you give us a few examples of projects you’ve done so far?

JR: We’ve worked with entertainment labels, like Rhymesayers Entertainment, and groups like the Local Initiative Support Corporation with creative placemaking reporting. We’ve also worked with organizations like Forecast Public Art in developing a Learning Management System, or the Theater Mu in helping them to develop their backend CRM system.

Theater Mu has provided an incredible platform for the last 25 years, but they needed additional support with their backend systems to foster better communication within their team.

As for Forecast Public Art, over the past 13 months, we’ve worked in partnership with their team to develop a pilot learning management system (LMS). This will help expand their consultancy to more small- to mid-size cities.

IFW: Speaking of expanding, you’re looking to expand Monicat. What makes you interested in Fort Wayne?

JR: In cities like Fort Wayne, there’s so much potential for creative economies to grow.

I came back to attend Design Week Fort Wayne this year, and it was such an incredible platform for the creative economy.

It’s exciting to see the momentum that’s being built with groups like Wunderkammer Company and the public art around downtown. There’s so much opportunity for the community to support these groups and push them forward.

One question we have with small- to mid-size cities is: How can they collaborate in more long-term 20- or 30-year comprehensive vision projects?

That’s where data and technology solutions can really support cities—not only on a per-project basis, but in developing long-term strategies. It’s planning in a way that truly builds the creative economy and moves beyond singular projects to foster a support system for creative groups.

Russell, second from the right, presented at the Minneapolis MAD Women Creators event.

IFW: What would it take to bring Monicat to Fort Wayne, and how soon could we see something like that happen?

JR: Right now, we’re focusing our expansion on the Midwest region. That means, identifying the core needs of creative businesses in small- to mid-size cities and seeing where Monicat Data can serve those organizations.

As far as potential collaborators or clients go, we’re looking for groups or individuals who are not only helping themselves, but also supporting the community around them by elevating the work of city’s surrounding creativity.

We’re also seeking out strategists in Fort Wayne who have data and technology acumen as well as a passion for the creative economy and businesses there, moving them forward.

Jasmine Russell, center, is the co-founder of Monicat Data in Minneapolis.

IFW: Along with your work at Monicat and on a new project called the Fourth Wall, what are some of the other developments you’re excited about in the tech industry?

JR: I’m excited about a venture capitalist out west. Her name is Arlan Hamilton, she has developed a venture capital fund geared toward people of color.

There’s a guy named Mondo Davison, also known as “The Black Tech Guy” based here in Minneapolis who just created the Safe Space app, aiding those who feel like they are in threatening positions with police violence and allowing them to use an app reporting their level of safety.

Another local company in Minneapolis, called Upsie by Clarence Bethea, is disrupting the warranty industry, helping consumers buy and track warranty plans within affordable prices.

The tech industry really does crossover into multiple fields, and that includes the work Monicat Data is providing for creative businesses.  

You can really carve your own path within the tech industry. The opportunities are boundless.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about her hometown and its ongoing revival. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
Signup for Email Alerts