Want to start or expand a small business in Fort Wayne? Two new programs can help

If you have an idea for a business in Fort Wayne, where do you go to make it a reality?

While the Summit City has many organizations and services that support entrepreneurs, navigating the web of what’s available can be confusing.

Some services are only for specific types of entrepreneurs or businesses. Other services meet with early-stage entrepreneurs one-on-one. But there hasn’t been a way for a cohort of people to learn business basics in a class environment. That is, until now.

SEED Fort Wayne, formerly known as the Urban Enterprise Association (UEA), is offering solutions for local residents who aspire to entrepreneurship.

“We have a universal way to address early-stage, back-of-the-napkin business ideas, people who say: I have an idea to start a business; where do I go?” explains Trois Hart, Director of SEED Fort Wayne.

Trois Hart of SEED Fort Wayne speaks at a news conference for the Summit City Match.

The acronym SEED (Summit City Entrepreneur and Enterprise District) refers to the seven-square-miles of neighborhood corridors and industrial areas managed by the UEA.

Hart says the organization has recently changed its name to reflect its expanded mission, focusing on not only revitalizing and spurring economic development in the area, but also investing in its entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Thanks to changes in state legislation that have allowed for additional grant funding, SEED is bringing two successful programs from Detroit, Michigan, to Fort Wayne inspire more equitable entrepreneurship in the Summit City.

The first program they’re replicating is called the Build Institute.

Started in 2012 by Founder and Executive Director April Boyle, Build Institute helps people use entrepreneurship to build wealth and ownership as a path to prosperity. Its core offerings include an eight-week, neighborhood-based business and project-planning courses taught by local small business owners.

The first cohort of Build Institute Fort Wayne classes launched in the spring of 2019.

Build classes cover business basics, like financial literacy, market research, and cash flow. They’re aimed at small businesses with fewer than five employees and revenues less than $100,000, Crain’s Detroit reports.

Hart says the program’s focus on working with early-stage businesses in a cohort environment is what appealed to her about replicating the program in Fort Wayne.

“One of the top reasons why entrepreneurs fail is the isolation around their work,” she says. “Having a cohort-based group is one way of addressing that isolation.”

Fort Wayne’s program, known as Build Institute Fort Wayne, is the Detroit-based Build’s first foray outside of Michigan, and it’s first classes are already underway.

In February, SEED hosted representatives from Detroit to train 10 local facilitators. The first cohort of 13 entrepreneurs is set to graduate on May 29th, led by Cozey Baker, a founding member of Fort Wayne's Black Chamber of Commerce, and Michelle Chambers, a serial entrepreneur and Fort Wayne’s City Clerk.

Hart says SEED is adapting Build’s model in a few key ways to fit its needs, as well, including having two facilitators per class instead of one.

“You’re twice as likely to capture the message or connect with the facilitator,” she says. “Plus, it provides more access for interaction during and after the program.”

SEED helps potential entrepreneurs access resources and connections in the city.

Another thing they’re adding is a two-step strengths-finding process to help participants identify personal talents and talent gaps throughout their journey to entrepreneurship.

“It’s two steps because they’ll take one strengths-finder during the class, and then, three to six months after they graduate, we’re going to offer another strengths-finder specially designed for entrepreneurs,” she says.

Once participants graduate from the Build program, they will be better equipped to venture into Fort Wayne’s ecosystem of other resources for entrepreneurs, Hart says. They might even be ready to make their businesses a reality with a brick-and-mortar space.

When they are, SEED is launching another program to help them out and tackle its goal of revitalizing the city’s enterprise district corridors at the same time.

The Summit City Match is based on a program called the Motor City Match in Detroit.

If you’ve driven into downtown Fort Wayne on South Calhoun Street or other corridors, you’ve probably become familiar with the sight of some empty storefronts lining the streets.

As downtown thrives and the neighborhoods around it see new investment, these buildings near the urban core feel largely left behind, but not for long.

In April, SEED launched a second program called the Summit City Match designed to pair Fort Wayne entrepreneurs with commercial spaces on South Calhoun Street between Murray Street and Rudisill Boulevard.

The pilot program is funded by the City of Fort Wayne and a grant from the JPMorgan Chase & Co. as well as the support of several local organizations.

Hart says the goal is simple: to match business owners who need space with building owners who need tenants.

“It’s corridor revitalization and grassroots connection with small business startups,” she explains. “To me, that is just so logical. In some cases, the building owners do not have relators representing their spaces, so when people are looking for space, these buildings aren’t listed. We want to help them get views.”

Local leaders discuss ideas for the Summit City Match's pilot program.

The Summit City Match is modeled after the Motor City Match, which Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation started in 2015. As of 2018, Motor City Match has supported 113 businesses with about $5 million, stimulating $28 million in additional loans and investments, according to the Detroit Free Press.

On top of that, 75 percent of the businesses it supports are minority-owned, and 54 percent are owned by minority women.

Like the Motor City Match, the Summit City Match will give priority to small business owners who are women or people of color, Hart says. The pilot program intends to grant a total of $200,000 in an effort to leverage more than $500,000 in investments to support the development of these small businesses, a press release explains.

While the official matches are anticipated to take place in August 2019, both building owners and entrepreneurs have a low-risk opportunity to test their concepts during a summer Pop-Up program.

The pop-up will function as a temporary version of the Summit City Match, filling spaces along South Calhoun Street with retail businesses for residents to enjoy during Fort Wayne’s annual Open Streets Festival.

Pop-up businesses may be open for as long as one month, but there is no promise that they will be chosen for the permanent program. Even so, it is possible that they could transition to permanent businesses at the same location or elsewhere, a press release says.

Hart explains that if the Summit City Match’s pilot program on South Calhoun Street is successful, it could be expanded to other parts of the city. Along with supporting entrepreneurs, it plays an important role in revitalizing neighborhoods and addressing systemic challenges so all of Fort Wayne can rise together.

“These corridors are the front doors to our neighborhoods, so strengthening the corridors strengthens neighborhoods,” Hart explains. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’re ready to get started.”

Build Fort Wayne

To learn more, visit its webpage.

Summit City Match

To learn more and apply as a building owner or a business owner, visit its webpage. Learn more about its Pop-up Program here.

Get involved

If you would like to support SEED’s work with the Summit City Match, Hart says they are looking for local professionals to volunteer their technical expertise to business owners in areas like finance, tax, accounting, legal, HR, and marketing.

“Volunteering a couple of hours of your time would go a tremendously long way toward helping these small businesses at a very critical stage of their business lives,” she says.

To learn more, contact [email protected] attn: Technical Expertise inquiry.

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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.