Could you start a business? This Northeast Indiana program breaks barriers to entrepreneurship

Ten years ago, Julie Sanchez, a Black woman in Fort Wayne, would have never imagined herself as an entrepreneur. But when she considered the skillsets she had from her career in leadership and community development with the City of Fort Wayne, she realized she had a unique opportunity to coach and consult other leaders.

Today, she’s the Founder of Expert Business Solutions, LLC, a firm that offers business consulting, coaching, and executive services, and her first job turned into a part-time position.

Soon after Sanchez launched her business, Karl LaPan, President and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center (The NIIC), hired her to help his team develop and lead a new program at The NIIC called the Connected Communities Breakthrough Program, funded by a grant from the Foellinger Foundation. The program is intended to reach underserved populations in the region with entrepreneurship opportunities by breaking down barriers to the traditional startup journey.

“In the old days, we treated all entrepreneurs the same,” LaPan says. “What we’ve discovered over the past five years with our WEOC Women’s Business Center (WBC) program is that the entrepreneurship journey, while similar, is different for different segments of our society. Many of these groups of people need different services and need those services delivered in a different way than we traditionally would.”

Karl Lapan and Julie Sanchez strategize at The NIIC.

As such, the Breakthrough Program, which LaPan called on Sanchez to help design, utilizes The NIIC’s legacy of entrepreneurship resources and knowledge, and makes this information more accessible to the community by packaging it into a virtual and flexible eight-path program. The course takes entrepreneurs from Awareness to Thrive, with one-on-one coaching sessions, training workshops, resource, and capital connections, and access to The NIIC Navigator(r) Online Training and support.

Sanchez says that while many entrepreneurship programs exist in Fort Wayne, what makes Breakthrough unique is its focus on the pre-idea stage of entrepreneurship, helping diverse communities overcome early obstacles that might prevent them from even thinking about starting ventures—whether it’s time, funding, information, or confidence.

“When it comes to minorities, many times they might not have it in their minds that they even could be an entrepreneur,” she says. “We’re trying to inspire them, and say, ‘Hey, you’re making money for your company with your gifts and talents, perhaps you could start a business.’”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the U.S. economy and business environment, it’s creating challenges and opportunities for entrepreneurs, too, LaPan says.

“What we know from prior crises is that there tends to be more innovation when there’s a crisis,” he says, pointing out that 57 percent of Fortune 500 companies we founded during a recession or bear market.

At the same time, roughly 25-36 percent of small businesses across the U.S. could be closing permanently as a result of the pandemic. That number is higher among historically excluded groups of people, LaPan points out, creating a need for more diverse entrepreneurship support.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Sanchez, the Breakthrough Program’s Manager and Consultant, to learn more about her background and how her work is innovating in this space.

Julie Sanchez is the Breakthrough Program’s Manager and Consultant at The NIIC.

IFW: Tell us about your background in Fort Wayne and public service.

JS: I’ve lived in Fort Wayne since I was two-years-old, so I have a lot of roots in the city, and I love it here. My father, who has passed, was the Principal of Weisser Park Elementary School, and my mother was the Director of Head Start in Muncie, Ind., so I have a history of education in my family. I also have a history of ministry. My father was a pastor at Kings Chapel Assembly downtown, and I am a pastor’s wife now at the same church.

I’ve also been a public servant most of my career. I worked in local government for more than 20 years. As a finance and redevelopment specialist for the Community Development Corporation, I was instrumental in bringing retail to the Southeast area in the earlier years. I also worked as the 311 Call Center Director, which gave me the leadership experience to start my own business, Expert Business Solutions, LLC.

IFW: What made you excited about The NIIC’s Breakthrough Program?

JS: As someone who is a woman and is Black with a Hispanic surname, I feel that I have a unique perspective when it comes to being treated differently and working with underserved communities. I love this job because it allows me to live into that.

I see these underserved communities that need support. The Southeast side needs more equal access to retail, for instance. For me, it’s about equality, so when Karl told me the Breakthrough Program really wanted to reach those underserved, underestimated, and underrepresented populations, that hit home with me, and I was really honored that they looked to me to help them achieve that goal.

IFW: Tell us more about the diverse demographic the Breakthrough Program serves.

JS: The Breakthrough Program serves populations that are historically underrepresented and facing real barriers to traditional entrepreneurship. That includes women, immigrants, refugees, and those who are incarcerated, as well as people living in rural areas or in poverty.

When it comes to the startup journey, we’re seeing everybody from the pre-idea stage to people who have started a business plan, but haven’t been able to complete it.

One of the groups we’re hoping to serve well with this program is ex-offenders who are trying to change their lives. A lot of times, after people serve their time, it’s hard for them to get a job then because they have that mark on their record. This is an opportunity to really help our community integrate those folks back into society.

IFW: How are you reaching this target demographic?

JS: We launched the Breakthrough Program in May by sending invitations through some of our partner organizations, including Blue Jacket, Amani Family Services, Posterity Heights, the League for the Blind and Disabled, the WEOC WBC, and the Allen County Public Library.

We’re trying to leverage the power of existing organizations as trusted connectors and partners to help us fill gaps in the current entrepreneurship scene. But anyone is welcome to apply for the program on our website.

IFW: There are a lot of startup programs emerging in Fort Wayne. Tell us what makes Breakthrough unique.

JS: Everything about this program is very flexible, and it’s really trying to figure out how to meet the needs of historically excluded populations. It’s not making any unnecessary rules and regulations.

We have weekly Zoom meetings where people can attend as they are able, and they graduate on their own time, working through the eight-path program we’ve developed.

The program itself is a breakthrough because participants don’t have these artificial time barriers. All of the programs are accessible by email and by no charge to participants (thanks to the Foellinger grant). If participants don’t have internet access at home, they can access the program using computers at the Allen County Public Library.

IFW: How many participants are you working within Breakthrough so far?

JS: We have 100 “seats” available in the Breakthrough Program, and so far, we have about 24 folks participating in it. Most of our participants are minorities and a majority are Black males, which is really cool. We also have two white males and a white female, so we’re seeing a good amount of diversity out of the gate.

IFW: What are you learning from this program so far?

JS: We’re learning that there’s a need for access to information and resources in Fort Wayne’s entrepreneurial space. Many of our participants have said that when they talk to people, and say, “I have a business idea,” there’s not very much information being shared about how to make that idea a reality or find funding. The information is out there, but they often get it in bits and bites, so they have to work hard to put that information together.

There are also barriers in the language of entrepreneurship. It’s like the medical community where there are acronyms for everything, like LLC. So we’ve created a full dictionary of entrepreneurship terms, and we want participants to know they’re not alone in trying to figure this all out.

IFW: What is the takeaway value for participants?

JS: The end goal of this program is for individuals to come out with something. When participants graduate from this program, the goal is they will graduate with something in-hand, either a streamlined one-page startup business plan they can use in a pitch conversation or a five-page business plan. It’s your choice, but you will come out with something tangible.

IFW: What advice do you have for potential entrepreneurs?

JS: Fall in love with the problem you’re trying to solve, not your solution. Oftentimes, business ideas are the solutions we think a problem needs, but if you fall in love with your solution, you’re not going to be willing to adapt it if it needs to change. If you fall in love with the problem, you can adapt your solution to fit the needs that exist.

IFW: What’s next the Breakthrough Program?

JS: We’re accepting new participants to this program on a rolling basis, so we’re just trying to get the word out. If you’re interested in applying to Breakthrough, fill out the application form on our website.

There’s a challenge sometimes when you talk to people, and they don’t think they can be an entrepreneur. But with COVID and with so much shifting in the economic landscape right now, some people will find entrepreneurship as a valid option for them.

If you lost your job, you might find that you can create a job on your own. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have seen myself as an entrepreneur either, but I love working for myself and finding things I can pour my passion into.

Maybe this crisis is the time to start exploring your own business.

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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.