How can Electric Works help Fort Wayne attract, retain, and develop talent? Early tenants weigh in

As the war for talent rages on during the COVID-19 pandemic, how will Fort Wayne attract, retain, and develop the next generation of talent here?

One place this conversation is heating up is at Electric Works, the city’s massive 39-acre, 18-building, former General Electric campus that’s being transformed into a mixed-use innovation district. 

Electric Works buildings are under construction during a media tour of the space on December 3, 2021.

Electric Works plans to open the first portions of its Phase 1 (West Campus) buildings this fall, including many public spaces, like the Union Street Market, a Parkview Health clinic, retail shops, dining and entertainment options, the GE Club, an innovation/co-working space, and more.

This building under construction on the West Campus of Electric Works will be a mixed-use space for food businesses, including Conjure Coffee. (December 2021)
 
Among these initial openings are also the new Amp Lab for Fort Wayne Community Schools and the global headquarters of the project’s anchor tenant, Do it Best, the largest privately held company in Indiana.
 
We met with leaders on both teams for a sneak peek inside their new spaces and how they plan to use them to advance Fort Wayne’s future.

Riley Johnson, Director of Amp Lab at Electric Works 

Building 31 at Electric Works 

Riley Johnson, left, Director of the Amp Lab at Fort Wayne Community Schools, speaks with members of the media inside the Amp Lab's future space in Building 31 of Electric Works. (December 2021) 

 
IFW: What is the Amp Lab?
 
RJ: The Amp Lab is an innovative new program of Fort Wayne Community Schools that allows high school students to bring their learning to life by asking the question: What if students were challenged to solve real problems for real people?
 
The idea is to give students access to the tools, skills, and resources they will need for modern careers in the skills-based economy and to help them develop skills they can apply across a wide variety of experiences.
 
For example, I’m currently standing in the Greenhouse at the new Amp Lab, where about 400 11th and 12th grade students from all five Fort Wayne Community Schools high schools will spend a half-day, learning skills like growing and harvesting food. In addition to the Greenhouse, the Amp Lab also has a Content Creators’ Studio for music, animation, graphic design, podcasting, and photography; an Entrepreneurial Studio for business creation and analysis; and a Makers’ Studio for 3-D printing, prototyping, CNC machining, and woodworking.

The future space of the Fort Wayne Community Schools Amp Lab inside Building 31 on the West Campus of Electric Works. (December 2021)
 
IFW: What made you want to be a part of this project?
 
RJ: I’m a big believer that we sell teenagers short at what they're actually capable of doing. Being a part of this Amp Lab project, I saw the opportunity to really look at: How do we reframe education? And how do we do it in a way that’s not in addition to school, but allows us to rethink what school has the potential to be?
 
The Amp Lab is about really putting a teenager’s interest and opportunity at the forefront, as a part of the core school experience, so content still matters, but it’s rethinking how we’re providing a platform for students to use that content more authentically.

The future space of the Fort Wayne Community Schools Amp Lab inside Building 31 on the West Campus of Electric Works. (December 2021)
 
IFW: What experiences have prepared you for this work?
 
RJ: I grew up in Allen County, and I started my teaching career at New Tech Academy at Wayne High School in Fort Wayne. Then I became the Principal at the original New Tech High School in Napa, Calif., and about two years ago, I moved back to Fort Wayne, so my background is all in project-based, hands-on learning. That's why I feel blessed to be part of this new project at Electric Works and to help bring it to life.

Exterior photos of West Campus buildings under construction on the Electric Works campus during a media tour on December 3, 2021. 
 
IFW: You grew up in the Fort Wayne area, moved away, and moved back. What was that journey like?
 
RJ: I lived a little over five years on the West Coast in Napa, and when my wife and I had our first child, we wanted to move back and raise him close to family in Fort Wayne, and I’m really glad we did.
 
Since we moved back, I have seen a big difference in Fort Wayne. It still feels like Fort Wayne, but there really is a new vibrancy attached to the culture here, and you can feel that; you can tell a difference.
 
I think these projects—both Electric Works and the Amp Lab—are right in line with that new energy.

The future space of the Fort Wayne Community Schools Amp Lab inside Building 31 on the West Campus of Electric Works. (December 2021)
 
IFW: In thinking about your national experience in education and talent development, how does Fort Wayne compare?
 
RJ: There’s a lot of innovative spirit in Fort Wayne, and there’s a real hunger for programs like Amp Lab here. I think Electric Works and Amp Lab are some of the tangible ways that spirit is coming to life. When you think about Fort Wayne advancing its entrepreneurial ecosystem, it’s these types of projects that will be the catapult to take our community to the next level and develop a stronger pipeline for talent here.

Riley Johnson, Director of the Amp Lab at Fort Wayne Community Schools, speaks with members of the media inside the Amp Lab's future space in Building 31 of Electric Works. (December 2021) 
 
At the same time, I think it's really important that Fort Wayne never loses its heart and its spirit because that's what makes Fort Wayne uniquely itself. But because we have a project like this and because there are more collaborative, interactive spaces developing in Fort Wayne, like The Landing, I think we’re going to see a lot more progress here. It’s the difference between just wanting something to happen and actually seeing it happen.
 

Dan Starr, Do it Best President and CEO

Building 26 at Electric Works

Members of the media question Dan Starr, President and CEO of Do it Best, left, during a media tour of the Do it Best space at Electric Works on December 3, 2021. 


IFW: Tell us more about your move to Electric Works. Many companies are thinking about the future of office space. What was it about this space that spoke to you and your team?

DS: Electric Works is an amazing project. You really have to visit and be in this space to catch the vision for it. It's also so different from our current office for Do it Best, and we believe it has what our company needs to keep growing. 

We have a very team-based work environment at Do it Best where our teams come together cross-divisionally to work on projects all the time. So we felt that Electric Works offered a collaborative environment for us, where people might have a home located within the office, but also have a lot of space that’s communal where they can come together as teams. It offers a good mix of office and residential environments.

The future national headquarters of Do it Best is under construction at Electric Works. it will be located on the upper floors of Building 26 on the West Campus. (December 2021)

IFW: In thinking about office and residential spaces, many companies are rethinking where employees work, trying to strike the right balance between in-office work and working from home. How is your team processing this challenge?

DS: Everybody is confronting this challenge right now. At Do it Best, we want the best of both worlds. We want to be able to provide as much flexibility as possible to our employees. We also want to build the best culture we can, and we believe the best way to do that is to have people work together. At the same time, we want to accommodate people getting their work done, so we envision this new office space at Electric Works to be the best place to meet both of those goals.

We’re trying to create the type of naturally attractive atmosphere where employees won’t have to be convinced to come into the office; They’ll think: I want to be there.

The future national headquarters of Do it Best is under construction at Electric Works. it will be located on the upper floors of Building 26 on the West Campus. (December 2021)

IFW: Do it Best is growing and hiring. How many jobs are you looking to fill as you move into Electric Works?

DS: When we move, we’ll be looking to hire about 90 new positions. That said, we’re growing already, so it’s not only a matter of hiring new positions, but also promoting from within and backfilling jobs. It’s a constant effort.

The future national headquarters of Do it Best is under construction at Electric Works. it will be located on the upper floors of Building 26 on the West Campus. (December 2021)

IFW: As the battle for talent heats up, many companies are offering enhanced benefits to attract and retain employees. Did this thinking influence Do it Best's decision to relocate to Electric Works?

DS: It really did. We feel our new office space (and the entire Electric Works campus) will be attractive to talent. There’s going to be so much happening on this campus, from its residential spaces to its retail, coffee shops, restaurants, and rooftops. It fits our team’s desire to retain the great talent we already have, and we think our ability to attract new talent will also be enhanced by moving here.

The future national headquarters of Do it Best is under construction at Electric Works. it will be located on the upper floors of Building 26 on the West Campus. (December 2021)

That said, I still believe our biggest draw at Do it Best is our culture. This is a servant-led company that is mission-based around helping entrepreneurs across the country grow and achieve their dreams, so getting the right environment for our team is great, but you need a great culture, too. That’s what I’m most proud of about Do it Best: We love our new space, and we have a strong culture to go with it.

The future national headquarters of Do it Best is under construction at Electric Works. it will be located on the upper floors of Building 26 on the West Campus. (December 2021)

Do it Best employees weigh in

“Recruiting talent is a big part of my job at Do it Best, and being able to call this campus our future home has connected us with so many people we’ve never connected with before. We’ve always been a great place to work in Indiana, and this move to Electric Works has really put us on display as the highly desirable workplace that we are. We’re so much more present in the Fort Wayne community now, and when I interview potential employees, they’re coming into the interview, telling me how excited they are about Electric Works, so it becomes an easy conversation with talent. That’s really important because we’ve had a record-breaking sales year, so we’re growing quickly.”
-Celeste Stevens, Human Resources Manager

“I had been at Do it Best about a year and a half when they decided to move to Electric Works, and it’s my job to help communicate the move within our current teams. Our current employees are really excited to be on this campus, not only in the new office, but at Electric Works, in general. Our new office has lots of open space for collaboration. It’s also exciting to think that we can grab a coffee or a meal on the campus before or after work without having to get in our cars and drive somewhere else. That’s rare in Fort Wayne. The opportunities this campus holds for our team are huge.”
-Allison Meyer, Senior Communications Specialist
 

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.