How strong is Fort Wayne's ecosystem to support entrepreneurs and local businesses?

From the first televisions, stoves, refrigerators, and washing machines, to some of the early advances in electricity, Fort Wayne area residents have long changed their community—and their world—as inventors and entrepreneurs. 

Local residents have launched ventures that created such global companies as General Electric, Vera Bradley, Sweetwater, Do it Best, and more.

But what does Fort Wayne "entrepreneurship" look like in 2021, and if you want to start a business in town today, where do you begin? These are a few questions Dan Swartz, Executive Director of Start Fort Wayne (SFW), is attempting to answer.

Dan Swartz is the Executive Director of Start Fort Wayne and its coworking space Atrium.

Swartz is the Founder of Wunderkammer Company contemporary gallery at 3402 Fairfield Ave. In 2020, he took on a new role, leading SFW and its coworking space Atrium at 111 W. Berry St. in downtown Fort Wayne. Upon doing so, Swartz realized there was a lack of data and information about entrepreneurship in Fort Wayne to help him determine the future of these organizations. What's more, this lack of data extends beyond the city to the entire state.

"Indiana, as a whole, has historically devoted a lot of its economic development resources and attention to 'buffalo hunting,' or seeking to attract a large corporation, like an Amazon, to relocate here," Swartz says. "But how much attention are we giving to support the development of the next local businesses, built on homegrown ingenuity?"

Dan Swartz is the Executive Director of Start Fort Wayne and its coworking space Atrium.

According to the SBA’s Office of Advocacy, small businesses have accounted for the lion's share of net new job creation since 2000. “From 2000 to 2019, small businesses created 10.5 million net new jobs while large businesses created 5.6 million,” the SBA reports.

With these and other trends in mind, many cities have been developing dynamic, self-regulating networks, known as ecosystems, to foster startup growth as a core component of economic development. Disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired more entrepreneurship in the U.S. McKinsey & Company calls the post-COVID wave of entrepreneurship the "next normal," or one of the business trends that will define 2021 and beyond.

"There is a veritable flood of new small businesses," McKinsey reports. "In the third quarter of 2020 alone, there were more than 1.5 million new-business applications in the United States—almost double the figure for the same period in 2019."

Start Fort Wayne and its coworking space Atrium are located at 111 W. Berry St., Suite 211.

So what is Fort Wayne doing to support entrepreneurship here? While the city has many Entrepreneur Support Organizations (ESOs), Swartz envisions creating an overarching Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Strategy (EES) for Allen County, which can coordinate these efforts, connect the dots, fill gaps, capture data, and assess quality.

"A city should have a plan to support entrepreneurship, and plans should have some data behind them," Swartz says.

Start Fort Wayne and its coworking space Atrium are located at 111 W. Berry St., Suite 211.

In his research, he identified such a model created by Daniel Isenberg, Professor of Entrepreneurship Practice at Babson College, who established the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project. Thanks to funding from the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne, Swartz and Start Fort Wayne are working to implement some of Isenberg's concepts here.

"We believe that this matrix and strategy will provide our policymakers, ESOs, higher education institutions, and governmental bodies with the correct information and guidance to build an effective and valuable entrepreneurial ecosystem within our community in the shortest period of time," Swartz says.

Start Fort Wayne and its coworking space Atrium are located at 111 W. Berry St., Suite 211.

To begin, Start Fort Wayne is collecting both quantitative and qualitative data related to Fort Wayne's current and desired entrepreneur ecosystem. Beginning in May, it invited entrepreneurs to participate in a short survey online, assessing aspects of the current system. Swartz also led private focus groups and one-on-one interview sessions with various entrepreneurs, ESOs, support professionals (bankers, realtors, accountants), and other community leaders to gain greater insight into the benefits and challenges of Fort Wayne's ecosystem.

During one focus group in mid-July, six local business owners of multiple ages, races, and professions gather around a table in an upstairs meeting room of Atrium. Swartz starts the meeting by introducing the project. Then, he asks each group member to discuss how they define the word "entrepreneur." 

"That has been something that has been coming up a lot in this process," Swartz says. "People in Fort Wayne have different definitions of what it means to be an entrepreneur."

Start Fort Wayne and its coworking space Atrium are located at 111 W. Berry St., Suite 211.

While some define "entrepreneurship" as only high-growth, investable companies, others prefer a broader definition, which includes new-economy business owners, like freelancers and contractors. RasAmen Oladuwa, Owner of RASS Web Consulting and leader of the organization Content Creators of Color.

"Contracting is an ecosystem that we're not effectively tapping into as 'entrepreneurship' in Fort Wayne, and a lot of young people in the community are doing really well at running contracting businesses," says RasAmen Oladuwa, Owner of RASS Web Consulting and a Co-Leader of The Content Creators of Color Project, a committee of Start Fort Wayne. 

Oladuwa says closed-mindedness in Fort Wayne's startup scene has turned her away from seeking support from it in the past. She and other members of Content Creators of Color have felt that the region's support systems for entrepreneurs are often geared toward "white" culture or only businesses that fit a specific set of ideals.

"Fort Wayne is very 'white,' and because it's very white, it doesn't allow for some people, especially Women of Color, to penetrate the system without having the backing of city officials or fitting the right mold," Oladuwa says. "There are networks here for certain people. But they're not for everyone. I think that's part of why we, as a city, face a mass exodus of young, Black talent."

RasAmen Oladuwa, right, is a Co-Leader of The Content Creators of Color Project, a committee of Start Fort Wayne.

Along with the need to increase diversity and foster open-mindedness within Fort Wayne's entrepreneur ecosystem, the focus group also voices feelings of "isolation" and "loneliness" along the path to entrepreneurship in Fort Wayne. Brett Meyer is Founder and Director of Impact Upgrade, a tech service for nonprofits.

"There's a lot of buzz when you're launching a business and breaking the mold," says Brett Meyer, Founder and Director of Impact Upgrade, a tech service for nonprofits. "Then you hit that two-to-five year mark in your business, when you're working to make it sustainable and scalable, and it can be very isolating, especially during a pandemic. That's when you need mentorship and a network of intentional support around you. In my experience, that's what's lacking in Fort Wayne."

Allison Bricker, Founder and CEO of LibertyTalk FM, says that at one of her previous residences in Indianapolis, she attended a monthly event that brought the region's Chamber of Commerce, seasoned business leaders, newbie entrepreneurs, and everyone in between together for regular gatherings and networking opportunities.

"I miss those events," Bricker says. "It would be great if we had something like that here."

Start Fort Wayne and its coworking space Atrium are located at 111 W. Berry St., Suite 211.

The group agrees. They also discuss the need for a startup checklist for new entrepreneurs in Fort Wayne, who might not know what they need to get done and by when to get their ventures off the ground.

"If I had a checklist for getting everything set up when I was starting my business, I would have hired a CPA to help me with my accounting much earlier in the process," Bricker says. "But I didn't know about that at the time, and I didn't know who to reach out to."

Start Fort Wayne and its coworking space Atrium are located at 111 W. Berry St., Suite 211.

Swartz asks the group if they can identify current Entrepreneur Support Organizations (ESOs) in Fort Wayne. The only three they come up with are: Start Fort Wayne, SEED Fort Wayne, and the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center (NIIC).

"There are more than 20 total," Swartz says. 

As the meeting concludes, he says it's genuine feedback like this that he's hoping to gather at all of his in-person listening sessions. The data from these sessions and surveys will be used to draft an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Strategy for Allen County in September.

This strategy is designed to live within Greater Fort Wayne Inc.'s five-year plan for economic development, known as EDAP (Economic Development Action Plan), as well as the 20-year-plan for All-in-Allen County and a regional plan for state READI (Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative) funding.

Start Fort Wayne and its coworking space Atrium are located at 111 W. Berry St., Suite 211.

With this longevity in mind, Swartz says the strategy will be designed to be assessed at three-, seven-, and 10-year increments, so it can evolve as needs change. 

"We've had comprehensive plans in Allen County for decades," Swartz says. "This is the first one that will directly address entrepreneurship."

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.