Launching a business in the middle of a pandemic: A Fort Wayne grant writer shares her story

Almost two years ago, a germ of an idea burrowed into my bruised and injured brain, set up housekeeping, and continually asked the same persistent question: “So, what are you gonna do for your next act?”

In August 2018, I had suffered a stroke that landed me in the hospital for a week, and forced me to reckon with overwork, stress, and exhaustion that had dogged me for years. By the time I returned to work three months later, I was much healthier, well on my way to a complete recovery, and thinking more or less constantly about that elusive next act.

I had uncorked my first act in Boston in the early 1980s, working for a non-profit organization that raised funds and gave grants to small, rural organizations in developing countries. There I learned the detailed, precise art of writing grant proposals and was taught to work effectively on the grant administration side. Creek

From Boston, I launched my second act, “the journalism years,” in newspaper newsrooms around Indiana, where I moved from reporter, to editor, to editorial writer, over 25 years. I did work I loved and was proud of, before taking on Act III, a job in higher education administration that was deeply rewarding, a marvelous learning experience—and exhausting.

So, what if I was to take the skill sets I carefully honed in my first three acts, meld them into a fourth act that allowed me to do the things I love to do, and get paid for it? I could take my love of narrative writing, my grant-writing and administrative skills, the listening skills I developed in working with students, my desire to help individuals and organizations harness the resources they need to serve their community, and roll them into a single entity. Just like that, the seed of the Center for Grant Research and Writing, LLC was planted. I spent the next several months thinking, researching and reading.

In Fall 2019, I enrolled in the BUILD Institute class organized by the City of Fort Wayne SEED program, to learn the fundamentals of launching a business, writing a business plan, anticipating and overcoming obstacles, and received intense mentoring from experienced and successful entrepreneurs, who offered invaluable advice.

I retired from my job in higher education at the end of January, busily getting ready to open my “virtual” doors on March 1—my own boss at last! And then ran gob smacked into the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

One day, I was cheerfully writing introductory emails, tooting my own horn at every Northeast Indiana non-profit I could think of, figuring out how to open business accounts, and creating elaborate spreadsheets to impress my soon-to-be clients. The next day, I watched my 21-year-old son move his stuff out of his apartment in Student Housing at Purdue University Fort Wayne, and head back home to shelter with us. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the students who tumbled out the doors that afternoon, laughing and talking among themselves, had any idea of the magnitude of the tragedy that was about to hit all of us. None of it felt real.

I spent most of the next few weeks in my jammies, staring at the wall, wondering how this could happen. I baked, cooked, and obsessively disinfected everything that came into the house. In the back of my mind, I thought about my “Center,” and how much time and labor I had poured into making it work, terrified that it wouldn’t survive. I confided my fears to my sister, who was sheltering with her family in Bloomington and looking out for our elderly parents. She texted me back with a quote from “Finding Nemo,” which my children watched over and over again when they were small: “Just keep swimming, Dory!”

So, I swam. I announced the center’s opening on Facebook and LinkedIn on April 1, and set about registering my business as an Limited Liability Company with the State of Indiana. I opened business accounts with the IU Credit Union and met masked and distanced with the manager to sign the necessary documents. My niece built a website, and set up a business email account for me. I then retreated to my home office, which my daughter and I had spent days repurposing from its original role as a playroom/family dumping ground and waited for the phone to ring. And waited. And waited.

One day in mid-May, I opened my email to find a message from a prospective client who was looking for someone to help his non-profit find grant support for its programs. We talked, and emailed back and forth, and while the organization hasn’t morphed into paying client status, we’re still talking. The trickle of curious prospective clients has grown into a small stream, and I finally signed with my first paying client this month. I still have to prove to the non-profit leaders who engage my services that I know what I’m doing, but I’m confident that I can help them take their dreams for the communities they serve and turn them into strong, compelling narratives that gain the attention and support of funding organizations.

The Center for Grant Research and Writing is my first (and I hope last) venture into entrepreneurship, so I have no way to gauge how difficult it will be to sustain my business in the face of a pandemic, which will no doubt be with us for the foreseeable future. I believe that the Center will survive because there is a deep need in our community. People have needs that are being exposed by this pandemic, and people working to help them need a way to make it happen. I can help with that.

We need to keep swimming.
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