Investing in People: Validating and spotlighting young entrepreneurs in Fort Wayne

Investing in People: Validating and spotlighting young entrepreneurs in Fort Wayne
Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana’s Jenee Johnson shares how she meets young entrepreneurs—and introduces them to Fort Wayne’s network of support.
By Kara Hackett

When it comes to economic development, it’s easy to throw out pat solutions, like “invest in people,” as talent strategies. But members of Fort Wayne’s community are putting these words into practice—mentoring, serving, and supporting the next generation of local changemakers, entrepreneurs, and community leaders. This story is part of a series exploring what “investing in people” looks like. (Read the first story here.) 

You might know Jenee Johnson for her “15 seconds of fame.”
 
On nights and weekends, she works as an usher at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, where she’s become internet-famous for viral videos of her dancing during breaks of Komets Hockey games.
 
“I’ve met people from Toronto and Seattle who know who I am,” Johnson says. “It’s funny because when I go places, I never know when I’m going to be recognized.”
 
One place Johnson usually finds fans is Allen County classrooms, which she visits—not just as the “dancing usher”—but for her full-time job as Program Manager for Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana (JANI). 

Jenee Johnson is Program Manager for Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana (JANI).
 
For the past seven years, Johnson has been working with Allen County grade schools to support JANI’s in-school programs. When she is both on and off the clock, she plays a key role in creating pipelines for young talent and entrepreneurship in the Fort Wayne area.
 
In her job, she gets to know students and coordinates with teachers to ensure they are supported throughout the duration of JANI’s programs. Each program is about six sessions, depending on the grade level, Johnson says, and all are focused on JANI’s three pillars of financial literacy, workforce readiness, and entrepreneurship. Some programs even bring local entrepreneurs and business leaders into classrooms to speak with students firsthand.

First Grade students in a Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana program attend a class trip to visit Mercado restaurant in Downtown Fort Wayne to learn from its local founder.
 
Johnson’s passion for student programming began with her own experience growing up in Fort Wayne. Today, she still lives in her childhood home on the South side of town where she had many elders and supporters who rallied around her, encouraging her to attend college at Purdue University Fort Wayne (then IPFW).
 
“I was very fortunate because so many people played a role in my upbringing,” Johnson says. “I was a 21st Century Scholar from a single-parent home, and a lot of people came in and helped us apply for scholarships and what not.”

Jenee Johnson is Program Manager for Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana (JANI).
 
Johnson believes it was her experience at PFW that prepared her for her current role. As one of the few 18-year-olds on what was then a largely commuter campus, she earned a paid position as Vice President of the Student Body Programming. During her second year in that job, her advisor left the university, putting her in charge of the department where she was responsible for planning events and attending meetings with university leadership.
 
“As a student, I was talking to agents and booking programs,” Johnson says. “That’s a power that a lot of students don’t have, and it was a growing experience for me. That all played a role in who I am as a person today.”
 
Since graduating, she's worked in various roles, as an Industry Partner Manager for the Fort Wayne Allen County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau and as a substitute teacher for Fort Wayne Community Schools before joining JANI’s team to continue supporting students. Now, her collective experience and connections in Fort Wayne help youth create careers for themselves as entrepreneurs. 
 
In the process of working with local schools, Johnson noticed many students in the Fort Wayne area already have businesses they're running—they just don’t call them “businesses.” Maybe they're shoveling snow for neighbors, mowing lawns, or selling crafts online.
 
“A lot of times, parents will just say, ‘My child does this thing,’” Johnson says. “So it’s really neat when we can help kids and families realize their potential and say, ‘This is a really cool thing you’re doing, and you can start a business.’”

First Grade students in a Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana program attend a class trip to visit Mercado restaurant in Downtown Fort Wayne to learn from its local founder.
 
As Johnson encountered more and more young entrepreneurs in local classrooms and at events like 1 Million Cups, it inspired her to utilize her community connections at the local TV station, WPTA, to help young entrepreneurs get more exposure and begin to see the career-building potential in their work. About three years ago, she helped launch WPTA’s monthly “Young Entrepreneur Spotlight” segments to highlight youth makers and business owners. So far, Johnson says the students they’ve featured have come from a variety of backgrounds and run a wide range of businesses.
 
“I generally look for young entrepreneurs, ages 22 and younger, and it’s been really cool because they range from the overachievers in the classroom to the kids who are just barely hanging on in school,” she says. “It’s not always your overachievers.”
 
During the pandemic, Johnson has seen an influx of young residents in the Fort Wayne area testing new hobbies and business concepts, too.
 
“A lot of kids have a hobby at home that they worked on during the shutdown, or maybe they used YouTube to learn a new skill or to start selling something they made,” Johnson says.

First Grade students in a Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana program attend a class trip to visit Mercado restaurant in Downtown Fort Wayne to learn from its local founder.
 
Overall, her goal is to keep connecting budding business owners to Fort Wayne’s network of support for entrepreneurs, encouraging them to apply for grants through organizations, like Believe in a Dream, or to seek mentorship from groups, like Own Your Success.
 
“After they’re featured on TV, they’re so excited, so you want to keep that momentum going and help them realize how much support we have in our local network to prevent brain drain,” Johnson says. “We introduce young entrepreneurs to lots of opportunities and let them know: ‘This is not where it ends. You can do so much more here.’”
 
One business owner Johnson featured on the Young Entrepreneurs Spotlight is Delilah Giangrande, age 12, who owns D’s Doggies, a dog walking and sitting service. Delilah is one of those students who started her business during the pandemic when neighbors began asking her to walk or watch their pets. As the requests came in, she and her mother, Mary, who is also an entrepreneur (in the healthcare space), began to realize they could have the makings of business on their hands.
 
“It was just something nice to do for a neighbor at first,” Mary says. “Then we started to think: ‘This could be a real business.’ It’s exciting to think that if Delilah stays with it, or applies these skills to another venture, she could create a career for herself someday.”
 
Delilah Giangrande, age 12, owns D’s Doggies, a pet walking and sitting business.

For now, Delilah is keeping her business small. She gets clients mostly in her neighborhood on the Northeast side of town where she passes out business cards in mailboxes. Since she relies on her mother to drive her to appointments, she’s limited on how many clients she can take on. But her schedule is already busy with at least one gig per day. She usually charges $2-3 dollars for a 20-minute dog walk, and she prices dog sitting according to the need.
 
Delilah says it was her local bank, 3Rivers Federal Credit Union, that connected her with Johnson and JANI. When she took her earnings to set up an account, her teller was a former JANI employee who recommended her for Johnson’s Young Entrepreneurs Spotlight program.

Delilah Giangrande, age 12, owns D’s Doggies, a pet walking and sitting business.
 
Another entrepreneur featured on the program is Lilly Hinds, age 10, who owns a craft company, Froggy’s Lovely Art, which sells items online and at local pop-up events.
 
Lilly started her business when she was seven-years-old out of a desire to earn some spending money.
 
“I really wanted to make my own money when I was young, so I could buy things, especially a lot of gum,” she says.

Lilly Hinds, age 10, runs Froggy's Lovely Art, a business that sells custom crafts, like coaster, keychains, and magnets.
 
Since launching her business, she has managed to buy more than gum; she’s earned enough to purchase her own American Girl Doll and to employ her two younger siblings, who help her at pop-up events. She sells a variety of custom clay, resin, and cloth crafts, including coasters, keychains, and magnets, and she would like to have her own brick-and-mortar storefront someday.

Lilly Hinds, age 10, runs Froggy's Lovely Art, a business that sells custom crafts, like coaster, keychains, and magnets.
 
In the meantime, she’s been working with Johnson and others at JANI to grow her business. Since Lilly is homeschooled, she met Johnson about two and a half years ago when her mom, Christy, reached out on LinkedIn.
 
“Jenee is really awesome, and we thought she had a cool, fun story, so we started following her and asking her questions about entrepreneurship,” Lilly says. “She’s helped me a lot, and she’s helped me sign up for vendor events, like the JA Young Entrepreneur Marketplace this summer on July 16th. She also introduced me to a scholarship committee, and I wasn’t chosen, but it was a good opportunity to apply.”

Lilly's family helps her run Froggy's Lovely Art booth at events.
 
Looking to the future, Lilly plans to attend the JA Young Entrepreneur Summer Camp and to keep Froggy’s business hopping.
 
“This is all possible not just because of my hard work, but by contacting Jenee,” Lilly says.


This story is part of a series highlighting the faces and stories of economic development in Northeast Indiana, made possible by underwriting from NiSource Charitable Foundation and Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana.

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.