Investing in people: This Fort Wayne program helps youth ‘Pave the Path’ to the future they want

You might say it’s people like Steve Franks who are the future of economic development in cities. 

Rather than attempting to attract investment from afar, Franks is part of a growing network of individuals building pipelines for talent within Fort Wayne and the greater Northeast Indiana region. For the past nine years, he’s been coaching entrepreneurs through his LLC, Steve Franks Innovation. He also works with various organizations that support entrepreneurs, like Believe in a Dream, acting as the sort of human glue that connects many separate strategies and efforts to develop homegrown talent.

But if you ask Franks what compels him to do this work, he’ll tell you it’s more than sheer economics. Steve Franks

“My mantra is rolled up in the phrase: Enabling the next generation to build a better tomorrow,” he says. “The ethos behind everything we do is the people we’re working with in our community, because a decade from now, they’re going to be the leaders, and they need to be prepared as leaders and entrepreneurs—and probably a little bit of both.”

While it’s easy to throw out phrases like “invest in people” as strategies for economic development, Franks and other 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.

There's a growing network of support for young entrepreneurs and leaders in Fort Wayne. 

Encouraging youth to build a personal brand 

Having worked as a teacher for the past 21 years, Jeff Roberts began mentoring youth as part of his work at New Tech Academy in Fort Wayne. In doing so, he began to notice something missing from the education system that was holding them back from achieving their full potential.

“One thing I noticed is: Kids don’t get to focus on themselves and who they are very often in school,” Roberts says. “So I created a curriculum designed to help them determine their personal ‘brand’ by expanding some of their core principles and beliefs.” 

Jeff Roberts

He called it Pave the Path with the idea being that students don’t need to follow the well-worn paths of college or careers they’ve seen available to them growing up. Instead, they can look within themselves to discover who they are and what matters to them. Then, using that knowledge, they can build a post-secondary plan that makes sense for their unique interests and skills.

“Pave the Path is about not forcing kids down a path, but letting them examine what different paths are out there,” Roberts says. “We’re a conduit for kids to express themselves and to get to a point where they want to take a risk and do something on their own.”

Pave the Path's annual Youth Leadership Summit brings together “humble, hungry, and smart” high schoolers for a two-day experience, featuring interactive breakout sessions, workshops led by community leaders, and idea-generating sessions.

As part of developing Pave the Path, Roberts began collaborating with Franks, the Entrepreneurship Program Manager for the grantmaking nonprofit Believe in a Dream who works alongside his brother, Todd Roberts, President of the organization. Believe in a Dream helps students access arts and entrepreneurial experiences while in school. 

Together, the Roberts, Franks, and a team of eight volunteer board members began focusing on the event side of Pave the Path, developing it into an official program run by Believe in a Dream. Today, it annually impacts more than 150 students at 13 area high schools, grades freshmen through seniors.

“We’ve tied the curriculum to leadership and entrepreneurship skills because we realize that if you’re trying to create a personal brand, it often relates to similar processes you go through to create a business or organization,” Roberts says. “Many students have to be their own personal entrepreneurs to get themselves out into the workplace.”

Pave the Path's annual Youth Leadership Summit brings together “humble, hungry, and smart” high schoolers for a two-day experience, featuring interactive breakout sessions, workshops led by community leaders, and idea-generating sessions.

Pave the Path began in 2018 with its first annual Pave the Path Youth Leadership Summit that November. Each year, the Summit brings together “humble, hungry, and smart” high schoolers for a two-day experience, featuring interactive breakout sessions, workshops led by community leaders, and idea-generating sessions where they can develop projects to benefit their communities. Then, throughout the year, Pave the Path students meet monthly at their own schools to learn about their unique CliftonStregthens, develop their leadership skills, explore their personal brands, and execute team projects.

“The goal is to allow any kid, anytime into the program,” Roberts says. “We’ve had kids all the way from valedictorians to what some consider ‘at risk’ participate—and thrive—in Pave the Path. It’s really a program for anyone who wants to examine themselves and build a personal brand for the greater good.”

Pave the Path's annual Youth Leadership Summit brings together “humble, hungry, and smart” high schoolers for a two-day experience, featuring interactive breakout sessions, workshops led by community leaders, and idea-generating sessions.

With the help of Franks and Believe in a Dream, Pave the Path also matches students with local entrepreneurs and business leaders for mentorship, job shadowing, and coaching. If students develop ideas for businesses, Franks leads monthly Young Entrepreneurs Meetups through Believe in a Dream they can attend, too.  

While Pave the Path is still in its infancy and has experienced some restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Roberts and Franks have high hopes for the program’s future based on its strong student interest and retention rates so far. Some of Pave the Path’s first participants recently entered college and the workforce, and many are already returning to the program as mentors to support the next generation behind them.

“We have many kids who have stayed with us as alumni over the past three years and have stuck around to the point that they’re in communication with us every week,” Roberts says. “We wanted a 10 percent retention rate. Now, we have a 54 percent retention rate of kids who are sticking with the program after the first year.”

Pave the Path graduate, Irasema Hernandez Trujillo, leads a workshop with current Pave the Path students.

From student to local entrepreneur

One alumna giving back to Pave the Path is Caitlin Dostal, the young co-owner of Deadstock Vintage, which opened in February in partnership with her step-father Morrison Agen’s Welcome Back Records store at 3019 Broadway.

As one of Roberts’s former students, who calls him “J-Rob,” Dostal was among the first 10 students to go through the Pave the Path program he designed when she was a sophomore at New Tech. At the time, she wanted to go into psychology, and Pave the Path connected her with a professional therapist in the field, who came into her high school and talked with her and other students interested in careers in psychology or neuroscience. 

Caitlin Dostal co-owns Deadstock Vintage.

Throughout her time in school, Dostal helped grow Pave the Path by participating in meet ups and helping organize its annual Summits, which she always appreciated for the way J-Rob invited speakers of different backgrounds and ethnicities to share their stories.

“He would pick people to speak with us who hadn’t always had privileges like financial stability," Dostal says. "It made you think: If they came from nothing and are doing all of this now, then maybe we can do it, too, with some hard work.”

Pave the Path's annual Youth Leadership Summit brings together “humble, hungry, and smart” high schoolers for a two-day experience, featuring interactive breakout sessions, workshops led by community leaders, and idea-generating sessions.

When she graduated from high school in 2021, she still planned to go to college and study law. But she and her partner, Isaac Sparks, also ran a vintage shop online, and when the opportunity came to open their own brick-and-mortar store, they couldn’t pass it up.

“School has never really been my thing anyway,” Dostal says. “Plus, having participated in Pave the Path made it easier for me to make connections in Fort Wayne’s startup community because I already had contacts, like Steve Franks. Isaac still attends Steve’s meetups through Believe in a Dream, and I’m hosting a workshop with Pave the Path later this year.”

Roberts hopes Dostals’s experience in Pave the Path will show more students the opportunities available to them. 

“Just three years ago, she didn’t want to be an entrepreneur,” he says. “Now, she’s running her own business and doing something she loves.”

Pave the Path's annual Youth Leadership Summit brings together “humble, hungry, and smart” high schoolers for a two-day experience, featuring interactive breakout sessions, workshops led by community leaders, and idea-generating sessions.

While Dostal’s path led her to forgo the traditional college experience and launch a business in Fort Wayne, another Pave the Path alumna’s journey led her in a different direction.

Advocating for others to Pave their Paths

Having immigrated to the U.S. from the small town of Benito Juárez Michoacán, Mexico, when she was six years old, Irasema Hernandez Trujillo quickly became an active student in Fort Wayne. From the time she moved here in fifth grade, she got involved in several programs at school and the YMCA. Then, during her sophomore year at Snider High School, her sister, Lilliana, died unexpectedly, causing her to question what her future would hold. Around this time, one of her teachers at Snider recommended she and about 10 other students attend the Pave the Path Youth Leadership Summit.

“The first year we went, it was really cool because I was able to meet other, like-minded individuals who were all passionate about business and service and were all coming from different backgrounds and schools,” Hernandez Trujillo says.

Irasema Hernandez Trujillo and her family immigrated to the U.S. from a small town in Mexico.

During one of the summit’s breakout sessions, she attended a workshop led by a man who grew up in Fort Wayne and became incarcerated at a young age. For Hernandez Trujillo, this illuminated disparities facing young People of Color in the U.S. and in the prison system. It also ignited her passion to change the system.

“It’s part of the reason I’m pursuing politics now, in college at the University of Notre Dame,” she says. “I took it as a sign my calling was to pursue a career where I can advocate within the school system for children who are People of Color or first-generation immigrants, who are more likely to go into the prison pipeline.”

During her sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school, Hernandez Trujillo worked with other Pave the Path students at Snider to launch the school’s now-annual school supply drive, which donates supplies to local families in need. Since graduating, she’s come back to host workshops for Pave the Path students, and she’s now partnering with one of her fellow Latina Pave the Path alumni, Sara Dayani Llopis-Guevara, to launch their own nonprofit.

“Growing up in Indiana, we realized there is a big Latina population here, but also a lot of disparities in attaining higher education, especially if your family is undocumented or falls within specific income brackets,” Hernandez Trujillo says. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Education Trust reports that the impact on college-going Hispanic and Latinx students has been “especially concerning,” with a nearly 20 percent decline in first-time enrollment. Hernandez Trujillo’s nonprofit, Stronger Together Latinx, Inc., is designed to change this by empowering Latinx youth economically, socially, and culturally, providing them with access to scholarships, mentorship, and resources.

When she and Llopis-Guevara launched the nonprofit, Believe in a Dream was the first organization to fund them.

“Now, we’re in the stage of gathering our board, creating our bylaws, and planning our first fundraiser event in Fort Wayne next fall,” Hernandez Trujillo says. “We couldn’t have done it without Pave the Path.” 

Learn more

Pave the Path is seeking more entrepreneurs and mentors in Fort Wayne’s community to support local youth. If interested, contact [email protected]

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.