How can Fort Wayne be a more welcoming place? This immigrant-run consulting firm can help

Irene Paxia, right, and her husband, Andrew Applegate, run the consulting firm Petra Solutions from their home, helping companies improve cross-cultural, fundraising, and business strategies.

Irene Paxia is well-acquainted with the challenges many immigrants and refugees face in the U.S.

As an immigrant to Fort Wayne from Italy, she learned English as an adult and was raised by a mother in Italy who was an immigrant herself (originally from Seattle, WA). For the past several years, Paxia has worked as Executive Director of Amani Family Services in Fort Wayne, helping immigrants and refugees adapt to the area in multiple ways, from language, cultural, and educational support to navigating the legal system.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic began, threatening Paxia's aging parents overseas, she felt the pull to return home more often and took her career in a new direction. In 2020, she launched her own consulting firm in Fort Wayne called Petra Solutions, named for the petra plant, which can grow in multiple environments, so long as it receives care and nourishment. 

In this role, Paxia is utilizing her knowledge of cross-cultural transitions to support organizations and companies seeking to improve their diversity and inclusion efforts, fundraising, and business strategies. She also helps individuals and families acclimate to new cultures and find community both directly and indirectly. 

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Paxia to learn about her consulting firm and what challenges she’s helping Northeast Indiana address to become a more welcoming, inclusive, and economically competitive place. 

Irene Paxia, right, and her husband, Andrew Applegate, run the consulting firm Petra Solutions from their home, helping companies improve cross-cultural, fundraising, and business strategies.

IFW: Tell us more about your background. How has your experience as an immigrant shaped your career direction?

IP: I have been instilled, since I was a young child, with a sense of wonder for the world and true love for people. I studied sub-Saharan African history in college and had the opportunity to travel, and I can honestly say that once I moved here, I found a sense of family in my own connections with immigrants and refugees in Allen County. 

When you are away from your immediate family, you learn to embrace alternative support systems. Immigrants and refugees are an important part of my support system. In the faces of almost every immigrant and refugee that I have met, I have recognized pain, joy, intelligence, spark, and love that felt so familiar to me.
There is so much work to do! For all these reasons I share, I instinctively gravitate towards professional opportunities that would allow me to follow these values and use my talents.

Irene Paxia, President of Petra Solutions, works on marketing materials.

IFW: What led you to launch Petra Solutions?

IP: I left Amani Family Services to go to Italy. My dad became ill in September of 2020. I lived in Fort Wayne, but I was on vacation in Michigan when I got the call. I called the Italian consulate, and they explained to me that if he had passed away, the COVID-19 restrictions wouldn’t allow me to go to the funeral.  He recovered, but because I had been living in the United States for fifteen years and because he was 83, I felt like I needed to go see him. And because of his age and because of the pandemic situation, I felt like I needed to go to Italy for longer than the usual two-week visit, so my husband and I went to Italy for six months.

During that time, I wanted to be free to make my decision on whether to come back to the United States and not make that decision based on work. The Amani board of directors was aware that my dad was ill, and when I left for Italy, I did not want Amani to be waiting for me and my decision. So Amani and I decided to part ways. Amani was and is guided by a very good COO who has now become the CEO, so I knew it was in very good hands. 

In October 2020, I launched my business. It was a soft launch—I did about a year of research before I actually started with clients. I didn’t get my first clients until November 2021. When I was faced with the fact that I may have to be able to work remotely, I thought about my skills and my passion and expertise in working with immigrants and refugees. I have many contacts in the immigrant and refugee communities, and already people were seeking my expertise. It felt natural for me to become a go-to person for people to ask questions about crossing cultural boundaries and developing sound business plans.

Irene Paxia, left, and her husband, Andrew Applegate, run the consulting firm Petra Solutions from their home, helping companies improve cross-cultural, fundraising, and business strategies.

IFW: How can multiculturalism, diversity, equity, and inclusion, be discussed with people who may not like or understand those terms?

IP: I’m very comfortable talking to audiences that may not necessarily see the world in the same way that I do. What I think is important, is to consider the reality that we have a very diverse community, and the sooner we embrace it, the stronger we actually are. We’re so diverse in so many different ways, and I’ve developed a passion for working to embrace all minorities, whether racial or ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community, or just the haves and have-nots in the community. Ultimately, I think we have an opportunity to build a stronger society if we work with one another. 

The reality is that there are consequences of not working toward inclusion as a community. For example, economic development in this community is not only dependent on the investment of resources, but is also dependent on the investment of talent. This community has a growing population thanks to the resettlement of multicultural communities from around the world. I think economic organizations in Fort Wayne have realized that helping people feel included is not only the right thing to do for those people, but that embracing broad multiculturalism is also the right thing to do for our community. 

The consequences of not doing so would be to run the risk of not being a welcoming community, of not being a growing community, and of not being an exciting community, which we all want to have as a brand for where we live. I think people come from many different roads to the same conclusion, and I am ready to work with them wherever they are. I’m not offended easily anymore, and I would rather focus on what works. 

Irene Paxia

IFW: How are you working to grow Petra Solutions?

IP: I’ve only had clients full-time since November of last year, so I’m still developing my own work, my own clients, and my own business in many ways—I’m growing and learning every day. My husband, Andrew Applegate, left his full-time job at a nonprofit called Brightpoint to join Petra in May of this year, so we’re working together.

My current mix includes some for-profit businesses, but most of the organizations I work with are nonprofit organizations that have come to the conclusion they need help serving or including multicultural communities but they don’t have the staff or the time to do it, or they don’t know how. 

Irene Paxia, President of Petra Solutions, works at her desk.

IFW: Tell us about some of the challenges and opportunities you’re experiencing in this space?

IP: One of my new clients right now is the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation. The Foundation’s leadership and I have come to the conclusion there is a crisis in this community. The crisis is that many immigrants and vulnerable refugees, including asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants, all need access to immigration legal services. We all want them to have access to legal residency and work authorization. Unfortunately, in our community, we don’t have a full-time provider for these services; we have a very small pool of attorneys, and many of these attorneys are not working pro bono. 

We have probably more than 1,000 people right now who are in need of legitimizing their residency or who are changing their status. The St. Joseph Community Health Foundation has asked Petra to conduct a study on the current needs in Northeast Indiana, a study that will help identify strategies that have the potential to meet the need for immigration legal services for vulnerable immigrants and refugees. 
I love that I can provide services to the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation and be there for as long as they need me. That’s the beauty of being a consultant. You’re there to walk alongside a client to fulfill a need; you can be there for as long as you’re needed, and you can walk away when hopefully things are fixed or working on their own. 

I’m also working with Purdue University Fort Wayne. They have very capable faculty members and centers of excellence, centers of studies that specialize in different areas. They also need fundraising and development assistance. Petra is supporting the development team at Purdue University Fort Wayne, as well as the faculty, to research opportunities for funding, development, and grants, and also to improve on the models for program outcomes. An example is the Professors & Pathways program that provides immigrants, refugees, and potential students with a safe, respectful, kind environment in which they can try taking courses on campus and have peers they can relate to. Additionally, they and their families can take financial literacy courses. 

Irene Paxia, right, and her husband, Andrew Applegate, run the consulting firm Petra Solutions from their home, helping companies improve cross-cultural, fundraising, and business strategies.

IFW: What does the future look like for Petra?

IP: The immigration legal services study is underway. I would love it if anybody with ideas, suggestions, or thoughts could reach out to me or the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation because I am very passionate about it. I’ve worked with immigrants and refugees all my life, and I know that it is an urgent matter.  
The St. Joseph Community Health Foundation is the only local foundation that is prioritizing services for immigrants and refugees who are vulnerable. That’s a priority for them. The Foundation is quite stellar in our community. It is a unique investor in our community, an organization that believes in helping immigrants and refugees. I am very thankful for that. I’ve worked with them in many different ways. I had the opportunity to work with Executive Director, Meg Distler, when I was at the Red Cross, when I was in city government, and when I was with Amani. Meg has a very innovative spirit. She says we are both risk-takers, and so that is why something like this is happening. You have an opportunity to be innovative, even if it means starting down a road and positively influencing the community in ways you cannot anticipate fully. 

This story was made possible by underwriting from the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation.
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Meg Distler
Meg Distler
Executive Director
St. Joseph Community Health Foundation

IFW: How does the work of the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation intersect with the work of Petra Solutions? 
MD: The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ who sponsor the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation have long stressed the importance of welcoming the immigrant/stranger to our community. As a result, the Foundation has had a long history of investing in programming that ensures infrastructure is in place to successfully help immigrants add their gifts and thrive in our community. Irene Paxia, in numerous roles over the past, has been an important partner in this work. We are delighted to work with her and Petra Solutions to find new community solutions.
IFW: Why is equity and inclusion an important part of a community's health? 
MD: We believe that every life is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of a community is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person. Only in a community that values each life can one’s health also soar.
IFW: How does the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation help immigrants and refugees to the area?  
MD: We support a wide array of community partners working with vulnerable populations, including immigrants and refugees. In recent years, this has included training and funding interpreters to provide access to community health and other resources. We have also funded bilingual mental health services, humanitarian legal services, and public health information in multiple languages.  
IFW: What other organizations does the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation work with to help immigrants and refugees and to foster equity? 
MD: Amani Family Services, Catholic Charities, Language Services Network, Bienestar Fronteras, Center for Nonviolence, and other non-profits that serve a large number of limited English-speaking and immigrant clients.
IFW: How do immigrants contribute to U.S. communities?  
MD: Our immigrant friends are enriching our community in many ways, including being responsible for the population growth in our community necessary to fill so many job openings. But immigrants in 2022 face similar challenges as my immigrant great-grandparents from Germany. They all need help to navigate English, understand our customs, and understand our laws. Helping them become a part of our community strengthens all of us.