Training the next generation of entrepreneurs

Rhonda Ladig was 18 years old when she started her first business. Five years later, she sold it to help put herself through college.

Today, as a graduate of Indiana Tech and Indiana University, she's Executive Director of the nonprofit hub for entrepreneurs, Start Fort Wayne, and she's using her experience to help students across northeast Indiana start businesses of their own someday in a workforce dominated by coding and technology.

In partnership with the South Bend Code School, Start Fort Wayne has launched a local version of the program called South Bend Code School // FW to teach students ages 13-18 the fundamentals of web development and design, software craftsmanship, and entrepreneurship. Rhonda Ladig

The program takes training a step further, and challenges students to use their technology skills to develop a solution to a social problem, as well. 

For instance, a team of students in the first semester of the program worked on a way to address teen mental health issues with a responsive website as a resource for information.

Ladig says what was particularly impressive was their presentation of the end product. The student team researched color schemes and fonts to ensure their website was appealing to the target audience, demonstrating skills that are transferrable and in high demand.

According to a 2016 report from Burning Glass, a job market analytics firm, computer programming jobs are growing 12 percent faster than the market average across five major job categories: information technology (IT) workers, data analysts, artists and designers, engineers, and scientists.

So students who have coding experience coupled with these skills will make themselves more valuable to future employers, have greater opportunities to innovate in their careers, and the potential to earn higher wages.

Ladig and others hope South Bend Code School // FW helps more of northeast Indiana's students meet the demands of today and tomorrow’s tech-centric jobs, and have the tools they need to explore ventures of their own if they choose.

“It buds entrepreneurs,” Ladig says. “We hope new ventures come out of this.”

The first semester of South Bend Code School // FW was held at Start Fort Wayne's downtown facility, the Atrium.

Ultimately, Ladig would like to take the program to the youth where they are, so more students can participate without the need for transportation.

South Bend Code School was founded on the mission to give students from all walks of life access to training in technology and coding. To date, 231 students have completed their courses, 47 percent of which are women, and 56 percent of which are minorities.

In addition to that, 608 students have used South Bend Code School's various services, through programs like Start Fort Wayne's, which it provides training resources for.

Launched last fall, South Bend Code School // FW has graduated seven students through its 12-week crash course that Ladig calls “amazing” for a number of reasons.

Specifically, students learn three coding languages, and no prior experience is required.

Each session is led by teacher and Start Fort Wayne board member, Jon Rehwaldt.

Jon Rehwaldt, left, facilitates class sessions at Start Fort Wayne.

According to the Start Fort Wayne website, Rehwaldt has worked with all grade levels in the areas of technology and English and develops curriculum in those areas to grow proficiency in communication skills at the same time as computer skills.

The program is designed to be well-rounded, too. Students meet twice a week for two hours each time, for a total of 48 educational hours. That learning can entail both independent and group work, providing the “critical thinking piece,” Ladig says.

Another reason Ladig says South Bend Code School // FW is significant is that it connects students to invaluable opportunities in the tech industry.

Upon completion of the course, students have the chance to present their work to a tech executive at Google, she says, as well as to their peers, teaching them important presentation skills.

Students gain confidence by learning how to present in front of their peers.

A second series of the South Bend Code School // FW program starts Feb. 6 with room for up to 20 students to participate. Applications are available on South Bend Code School's website.

Ladig says scholarships are another piece of the puzzle to making coding more accessible to all members of northeast Indiana's community. The cost for Start Fort Wayne's program is $750 per student, but she says scholarships are available to students who want to participate.

“We’re here and can help them pay for it,” Ladig says.

And so far, the scholarships are yielding results.

Ladig says the response from the first cohort of Start Fort Wayne's program has been positive. Some students expressed interest in continuing to pursue coding on their own, a tech-related job, and even wanting to get an advanced degree in computer science or a related field.

Ultimately, Ladig says what makes coding and technology education so critical in the community is that it's a win for everyone. Training students in the skills needed for tomorrow's workforce improves northeast Indiana's ability to compete in the national economy.

Start Fort Wayne’s long-term vision is making northeast Indiana a more attractive place for ventures to begin and relocate with a startup friendly, technology centric workforce.

“This is our step in that direction,” she says.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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