Could you start a business? This Northeast Indiana program breaks barriers to entrepreneurship
Kara Hackett, Input Fort Wayne
Ten years ago, Julie Sanchez, a Black woman in Fort Wayne, would have never imagined herself as an entrepreneur. But when she considered the skillsets she had from her career in leadership and community development with the City of Fort Wayne, she realized she had a unique opportunity to coach and consult other leaders.
Today, she’s the Founder of Expert Business Solutions, LLC, a firm that offers business consulting, coaching, and executive services, and her first job turned into a part-time position.
Soon after Sanchez launched her business, Karl LaPan, President and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center (The NIIC), hired her to help his team develop and lead a new program at The NIIC called the Connected Communities Breakthrough Program, funded by a grant from the Foellinger Foundation. The program is intended to reach underserved populations in the region with entrepreneurship opportunities by breaking down barriers to the traditional startup journey.
“In the old days, we treated all entrepreneurs the same,” LaPan says. “What we’ve discovered over the past five years with our WEOC Women’s Business Center (WBC) program is that the entrepreneurship journey, while similar, is different for different segments of our society. Many of these groups of people need different services and need those services delivered in a different way than we traditionally would.”
As such, the Breakthrough Program, which LaPan called on Sanchez to help design, utilizes The NIIC’s legacy of entrepreneurship resources and knowledge, and makes this information more accessible to the community by packaging it into a virtual and flexible eight-path program. The course takes entrepreneurs from Awareness to Thrive, with one-on-one coaching sessions, training workshops, resource, and capital connections, and access to The NIIC Navigator(r) Online Training and support.
Sanchez says that while many entrepreneurship programs exist in Fort Wayne, what makes Breakthrough unique is its focus on the pre-idea stage of entrepreneurship, helping diverse communities overcome early obstacles that might prevent them from even thinking about starting ventures—whether it’s time, funding, information, or confidence.
“When it comes to minorities, many times they might not have it in their minds that they even could be an entrepreneur,” she says. “We’re trying to inspire them, and say, ‘Hey, you’re making money for your company with your gifts and talents, perhaps you could start a business.’”