Uniquely Uncommon

Jennifer Blomquist, Business People Magazine

Melissa Hall, Founder & Owner, Sample Snap App; Jennifer Hunter, Owner, Gensyn Design;  Jack Patton CEO & Founder, STRE.ME

Nate Burnard, Allen County Public Library; Mike Fritsch, The NIIC; Julie Sanchez, NIIC Breakthrough Program Consultant; John Guingrich, The League for the Blind & Disabled

Photos by Jeffrey Crane

The Northeast Indiana Innovation Center offers entrepreneurs the path, programs and potential to achieve success.

The toughest part for an aspiring entrepreneur is that you’re a square peg in a round hole,” says Karl R. LaPan, president and CEO of The Northeast Indiana Innovation Center in Fort Wayne, or The NIIC. “The round hole says you should go get a W-2 job; go the conventional way that’s less risky. But if you’re a square peg, you can see around the corner and you see an opportunity that other people don’t see. You’re willing to do something to make that opportunity real by starting a company.”

LaPan says most people are unsure, tentative and quite frankly, just plain scared by the misconceptions about entrepreneurship. Who can blame them when they associate trying to start a company with television shows like “Shark Tank?”

“We’ve all been negatively impacted by programs like that and all these harsh competitions around the country,” says LaPan. “But what if we were to make entrepreneurship more approachable? Then we could encourage more people to step forward and make it a legitimate career choice. The NIIC offers a safety net to anyone with an idea for a new business, no matter what the sector.”

Located off Stellhorn Road on Fort Wayne’s northeast side, The NIIC was incorporated twenty years ago by a partnership of community organizations: the City of Fort Wayne, Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce, Allen County and then-Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). The NIIC is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization committed to growing the regional entrepreneurship community.

When Jack Patton went off on his own to solely found STRE.ME Strategy Services, he turned to the community of coaches and entrepreneurs at The NIIC.

“The team is always accessible, open to providing feedback and offers thought-provoking questions,” says Patton. “As a solo founder, these are important support mechanisms because the startup process can be isolating and myopia can creep in when you least expect it. In the end, The NIIC has increased my company’s likelihood of success by offering other perspectives, complementary resources and a supportive environment.”

“We serve anyone,” says Tammy Allen, Director of Marketing and Programs at The NIIC. “There’s a myth that we only work with high-end startups. We serve all kinds of ventures at all stages. We offer many different programs, including student, tech and women’s programs. Most importantly, we recognize that each person’s entrepreneurial journey is unique.”

Jennifer Hunter, Founder and Design Thinker of Gensyn Design, LLC, credits the Launch Women’s Business Builder Program (LWBB) through The NIIC for bringing her entrepreneurial vision to life.

“I had big ideas, but lacked the knowledge needed to start my own business,” says Hunter. “The LWBB provided just the pathway I needed, guiding the process of how to turn my ideas into a business model by providing coaching, mentoring by women role models and providing access to funding and office space.”

Melissa Hall, Sample Snap App, says, “When I think about my business development so far, I think of the contributions – providing clear, objective suggestions, network, accountability, and connectivity to others – I’ve gained through the NIIC and the WEOC.”

Allen and LaPan say in the past year, The NIIC received significant funding through a grant program from the Foellinger Foundation. The grant supports The NIIC’s efforts to partner with local nonprofit organizations to create an entrepreneurial pipeline with underestimated groups through special “Breakthrough”grant funding from the Foundation.

“The NIIC proposed an innovative way of reaching entrepreneurs where they are,” says Allen. “For example, one of the organizations we’re working with is Amani Family Services, Inc. They assist immigrants and refugees who relocate to Fort Wayne. If someone they’re assisting wants to start a business, Amani Family Services does not specialize in helping people start businesses – but we do. So, there’s an opportunity for all of us to work together to help that individual move forward.”

Breakthrough is in its very early stages, but Irene Paxia, Executive Director of Amani Family Services, says the program is very promising.

“Many of our clients were already entrepreneurs in their countries,” says Paxia. “However, the odds are against them in the United States when they lack language skills. They also have to climb mountains such as limited access to credit when their credit history is deficient. To reduce the barriers that immigrants and refugees have, it is necessary to have more than pamphlets at our hands – we need a shift in expectations and a systemic adaptation of our competitive market.”

Another organization chosen to be a part of the Breakthrough program is the Allen County Public Library.

“Breakthrough is a natural fit for both the Allen County Public Library (ACPL) and The NIIC because it allows both organizations to better serve the needs of our users,” says Nate Burnard, Manager of the Main Library in downtown Fort Wayne. “For the ACPL, the NIIC is a fantastic resource to connect entrepreneurs at any stage of their journeys. For The NIIC, the ACPL can provide specialized resources and research services for their clients, as well as access to diverse neighborhoods and communities through our 14 branches across Allen County. Working more closely together allows us to better target the services we provide to the people who can use them the most. It’s a win-win for both organizations.”

Blue Jacket, The League and Women’s Entrepreneurial Opportunity Center (WEOC) are also program partners. LaPan adds that everyone in the community wins when The NIIC and its Breakthrough partners achieve success as they continue to build upon the program in the coming year. Additional support organizations see the value of this program, and partnerships are forming with Joshua’s Hand/Posterity Heights and others.

“We know that when there are higher levels of entrepreneurial activity in a community, there are higher per capita income levels and a more connected and fulfilled life for people living in those communities. Our combined success will have a positive impact on everyone in our community.”



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