Launched in Indiana • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Assistance plentiful in Region to help entrepreneurs turn ideas into business reality

KC Mars
KC Mars opened his shop Static Age in Michigan City with help from the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center, which has helped launch many businesses around the Region. (Photo provided by KC Mars)

The shop, Static Age in Michigan City, sells assorted items, including Halloween masks but specializes in new and used vinyl records and handmade jewelry and needle felting produced by Paz. But before they launched, the couple attended a workshop aimed at fledgling businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs.

The workshop was led by Lorri Feldt, regional director of the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center, whose organization has helped launch many businesses around the Region.

“We both, Mariceli and I, had spent our careers successfully running other people’s businesses, but had never started our own,” Mars said. The couple had assorted questions from permitting to how to register a business.

“Lorri answered all of our questions and let us feel like we weren’t so dumb for not knowing every bit of minutiae involved, and set us up with additional resources,” Mars said.

Now the couple has a business, selling items both have deep interests and are grateful for making a connection with Feldt’s organization. The couple has attended assorted programs offered by the Northwest ISBDC, including a workshop on social media.

Feldt has visited Static Age and remains in touch with its owners.

“They felt they had a vibe that would fit with the retail scene on North Franklin (in Michigan City), and I think they accomplished that,” she said.

Feldt’s organization is one of many that can guide entrepreneurs and provide assistance to struggling firms to boost business. Her office’s efforts, combined with initiatives of other economic development organizations, are contributing to the development of an entrepreneurship culture in Indiana.

State programs

In the four years that the Indiana Economic Development Corp. has had the innovation and entrepreneurship program, it has done great things, said David Roberts, chief innovation officer at the IEDC. But he says more can be done to create an entrepreneurship culture in the state.

David Roberts
David Roberts

“I think it’s all about creating wealth for the state of Indiana, for the people of Indiana and high-quality jobs,” he said. “Overall, it’s sort of an often-cited statistic that predominantly all of net new job growth is from firms that are less than five years old, (so) when you see entrepreneurship, you see opportunities for new jobs overall.”

While businesses can move into the state after forming elsewhere, Roberts said it’s crucial to support entrepreneurs and innovators who are already living in the state from the ground up to assist in the future of Indiana’s economy.

“I think it’s really important that we have those businesses that are formed here, stay here, grow here,” Roberts said. “One thing that we are mindful of is that as businesses grow, they become very, very attractive and other states might try to lure them to leave Indiana, so it’s important for that entrepreneurship to be organic.”

Chris LaMothe, CEO of Elevate Ventures, also stressed the importance of keeping and attracting talent in the state.

Chris LaMothe
Chris LaMothe

“There’s a lot of young people that could go anywhere else in the country, in the world if they wanted, and we have to have compelling reasons for them to stay and want to build their careers and their lives here in Indiana,” he said. “I’m convinced that that is going to be through innovation and entrepreneurism.”

Keeping entrepreneurs in the state is as essential as helping them form, and Elevate Ventures, which formed in 2010, works to create sustainable cultures and infrastructure across the state to support the development and success of entrepreneurs.

According to the organization’s website, its “vision is to be regarded as a critical guide, resource and community catalyst for developing high-performing, high-growth, Indiana-based businesses.”

LaMothe said Elevate Ventures has partnerships across the state and has seen an increase in entrepreneurs in the regions in which it partners. He said he finds that entrepreneurs tend to make better, more engaged citizens who look at the world around them in a different way.

“For people to be entrepreneurs, they have to pivot outside of themselves — they have to identify with someone and identify a need or something that they can provide that’s needed by other people,” LaMothe said. “Entrepreneurs, I think, tend to have to come out of themselves and learn about the world around them and understand the world enough to come up with a product or service that meets needs in the community or in our world.”

Indiana was one of this country’s most prolific entrepreneurial states in previous years, and the state can get back to it, he said, they just need to work on giving assistance to entrepreneurs.

“Thoughtful leaders, both business and public sector leaders, are starting to recognize that to build very successful communities, they really have to create and build jobs from within, and the best way to do that is through entrepreneurial effort and activity,” LaMothe said. “We’re a nation, frankly, that was built by entrepreneurs.”

Assistance everywhere

Startup South Bend-Elkhart, strives to make it easy for entrepreneurs to get started, said Regina Emberton, president and CEO of the South Bend-Elkhart Regional Partnership.

Regina Emberton
Regina Emberton

“We adopted this premise that entrepreneurs are the ones that lead the ecosystem, and it’s really all about what they need,” she said.

Startup South Bend-Elkhart has made everything as digital as possible, Emberton said, noting they have things such as resource directories and a digital innovation hub for entrepreneurs to find different resources. They also are creating a professional services directory to assist with paid services such as accounting, taxes or marketing.

She said they also try to put event details and other posts on social media that help entrepreneurs with awareness of things that are available.

Emberton said entrepreneurship is one of the five main pillars of the South Bend-Elkhart Regional Partnership’s regional economic development strategy. The others include industry growth, talent attraction and retention, education and workforce and diversity, equity and inclusion.

“This is probably going back to kicking off around 2016 that we started to make a focus on entrepreneurship,” she said. “Startup South Bend-Elkhart is basically a branded initiative that focuses on entrepreneurship for our Region.”

Region resources

Other avenues for entrepreneurship come from education-based programs at universities.

Thomas Keon, Purdue University Northwest chancellor, said when he first joined the university 10 years ago, he was excited to try to bring new ideas and new directions to Northwest Indiana.

Thomas Keon
Thomas Keon

He said the university has many different avenues for both current students as well as high school students to participate in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation, such as the Society of Innovators and the entrepreneurship and innovation program.

“When the Society of Innovators needed a home, it made sense to me to bring them into the university because it meshed greatly with what we’re trying to achieve as a university,” Keon said. “As a university, not only do we put out graduates that have strong abilities to do all kinds of things in Northwest Indiana, I think we also have an obligation to help lead as a university the direction for economic viability for Northwest Indiana.”

This year, the Society of Innovators got involved with Innovate WithIN, a high school pitch competition, Keon said, in which entrepreneurs present their business concepts to a panel with the hopes of winning cash prizes or investment capital.

“I was really thrilled that the Society of Innovators wanted to go in a direction where we’re starting to get younger and younger people involved with thinking about new and exciting things,” he said.

Having an entrepreneur culture and different programs to promote entrepreneurs and innovators alike can assist in the economic viability of Northwest Indiana, which Keon said might be falling behind.

“The economic viability of Northwest Indiana is really lagging the state at this point,” Keon said. “Here in Northwest Indiana … there’s really not a lot of excitement around commercialization, there’s a lot of excitement around transportation and having a lot of hubs for distribution because of our highway system, but we’re not seeing that same level of interest and that same level of investment in the commercialization side, (but) we at the university keep driving that because the future is going to be so dependent on us doing some things that are different than what we do now.”

Heather Ennis, president and CEO of Northwest Indiana Forum, a nonprofit focused on creating economic development opportunities, said things are consistently evolving, and as they evolve, so do people and ideas, thus creating a need for more entrepreneurs across the state.

Heather Ennis
Heather Ennis

“It’s incumbent upon us to be entrepreneurial in nature to figure out how to continue to evolve our business practices to what’s coming next,” she said. “I think it’s critically important to work, all of us, together.”

The NWI Forum’s regional economic development plan, Ignite the Region, contains a pillar for entrepreneurship and innovation, Ennis said, and Purdue University Northwest runs impact labs that serve as a leading platform of the plan.

“(We’re) really working toward creating a place for entrepreneurship and interpreneurship, where companies can grow what they’re doing already, but other companies can startup and get the support and infrastructure needs that they need in order to move forward,” she said. “It’s a big space, entrepreneurship and innovation. It takes all of us to be working together on it.”

Ennis said real growth opportunity for the Region lies in the entrepreneurial space and small companies, because so many larger companies have a more automated process.

She said smaller companies are the ones that grow the fastest and have the most opportunity for growth.

“As a state, we need to continue to be innovative; we have, per capita, the most manufacturing of any state,” Ennis said. “I think that the opportunity for us to continue to evolve into more high-tech advanced manufacturing is really great, but that is going to continue to take on a form of innovation and entrepreneurship that maybe we hadn’t thought of before.”

Creating a culture that lifts entrepreneurs and innovators will assist the state in economic growth, Ennis said, noting that it will not only increase jobs across the area, but also create a different experience for those working.

“The workplace is continuously evolving, even the economic development of the way things are going to be more specialized as opposed to more task-oriented,” she said. “All of us are looking for a more customized feel and experience, and an entrepreneurship and innovative ecosystem really helps to bring that to fruition.”

LaMothe said an entrepreneur culture is the key to creating a thriving community, because assisting in the building of small businesses while allowing for entrepreneurial ideas to flourish can help areas across the state.

“To build successful communities, you have to have a rich, vibrant small- to medium-sized business community — that’s the key,” LaMothe said. “That’s difficult to attract, so you have to build it yourself.

“I think a lot of communities are starting to recognize that they’ve got to build their own innovative companies and their own companies that are creating exciting jobs that keep young people and create a lot of opportunity.”

Managing Editor Larry Avila contributed to this story.

Click here to read more from the August-September 2021 issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.

Hannah Reed
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