Before food trucks lined the streets for Lunch on the Plaza in downtown Fort Wayne, 19-year-old Bo Gonzalez started a hot dog cart in front of what is now the Ash Skyline Plaza.
“The first day we sold nothing except a few to my mom’s friends,” Gonzalez said. “The first year should have made me pack up and call it quits.”
But with community support and the help of a few good mentors, Gonzalez stuck it out that rough first day and first year. Now, on May 25, he’ll celebrate five years as the owner of the Bravas hot dog cart, which became the Bravas food truck, and eventually the Bravas burger joint at 3412 Fairfield Ave.
Today, at age 24, Gonzalez might attribute his success to his business mentor Brendon Maxwell of Utopian Coffee. He might tell you it was his own “pure ignorance” to just go for it, or his competitive spirit. But if you listen closely, there’s something else in the equation.
“I’m always thinking: How can I make this better?” Gonzalez said. “I have this weird desire to make things better.”
And it’s that “weird desire” for continual improvement that sets entrepreneurs apart. While some people accept life as it comes to them, others naturally—or intentionally— choose to see how they can keep growing, keep improving, and keep making the world a better place.
Author and researcher Adam Grant calls these individuals “originals.” And in his book, Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World, he explains how Gonzalez’s “weird desire to make things better” is something that all of us can learn from and learn to adapt.
“When we marvel at the original individuals who fuel creativity and drive change in the world, we tend to assume they’re cut from a different cloth,” Grant writes.
But he goes on to explain, “we can all become more original” by taking action to make our ideas a reality, and if you think about it, the same concept applies to our region.
Northeast Indiana might not be nationally known as a creative, entrepreneurial hub just yet. We don’t have the status of Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; or Silicon Valley. But there are things we can all do to make this region more original. It starts with fostering an environment that supports the desire to make things better. And it takes action to make them happen.
That’s what the nonprofit Start Fort Wayne is all about.
Dave Sanders, 41, launched the organization about a year ago as a casual group on Facebook to encourage community involvement. Before long, a team rallied around the idea, developing a nonprofit to advance our region by supporting entrepreneurs. In January they acquired a new co-working space downtown called The Atrium—putting them at the center of local entrepreneurial activity.
Along with providing communal space for independent workers to set up shop, Sanders wants The Atrium to host events and help inspire a culture of entrepreneurship in Northeast Indiana for years to come.
“It’s more than a co-work space,” Sanders said. “It’s more like a community center for entrepreneurship, even though I don’t like calling it that. It’s the place where the community is, and it’s a place to start and grow from—to help entrepreneurs acquire space downtown and start a cluster.”
The “cluster effect” of entrepreneurs is phenomenon Forbes writer Tom Post explored in 2014. According to his research, the most hospitable cities for small business don’t necessarily have the best blend of economic advantages, and they aren’t necessarily where big businesses are rooted. Instead, they have the most community engagement and access to resources—two factors Sanders hopes to boost in our region.
“Turns out that small businesses tend to attract other small businesses, creating their own, distinct ecosystems,” Post wrote.
That’s the idea behind Start Fort Wayne, and it’s a critical concept in Indiana where the conditions for start-ups seem to be lacking a key ingredient.
Despite Indiana’s seemingly good conditions for startups, including the low cost of living and getting a business off the ground, our state ranks 44 out of 50 for startup activity nationwide, according to research from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
That’s where Sanders thinks our region has the opportunity to make a difference.
By building a community that encourages entrepreneurs and supports bold ventures like a hot dog cart downtown Fort Wayne, we can attract startups that will make this region ripe for entrepreneurship—and more original.
Resources for Entrepreneurs
Start Fort Wayne: http://startfortwayne.com/
The Atrium: http://startfortwayne.com/atrium/
Vertical Leap: https://www.facebook.com/events/451619858376983/
1 Million Cups: http://www.1millioncups.com/fortwayne
Living Fort Wayne Entrepreneur Spotlight: http://www.livingfortwayne.com/blog/careers/
Northeast Indiana Innovation Center: http://www.niic.net/
Business Administration in Entrepreneurial Studies at Indiana Tech: http://academics.indianatech.edu/areas-of-study/business/degree-programs/entrepreneurial-bs/
The Paul Clarke Nonprofit Resource Center at the Allen County Public Library: https://pcnrc.org/
HereSay, in partnership with YLNI, is a bi-weekly blog about our say on what’s happening here. It is written by YLNI member Kara Hackett, and the opinions are her own. Photo by Matt Thomas. HereSay@ylni.org