John Dortch has been pleased to see a substantial increase in the area’s entrepreneurial activity among minorities since Build Institute Fort Wayne started offering business development training a little more than a year ago.

The former Parkview Health vice president owns three businesses, including the Fort Wayne Ink Spot newspaper, and serves as president of the Fort Wayne Black Chamber of Commerce, which he helped found.

As a strong supporter of minority business development, Dortch serves on a Build Institute steering committee and owns the Penta CS Group, LLC minority entrepreneurial center. The center operates in the same building at 2513 S. Calhoun St. where the Ink Spot is located.

The Build Institute is a 9-week basic business education course modeled after a similar program in Detroit for early-stage business builders.

“It’s extremely effective; I’ve sat in on a couple of them to watch them teach,” Dortch said. “The number of minorities who are enrolling in it who are starting businesses or working on starting businesses is incredible, is outstanding.”

And the employment successful Build Institute graduates create in the region will help its economy “because more dollars will go back into the community in all areas,” he said.

“Whether someone is going to a restaurant, whether someone is buying something or whatever, it’s having a major impact.”

The institute was designed to help entrepreneurs who are ready to start or restart a business identify and hone strengths while developing meaningful connections with like-minded individuals and groups.

Cohorts of up to a dozen participants meet weekly for three hours. The program of Fort Wayne’s Summit City Entrepreneur and Enterprise District provides 27 education and community building hours for emerging business founders.

In the days before COVID-19 forced it to move online, the program offered free childcare and meals during its three-hour weekly education session. Participants paid an upfront, $175 fee for the course, which was returned to them upon its completion to reinvest into their business.

Topics covered in the course including financial literacy, market research, cost-benefit analysis, registering a new business with regulators, loan types and cash flow.

SEED Fort Wayne stopped providing food or childcare during the education sessions when it adjusted to the pandemic by offering the course via Zoom online teleconferencing.

Many businesses deemed essential by state government were not forced to close during the lockdown that took place to slow the spread of COVID-19, and some retailers successfully transitioned to online orders and curbside service. About a third of the founders in the program were relatively unaffected by it.

But about one third of the participants decided to suspend their operations until the pandemic was over, and another third sought help from SEED Fort Wayne to keep operating, said its director, Trois Hart, in an email.

“A total of 18 students from four classes dropped out during the transition when interrupted by the lockdown,” she said.

“While many of the Build graduates are pursuing service-based businesses, there’s no simple answer to this other than most are pursuing online, or have added online to their business model,” she said. “The focus on technology is forefront more so than before.”

The program has 143 graduates, of which 30 live outside of Allen County. Of the 113 Allen County graduates, 62%, or 89, were on their way to founding or strengthening minority-owned businesses.

Because the current recession was created by a pandemic, the potential impact on the economy of treatment or vaccine development breakthroughs complicates financial forecasting, particularly for many emerging businesses.

It would be too difficult to project the near-term impact of the Build Institute on the city or its economy, but longer-term, helping participants get businesses started or farther along in development expands the Black Owned Business volume, “which impacts the entrepreneurial culture in that population,” Hart said.

“We are following all graduates to help make connections to local/state/federal resources as they progress through their stages,” she said. “We very much have our sights on the future, this generation and those that follow.”

The program is launching marketing and financial education courses this summer, which were two education topics Build Institute graduates considered the most helpful, Hart said.

For individuals and businesses interested in supporting Build Institute participants, she has the following suggestions:

• Seek out Black-owned businesses on Facebook at Shop Fort Wayne and Surrounding Black Owned Businesses. Post a request and the community will make a referral. Pretty easy!

• Donate to SEED Fort Wayne to help offset operational expenses.

• Comment on our graduation posts or share registration information. You will find the Build Institute program on SEED Fort Wayne’s social media (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter).

And here is a recent Build Institute graduating class participant sampling, with business and founder names and a brief product or service description:

• Hodges Transportation Services, Janice Hodges, targeting underserved population — elderly, young children, etc.

• Clean Lot Solution, Issac Fincher, commercial lot maintenance

• Nicole’s Wraparound Service, Nicole Conrad, offering wrap around services for people with serious emotional disorders.

• Burney Tax & Notary Services, LLC, Natasha Burney, tax professional

• New Village Braid, Nkonye Mwalilu, hair braiding for men and women

• She Poppin’, Courtney Oldham, online and vending machine beauty supplies

• Set the Table, Stephanie Rogers, catering and eventually event space

• Intrigue Event Space, Tabrina Mudd, luxurious party space

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