Founders Spark Power Circle celebration panel discussion

Aaron Robles, founder of Founders Spark, to the far left, led this panel discussion at its Nov. 8 Power Circle celebration at Wunderkammer Co. Other panelists included, from left, Clifford Clarke, who chairs the board of the Fort Wayne Black Chamber of Commerce; Melissa Rinehart, lead organizer for Welcoming Fort Wayne; and John Dortch, the Black Chamber’s CEO. Clarke and Dortch are local business owners.

Demographic representation improved locally with the election of three African Americans, including two women, to the Fort Wayne City Council. But, participants in panel discussion at a Founders Spark Power Circle celebration said the city remains far from approaching what it could achieve by improving inclusiveness.

The celebration took place Nov. 8 at Wunderkammer Co. on Fairfield Avenue in Fort Wayne. Aaron Robles, the founder of Founders Spark, led the discussion.

Other panelists included Clifford Clarke, who chairs the board of the Fort Wayne Black Chamber of Commerce, John Dortch, its CEO, and Melissa Rinehart, lead organizer for Welcoming Fort Wayne. Clarke and Dortch are local business owners.

Founders Spark was created to strengthen connections in the entrepreneurial community and help provide aspiring entrepreneurs with the tools they need to succeed.

“Power Circle is Founders Spark’s attempt to help create more diversity and inclusion, and educate people on what those mean and how we can become advocates for other people,” Robles said at the outset of the event.

The subject is one he cares very deeply about as an immigrant from Mexico and a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient, he said. DACA provides undocumented residents who came to the United States as children with renewable work permits and protection from deportation.

“The conversation is never over. There’s always more that we could do to educate people on race and gender and all these other types of entrepreneurs and people in our community that have certain hurdles that they have come across,” he said.

“What we want to do tonight is educate and figure out how we can all walk out of here empowered to help those people that need more help and how we can become more understanding and helpful neighbors to one another.”

Robles kicked off the discussion by asking panelists why they believed it was important to talk about diversity and inclusion.

“The data is overwhelming if you look at empirical studies,” Clarke said. “Diverse, inclusive organizations — companies and cities — outperform those that are less so. Strictly by the numbers, you should be looking for diversity and inclusion.

“The other thing that I often reference is that if you don’t have diversity and inclusion and you don’t pay attention to all the PhD studies and all the data, if you are a student of history, there is a tipping point where the disenfranchised cannot take it anymore, and that’s usually never good for society,” he said.

Conversations on the topic need to take place in Fort Wayne because too many of the city’s residents don’t understand the subject and its importance, Dortch said.

“I really think we have a job trying to educate people. We need to sit down and have a conversation about race, what is race and why is it the way it is,” he said.

The fact that the Nov. 5 election was the first in Fort Wayne’s history to vote three African Americans on to the City Council shows “we have an issue,” he said.

When most members of a person’s social and professional network value diversity and inclusion, even women who have endured gender discrimination can benefit from reminders about the amount of education still needed in the city, said Rinehart, a cultural anthropologist.

“Diversity is reality in the world today — cultural diversity — because biologically, we’re all related. So, it’s hard for me to pause and … see that not everyone thinks like that. So, I have to check myself that that person over there is not educated or experienced in the same way that I am,” she said.

Public officials who fail to properly acknowledge disadvantages imposed on a group through historic oppression and actually celebrate a symbol of that oppression need to give much more serious thought to the value of inclusion, Rinehart said.

From that perspective, establishing a local July 16 holiday celebrating the birthday of Gen. Anthony Wayne in a 6-3 vote this summer was not a proud moment for the Fort Wayne City Council, she said.

“There was a lot of criticism from myself and others — scholars from all around the country who have worked with the historical era with Anthony Wayne and the Miami,” she said. “A lot of tribal members have spoken up.”

Another proposal will be brought before the City Council to celebrate Native Americans, and Rinehart encouraged everyone at the Power Circle to attend that meeting in order to show support for the proposal in person.

The resolution celebrating National Native American Heritage Month was to be introduced on Nov. 12 and go to a vote on Nov. 19.

It would acknowledge and honor significant contributions Native Americans have made to the Fort Wayne community, including the more than 200 Myaamia citizens living in part of their ancestral homeland.

Panelists agreed bias poses a serious problem for women and minority entrepreneurs, and communities miss opportunities to improve business formation to the extent that they fail to address the issue.

For example, only 2% of venture capital funding went to female founders last year, Robles said, and that figure was less than 1% for Black female founders.

Because most aspiring minority entrepreneurs face far more difficulty finding seed funding than majority entrepreneurs, “they have to make money and take the money and turn it back into the business, and keep doing that until they get to a certain point,” Clarke said.

“Eventually, they’ve been doing it long enough that they can get somebody to look at them for the loan,” he said. “But, they get less and they’re paying more for it. Their terms are generally in worse shape. So you do not have the capital that you want to get started.”

The panel discussion lasted more than an hour and barely scratched the surface of common obstacles women and minority entrepreneurs must surmount to start and grow a successful business.

Social interaction outside of an individual’s comfort zone and engagement in uncomfortable, productive discussions on subjects related to race and gender were among steps the panelists recommended for supporting inclusion and diversity in Fort Wayne.

“A lot of people do not want to go out of their network. You’ve got to do it,” Dortch said. “Network, network, network. It builds relationships.”

“There’s so much knowledge and value we can gain from people who are different from us, whether it’s in business or outside of business, that once you get comfortable with being that uncomfortable, it changes everything,” Robles said.

Rinehart likes being uncomfortable, she said, because she knows the feeling is temporary and she is going to walk away more knowledgeable and more experienced.

“I’ve got the perfect place you can go to get uncomfortable,” she said. “The Mormons are having a multicultural event in a few days. Get uncomfortable; be willing to go. They’re doing this for the right reasons — to educate themselves and the community and to bring people together.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints scheduled the Multicultural Night featuring tables with international decorations and food samples for 5-7 p.m. Nov. 16 at 5401 St. Joe Road in Fort Wayne. A related dance party was scheduled for 7-9 p.m.

Information on it and other events, trainings and activities about and for newcomers — such as foreign films, ethnic festivals, refugee health conferences and citizenship seminars — are available at welcomingfw.org/v.

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