Chelsea Schneider, Municipal Innovations Specialist, Aim
When Kayte Malik looked to grow her tech business, she left her corporate job in Chicago and moved to South Bend for a unique entrepreneurial program aimed at combating the “brain drain” by recruiting and retaining top talent in Indiana.
Called enFocus, the program has played a key role in transforming the city’s vacant Studebaker plant into an incubator space for young professionals to launch businesses. The program hires fellows to work with clients within the greater South Bend region on their business needs. In exchange, they receive dedicated time to develop their business ideas and passions.
And it’s paying off.
Already, enFocus has retained close to 100 entrepreneurs in Indiana, said Mark Stevens, the group’s program director. What’s more, the group has implemented 110 projects across organizations in the community and incubated 16 businesses. Projects have ranged from the development of a virtual learning app similar to Pokemon Go to building laser eye technology for third world countries. Like South Bend, communities across Indiana are launching co-working and business incubator space to encourage small businesses to grow and remain in their area.
“It’s to help them develop themselves personally and create a network in the community,” Stevens said, “so they can see how great a place South Bend is.”
Malik is expanding her company called DresscodeTech, with the goal of increasing the number of women and girls interested in computer science by pairing technology with fashion. The company markets fashion-forward bracelets that feature messages, such as “I am brave” and “I am bold” in a series of 1’s and 0’s that make up binary code. The code on the bracelet unlocks a lesson on the company’s website.
Empowering more women to explore tech fields and learn code hits close to home for Malik.
In her undergrad computer science classes, Malik, a 2016 University of Notre Dame Executive MBA graduate, remembers being only one or two women in the room.
“I kind of felt like I didn’t belong, but I knew that I had the skills and talents to succeed,” she said. “The problem that our company is trying to solve is the lack of women and girls who are exposed to technology or excited about technology. Our mantra is there is beauty in technology and innovation.”
Having grown up in Rochester, New York, Malik also believes in the benefits of drawing top talent to mid-range cities after witnessing the “brain drain” first hand.
“I think enFocus’ mission is great in retaining top talent to the area,” Malik said. “There is a lot of opportunity here. If anyone is considering social entrepreneurship and leadership, it is a great opportunity to not only work on your venture but be tied to the community.”
Across the state, cities and towns are developing their own strategies to attract tech and other economic growth.
In Huntingburg, Current Blend offers co-working space, with the city leasing the building to the non-profit that heads up the program. Decatur plans to open a public artist space on the bottom floor of new downtown housing designed to attract tenants interested in the arts. Crawfordsville also plans to launch Fusion 54 to house co-working space and Wabash College’s entrepreneurial program, with the goal of keeping some of those start-ups in the city by providing them an environment to flourish.
In Zionsville, the town is a sponsor of zWORKS, an entrepreneurial and co-working center in the heart of downtown. Often the prevailing economic development strategy is to go out and attract companies to move to an area, Mayor Tim Haak said. While Zionsville is focused on that strategy, town leaders also are looking to help businesses, which use the co-working space, to grow “in-house.”
“They are more likely going to stay because those people live in your community,” Haak said. “They want to work in the community.”
Down in Bedford, artist Vercii Reed opened a studio in the city’s business incubator to offer community art classes. Reed said she decided to invest in Bedford and open a studio in the StoneGate Arts and Education Center to help her community grow. The space is located in a historic building that once housed a limestone company.
“I am very sensitive to economic growth here in a community of this size,” Reed said. “When you are local, you invest local, you buy local, you try to bring in entertainment options locally, then it’s an investment in the community because then you will see that grow.”