Whitley County is preparing itself to be an innovation hub for new businesses.
“We have a big renaissance going on in downtown Columbia City with all the revitalization and reinvention going on,” said Jennifer Romano, executive director of the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce. “We want to create a sense of warmth and welcoming. If you have an idea, Whitley County is a great place to launch that idea.”
The chamber is opening its doors at 128 W. Van Buren St. as a coworking space, providing Wi-Fi, a conference room and desks as well as computers, phones and printers for startups looking to launch their own businesses. The chamber has also partnered with the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center to host a satellite office of its Women’s Entrepreneur Opportunity Center inside the chamber’s office.
WEOC will provide analysis, coaching and other programs for women looking to start their own businesses in Whitley County. Its grand opening is scheduled for March 15.
“We really want to roll out the red carpet to people relocating to Whitley County,” Romano said. “We’re all about helping them get connected.”
According the U.S. Census Bureau, Whitley County had 13,001 households, as of the 2010 Census. Of those, 1,966, or 15.1 percent, were female householders. Additionally, 1,192 had no husband present and, of those, 778, or 65.3 percent, had children younger than the age of 18.
“We chose Whitley County and the Whitley Chamber because of their leadership, commitment to entrepreneurship, geographic proximity and interest in enhancing access to quality services to entrepreneurs,” said Karl LaPan, president and CEO of NIIC.
The Whitley County WEOC will replicate NIIC’s Fort Wayne model, but adapt to local conditions, needs and priorities.
“We want to make sure our services are relevant, complement the existing service offerings and meet the needs of today’s rural entrepreneurs and innovators,” LaPan said. “We don’t see a one-size-fits-all approach to meeting these needs.”
The WEOC program offers access to cost-effective space to start a business as well as convenient on-site services to support startups and growing ventures.
“The bundling of chamber membership for co-working members will also provide valuable networking, educational and support services to help companies move faster and smarter in a strong entrepreneurial community setting,” LaPan said.
Leading the WEOC will be Leslee Hill, who recently joined the center as its director.
“She brings a rich background of corporate and entrepreneurial experience to the position,” LaPan said.
Hill will work with the organization’s Enterprising Communities members “to ensure the proper mix of services to meet the needs of today’s female founders,” LaPan said.
Whitley County is preparing for a boost in population, thanks to Zimmer Biomet relocating more than 50 employees from its facility in Puerto Rico to Warsaw. With housing inventory more plentiful in Columbia City and surrounding areas, most of those families will be settling across the county line.
Along with workers come spouses and other family members who will be looking for work or starting their own businesses here in northeast Indiana.
To accommodate the new residents from Puerto Rico, the NIIC is in the process of working with the Whitley Chamber to translate WEOC materials and will continue to assess additional bilingual needs as the program progresses.
According to the NIIC’s website, “From ideation and startup, through growth and expansion, WEOC was designed to understand and respond to the unique needs of women entrepreneurs. We do this through business-growth coaching, training and entrepreneurial education, connectivity and access to capital.”
“This center can be instrumental in supporting the northeast Indiana action agenda of creating a highly connected, collaborative culture with entrepreneurs at the center, and developing a guidance system for entrepreneurs,” said Marilyn Moran-Townsend, chair of Elevate Northeast Indiana.
She explained that northeast Indiana is a manufacturing stronghold, but the manufacturing sector historically has not experienced significant female ownership.
“Women do not have a long tradition of ownership or numerous role models in the area,” she said. “Whitley County’s plan to prepare women entrepreneurs through the opportunities center is what Elevate Northeast Indiana means when we say we need to create ‘entrepreneurial culture shock’ in our region. By eliminating friction for entrepreneurs, they can grow faster and create more jobs.”