enFocus: New college graduates given the opportunity to make our community better

Why don’t things work?

Nice question. But a better question is, how can we make them work better?

Since 2012, enFocus and their fellowship program has put that second question at the forefront of its mission in northern Indiana communities.

For Andrew Wiand, the program’s executive director, this drive to solve tough problems has energized bright young men and women while helping small cities and towns in northern Indiana become better places to live.

EnFocus – shorthand for entrepreneurial focus – all started on a spring break field trip.

Wiand and several peers in the University of Notre Dame ESTEEM master’s program were visiting a former Lucky Strike cigarette factory in Durham, North Carolina. They saw how an empty building had been transformed into a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship, two qualities that have been in short supply in South Bend and surrounding communities. 

Why couldn’t the same burst of creativity and enthusiasm emerge here as well?

The graduate students convinced South Bend area business leaders with their proposal for a talent incubator. As support grew among the business community, academic partners, financiers, and dedicated mentors, enFocus hired it first seven young professionals in the fall of 2012.

The idea was simple: Give new college graduates a chance to put their classroom-developed skills to work with real-world issues that simply weren’t being addressed.

To do that, enFocus fellows are attached to regional partners, ranging from City Hall and school systems to area hospitals and manufacturers. Supported by experienced managers and mentors, and working collaboratively with partners, they attempt to identify and solve problems.

In its first year alone, enFocus’s seven Fellows identified $3.2 million in unrealized savings opportunities within public funds. These ranged from improving the city’s solid-waste fleet at a savings of $500,000 to providing an analysis that helped the Notre Dame Federal Credit Union receive a beneficial designation to serve the low-income community. 

In years since, notable enFocus projects have included maximizing the fleet efficiency for the South Bend Fire Department, saving the department and taxpayers $1.7 million over 10 years. Fellow teams also partnered with the St. Joseph County Auditor’s Office to implement technology upgrades, saving the office $500,000 per year.

Their success stories required a wide range of inquiry – from scouring long strings of data to climbing into sewers to figure out how the waste-water system works.

But as Wiand recalls, the biggest challenge early on was getting support and access to these projects. Why would anyone trust raw college grads with these difficult issues?

Success breeds success.

“Once the community was exposed to capabilities of our fellows and the value of our work, support grew,” he said.

Initially, entities benefiting from enFocus paid a larger share of the fellows’ salaries. A big step came in 2013, when enFocus received a five-year, $3 million grant from the Eli Lilly Foundation to help it grow.

In 2018, enFocus secured additional funding from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, and the Community Foundation of Elkhart County to support expansion into Elkhart County–a logical choice, given its proximity and deep history of entrepreneurship. Projects there included the Elkhart County Solid Waste Management District Leaf Collection Competition and Green Schools Initiative, and the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau (ECCVB) downtown vibrancy assessment.  

In 2019, the Lilly Endowment awarded the Industry Futures and Transformation grant, designed to create diversification in the South Bend-Elkhart regional economy driven by technology and advanced manufacturing. This award created the opportunity for enFocus, to expand its activities to innovation-based economic development, recruiting technical talent to support iNDustry Labs at Notre Dame.

EnFocus also created an Industry Innovation team to work directly with local manufacturers to help them identify opportunities, implement new technologies, streamline operations, and grow their businesses.  

Over the past nine years, enFocus has completed more than 350 sponsored projects for over 150 regional organizations. These engagements have resulted millions of dollars in business value but most importantly they have brought over 100 Fellows and 900 interns to our region.

EnFocus is a highly successful engine for “brain gain,” as more than 70 percent of these fellows remain in our region at the conclusion of their Fellowship. They can be found in leadership positions in city government, managing business operations for local schools, growing successful startups and supporting the advancement of manufacturing in the region. 

“Regardless of the sector – nonprofit, government, health care, or industry – we believe it is people that drive innovation, advance economic growth and build quality of life in our communities,” Wiand said.

“Our ability to attract and retain talent ultimately determines our success. These are very talented young people who could go anywhere and after living and working in our communities many are choosing here.”