Beyond downtown: Spreading entrepreneurial ferment to the rest of Wichita

Jennifer McDonald poses Tuesday with her silver-medal-winning cabernet sauvignon. McDonald has been making wine for two and a half years and has won three awards at the Kansas Grape Growers and Winemakers Association amateur competition. (Feb. 14, 2017)
Jennifer McDonald poses Tuesday with her silver-medal-winning cabernet sauvignon. McDonald has been making wine for two and a half years and has won three awards at the Kansas Grape Growers and Winemakers Association amateur competition. (Feb. 14, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

Jennifer McDonald loves wine and wants to build a business around it, from growing the fruit to selling the final product.

In the basement of her home, near 29th Street and Rock Road, sit six colorful, six-gallon carboys filled with fermenting juice on its way to becoming wine. At this point, she said, she thinks it will take at least a year to get her license to sell commercially.

But she’s got a plan and has bought several lots near 13th and Estelle to one day grow apples, peaches and strawberries.

What makes this business idea a little different from the recent entrepreneurial ferment centered around downtown is that McDonald is black.

She was encouraged to act by a local effort to foster entrepreneurism in students, minorities, women and other groups.

While downtown has become a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity, Wichita needs everybody pulling in the same direction, building businesses and creating jobs, said businessman Gary Oborny.

Oborny leads the Entrepreneurial Task Force, a local group that coordinates many of the groups that touch entrepreneurs. The task force is part of the Greater Wichita Partnership.

The spirit of entrepreneurism in Wichita has been fading for decades. The result is a less dynamic, slower-growing economy.

Oborny hopes to coordinate with the many new and existing groups committed to building entrepreneurism in Wichita, re-energize them and connect them together more seamlessly.

Oborny said students exposed to entrepreneurship programs early on are twice as likely to start their own companies.

“All of a sudden their mind is open and now it’s, ‘I don’t have to go down the traditional pathway to get a job at some company … I’m going to start my own gig,’ ” he said.

Building a pipeline

Every year, Northwest High’s DECA business club comes up with a project to take to DECA competition.

Three years ago, the DECA students created Innovation U, a local competition for K-8 students.

Teachers and teams of students throughout Wichita and suburban districts were invited to do a video showing how they took a cereal box and turned it into something new and useful, potentially a product for sale. Last year, about 25 teams made videos.

This year three enterprising Northwest seniors — Noah Birchfield, Nathan George and Riley Johnson — aggressively pitched the competition and produced a fun video set in a downtown parking garage to explain it.

They were stunned by the result: Their video got 167,000 views on Twitter, and more than 220 teams made videos. They named five winners at each level – K-2, 3-5 and 6-8 – to split $3,000.

Seeing a video go viral and results jump 10 times from a year earlier was addicting.

On Tuesday, the three presented their results at the Entrepreneurship Task Force meeting and on Wednesday at 1 Million Cups, a gathering of community people interested in entrepreneurism. The experience, they said, has pretty firmly locked them on course to start businesses.

“It’s been our life since September,” George said of the competition. “It’s now all that we talk about. … We were up till midnight at Northwest watching videos.”

“And it showed how much kids like to innovate because they jumped on this,” Johnson said.

Also talking about their work at Tuesday’s task force meeting were Jesse Adamah and Desmond Jones, seniors at Southeast High, who were working through JAG-K, a school program to help students with career exploration and leadership development.

They are starting a money-making operation called the Never Forgotten Project to make and sell blankets for children staying in hospitals. They have made connections with a local hospital, bought some of the equipment and are seeking more money and material.

“We want to let people know that there are young people out there that still care,” Adamah said.

Reaching out to new groups

McDonald, the budding winemaker, is one of the few early prospects for the Create Campaign, an attempt to spread an entrepreneurial mindset in the black community.

A recruiting consultant for Wolters Kluwer, she has filed the paperwork for her company, Jenny Dawn Cellars, although she is not, yet, operating it as a business.

“Even as a professional, I’ve still faced barriers,” she said of the lack of connection she felt to people who could help her. She is applying for Launchprep, a new program connecting entrepreneurs and mentors.

“I have a lot of questions that I need answers to that I haven’t been able to answer on my own,” she said.

Adding more people like McDonald is Christina Long’s biggest hope.

Long has spearheaded the Create Campaign as a member of the Entrepreneurship Task Force, whose mission is to tease out potential entrepreneurs from the black community.

The barriers are particularly high for members of that community, she said.

The amount of wealth is significantly less, cutting the ability to borrow from family and friends, the most common place that entrepreneurs go first.

There’s also a trust issue between these potential entrepreneurs and bankers and other business-support professions.

And while many entrepreneurs feel isolated from adequate guidance and support, that is especially true in the black community because there are significantly fewer black-owned businesses, Long said.

That’s where Long comes in, offering a sympathetic ear and knowledge of the extensive tools and resources available.

“We want to get the message out that, ‘It’s OK if the concept isn’t perfect. Let’s see what you have, and let’s work on it,’ ” she said.

The Create Campaign has held entrepreneur fairs the last two years, and this year is expanding with six months of programming beginning Feb. 21 with a program on exporting to Ghana.

Long also is working to include groups in the Hispanic community and taking the program to Kansas City, Kan.

Dan Voorhis: 316-268-6577, @danvoorhis