Innovation-minded enFocus expands into Elkhart County with a boost from Notre Dame

by Erin Blasko

Enfocus

Enfocus

In its short existence, enFocus has helped more than three dozen public, corporate and nonprofit clients in the South Bend area — from health care providers to local governments and school corporations — grow via data-driven process improvements, technology deployment and business consulting and analysis.

Now, the cutting-edge innovation organization, which is supported by the University of Notre Dame, is expanding into Elkhart County with a location at Launch Elkhart, a small business incubator within the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce.

Like in South Bend, the organization plans to work with a variety of public and private clients in the so-called “RV Capital of the World” — about 16 miles east of Notre Dame — to create and deploy innovations ranging from new products and services to adjustments in business practices and operations.

Among its first tasks will be studying the labor market in the county on behalf of the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County, a nonprofit that works to retain and expand existing businesses, attract new businesses and foster entrepreneurial development.

With the rebound of the RV industry after the recession, the county, with a population of about 200,000, is experiencing a severe labor shortage, with an unemployment rate of just 3 percent in August. Various reports peg the gap at anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 workers.

Among other things, enFocus will look at supply and demand in the market, labor flow (where people live versus where they work), workforce readiness and labor force participation, including barriers to employment such as lack of transportation or childcare, criminal history, drug dependence and discrimination.

According to Mark Dobson, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp., enFocus competed for the job with other vendors and submitted one of the better proposals.

“And when given the opportunity, then, to work with a high-quality local vendor and engage local folks to assist with local problems, it tipped the scale in favor of enFocus,” Dobson said.

In addition to its work with the EDC, enFocus will help manage Vibrant Communities, a portfolio of 77 action items designed to build pride and foster a greater sense of place and community in the county, on behalf of the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We want to effectively double the size of enFocus,” from eight to 10 fellows per year to 20 or more, said enFocus Chief Strategy Officer Lex Dennis, a 2013 Notre Dame graduate and former enFocus intern and fellow.

Leadership began plotting expansion in 2013, Dennis said, after the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation, awarded enFocus $3 million in grant money through Notre Dame.

Elkhart, a center of manufacturing in the state, was the logical choice, Dennis said, because of its proximity to South Bend and its “entrepreneurial spirit.” “We thought it would be fertile ground for fledgling entrepreneurs,” he said.

As a bonus, the Community Foundation of Elkhart County, which strives to improve quality of life in the county, has agreed to help secure nonprofit work for the organization.

“On our side, what we have said is that, if you can secure project work with not-for-profit organizations in Elkhart County, we will underwrite half of the cost,” said Pete McCown, president of the Community Foundation.

EnFocus has worked with the Community Foundation in the past, McCown said, among other Elkhart County clients, helping the foundation establish and track performance measures.

“I’m enamored with the enFocus concept because it creates a gateway for bright, college-educated, post-graduate-educated men and women to plug into this region, including Elkhart,” he said.

A South Bend-based nonprofit, enFocus is a one-year fellowship program that recruits recent college graduates to work as sponsored problem solvers, assist with community development and incubate new businesses in the South Bend area.

As part of that, the fellows manage teams of interns comprised of current college students, including Notre Dame students.

The goal is simple yet complex: recruit, develop and retain talent in the region and make it a better place to live, work and play by developing and supporting projects that enhance quality of life and place.

For example, the organization worked with the South Bend Fire Department to maximize fleet efficiency, saving the department, and taxpayers, $1.7 million over 10 years. And it partnered with the St. Joseph County Auditor’s Office to implement technology upgrades, saving the office $500,000 per year.

Nearly 80 percent of the 46 fellows who have graduated from the program have stayed in the area, Dennis said, helping to reduce the outflow of talent from South Bend and surrounding communities. According to McCown, though area colleges and universities, including Notre Dame, graduate thousands of students each year, only 30 percent of the local population is college-educated.

"EnFocus benefits the South Bend community through partnerships with our local government, schools and nonprofits. It is also a highly successful engine for “brain gain,” as many fellows remain and contribute here even after completing the program,” said South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “The whole region can benefit from this unique connection of talent and purpose."

Contact: Erin Blasko, assistant director of media relations, 574-631-4127, eblasko@nd.edu