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Entrepreneur Profile: Pamela Derr

Chips & Doodles

Pamela Derr started small-batch bakery Chips & Doodles after years building a reputation – the cookies she made for her husband’s customers always won rave reviews. As her children grew, it evolved into bringing a piece of home to college students, many whom were away from home for the first time. Today, her company was recently named the new cake service provider for the University of Notre Dame.

“My goal was to kind of start small while my kids were still in school and then grow once we became empty nesters,” said Pam. “And that’s kind of where we’re at now.”

The name stems from the first two items Pam made – Chocolate Chip and Snickerdoodle cookies. Since moving from a home base to a commercial kitchen, she’s since expanded her offers to include a variety of sweet treats, including brownies, cakes and even ice cream sandwiches, in partnership with South Bend Challah Company. Her baked goods can be ordered online and found in a variety of local shops.

As her son started school at the University of Notre Dame, Pam found a new market for her cookies.

“People were looking for baked goods on the parent page,” she said. “I put out there that I had a local business. I was a class of 2026 mom and I’ve been baking a lot for birthdays, for students that are away from home for the first time. Their parents want to do something special.”

Pam adds a balloon with a card from the family and delivers the gift to the student. She will ask the recipient if she can take a photo to send back home. So far, she has never had a student say no.

“I feel so blessed that my son is 20 minutes away,” she said. “I have done cookies for families that live in Puerto Rico, as well as California and Hawaii. It’s just such a blessing that I’m able to pass that on to the families. It’s so much more than just using real butter and real vanilla. I’m trying to give that fresh-made from scratch, baked just for you personal touch that you know that the parents are not able to give right now.”

Chips & Doodle’s new partnership with the University of Notre Dame will allow her to continue to serve students and families, but on a larger scale. The cake service is run out of the Student Activities Office, and will support student activities on campus, while employing undergraduates.

One of Pam’s featured items is printed cookies. Using edible ink, the printer places the image directly on the cookie.

“I make a sugar cookie and put royal icing on it and then it prints directly on the cookie,” she said. “There’s a few other bakers in this area that do it, but it’s a little bit different than what other people offer. I’ve printed a photo my son took of the Golden Dome, and it is as clear as if you printed it on paper.”

A life-long resident of South Bend, Pam’s first kitchen experience was watching her mother baking at home. The first year Pam made cookies for her husband’s customers, she hand-decorated cutout cookies, all while staying at home with her toddler.

“I did snowmen with the brooms and the hats and all that,” Pam said. “And I was like, ‘I’m never doing that again!’”

This led to her perfecting her chocolate chip and snickerdoodle recipes, allowing her to focus on the cookie and not the decoration. By the time she opened the bakery, Pam was making one hundred dozen cookies for her husband each year.

Pam has participated in both the Saint Mary’s College SPARK Business Accelerator and the HustleSBE program.

“I learned a lot, kind of fine tuning it in person,” she said. “Having that face-to-face time to bounce questions off of each other and hear other people in the room talking about things, learning from all of that and feeling that common ground.”

She has found one of her biggest struggles as an entrepreneur is persistence and having confidence in herself and her business.

“One time, I was told ‘You’re a professional baker,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t think that,’” she said. “But I have made hundreds of thousands of cookies. I guess that does play into it, but I’ve always had a struggle with that and believing that people really like my product, but here we’re going on six years, and I’ve gained somewhat of a following.

For more information on Chips & Doodles, visit

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Entrepreneur Profile: Alex Sejdinaj

South Bend Code School, South Bend Code Works & Give Grove

From a young age, Alex Sejdinaj wanted to help make the world a better place. For a long time, she thought that meant becoming a doctor. It wasn’t until she was in college at the University of Notre Dame that – with a nudge from a counselor – she realized her true passion. She can make the world a better place through coding. This developed into three organizations South Bend Code School, South Bend Code Works, and Give Grove.

“What unites all three companies is that they’re all mission driven organizations,” Alex said. “We started all of them out of noticing a need or a problem that we felt passionate about and knew that we could use technology to help solve – or at least help improve.”

In summer of 2015, Alex started South Bend Code School with her two co-founders – her husband, also named Alex Sejdinaj, and Chris Frederick. The school started with the intention to teach children how to code, but once the pandemic hit, the organization pivoted to include adult learners. It offers a free educator program where the Code School will come to a school and teach a team of educators coding skills, so they can in turn teach it in their classrooms.

“It’s pretty exciting getting to launch it and just being able to help lower the barrier to entry for learning how to code, and then, in particular, being able to help educators as well because you’re able to reach more students that way,” said Alex. “Teachers already have enough on their plates. The fact that Indiana has a state mandate for students to be learning how to code in school – K through 12 – that puts a lot of pressure on teachers. With the training, they get curriculum and support throughout the school year. Being able to provide that feels incredibly needed at this time.”

South Bend Code Works came to fruition about a year after the Code School. The digital product studio partners with companies to help fulfill their technology needs. One of the biggest components has been their technology assistance grants, which help small businesses up their technology. The Digital Storefront grants develop websites for small businesses.

“It started with the pandemic, when a lot of businesses had to close their doors,” Alex said. “Unfortunately, many didn’t have an online presence and so their ability to continue operations didn’t exist. We started this grant program originally with the City of South Bend to be able to create websites for these businesses and set them up with different tools and systems to help their business processes run more easily.”

The program has since grown with a new partnership with Boone County, Indiana, when the area created a similar grant.

The third endeavor from Alex and her team is Give Grove. A fundraising platform, Give Grove aims to be simple and fun for not just the organization, but donors as well.

“Our logo was a lemon and so we like to say that we make fundraising easy peasy lemon squeezy. You know, just to make it fun,” she said.  “I think fun is a big part of the platform. We want it to feel enjoyable for the organizations as well as for the donors.”

It includes a gamification component and fun graphics and colors. But the key feature is in its flexibility and affordability for organizations of all sizes.

Alex finds a great deal of support and collaboration as part of a team of co-founders. She sees being married to one of her co-founders a benefit, especially since she’s navigating being a first-time mom and managing three growing businesses. Their son, Isaiah, was born in July.

‘You always have your partner – your collaborator – there with you,” she said. “I’d really say that collaboration piece in having co-founders is incredibly helpful. Being able to talk through ideas as well as not being the only person responsible for solving them. You know it helps take some of the pressure off of your back and knowing that you have other people to share this with.”

For Alex, the future of her organizations falls under one main goal – growing accessibility to technology.

“Code School is continuing to be able to reach more people and being able to empower them with the knowledge of how to use technology,” she said. “We also are working with adults; we have a course called Intro to Careers in Code. It’s a free virtual course, so adults from anywhere can be able to join a weekly zoom call with our coding instructor and learn real world coding skills and build projects. Code Works continues to make technology resources accessible to help more people and businesses. With Give Grove, we continue to help mission-driven organizations with our technology. Accessibility to technology is our goal across the board.”

For more information visit:
South Bend Code School
South Bend Code Works
Give Grove

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Entrepreneur Profile: Chris Merrill

Entrepreneur Profile: Chris Merrill

Adapta Education

Chris Merrill wasn’t necessarily setting out to become an entrepreneur. What started with his background as a high school educator, an idea while on vacation and a serendipitous graduate school connection grew into Adapta Education.

Adapta Education is a platform that gives teachers data and tools needed to personalize education based on their students’ ability. With the platform, teachers use the adaptive test generator to determine their students’ strengths and weaknesses.

“What’s nice about it is for the teachers, the setup is super easy,” Chris said. “They just select what standards and competencies they want students to be tested on and how many questions. Then it gives each student an adaptive test. What’s nice about it is the upper-level students, it keeps giving them harder and harder questions because they keep getting the easier ones right, whereas the lower-level students stay at their level.”

Chris first considered this idea while on vacation years ago. While driving with his wife, he began thinking about a product that could give schools individualized data on students’ capabilities, but, at that time, Chris was a teacher and working in sales, so he put the idea on the back burner.

“Fast forward a couple of years – I come to Notre Dame for grad school, for my MBA, and I hear about the IDEA Center, which essentially is that on campus incubator and accelerator,” said Chris. “I submit the idea, because I remember saying if I were to run a startup, this would be it. So, let’s just see where it goes. And they come back to me, saying there are two professors that created something just like what you’re talking about. I get connected with them and I find out, yes, they did create it and they did a much better job than what I would have ever thought of.”

The professors were looking for help to turn the technology into a business, so Chris seemed like the perfect fit to come on board to commercialize the project into a startup.

“I’m not doing this because I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he said. “It’s just more of ‘hey, this is something I believe in and something I think can make a difference.’ You know, I came to the MBA program thinking I want to be a product manager or something along those lines. I came to school to find something I wanted to do, and since then I believe in something that’s worth working for.”

A Salt Lake City native, Chris first moved to the South Bend – Elkhart region to attend graduate school. The choice to apply for the MBA program came easy; in addition to the program’s high ranking, he has family living in the area. Since moving to the region, Chris and his wife started a family of their own – they are parents of twin toddlers.

Chris sees benefits in starting a business in the South Bend – Elkhart region. He cites the availability of resources and funding, and the comparatively low cost to start a business as key features, as well as connectivity within the region.

“You’re two hours away from Chicago, two and a half hours away from Indy and then three hours from Detroit,” he said. “You got a really good region to kind of set up from and, and you’re plenty of businesses in those cities that you can work with and network.”

The Adapta platform is currently being used in schools, including Elkhart High School and Heritage Christian in Indianapolis. The tests are available for most high school math courses, including algebra I, geometry, algebra II, precalculus, AP calculus, intro to statistics and AP statistics, which allows school districts to use the platform across the entire high school math curriculum. An SAT addition is launching shortly. The adaptive structure of the tests allows students at all levels to stay engaged, without checking out over too many easy questions or overwhelmed by too many hard questions.

“Every student feels challenged, but not overwhelmed, and it only took two minutes to set it up so teachers can have time to focus on other spots in their classroom or other areas of their curriculum,” Chris said. “And then the data we provide them after is very specific competency based, so it shows them exactly where their students are struggling, where they’re excelling.”

This allows teachers to adjust the lesson plans to address students’ needs. Personalized education was a trend in education for years but has grown from a goal to an expectation in the years following COVID-related school closures.

“COVID set behind our students,” Chris said. “The average math student fell four months behind, so teachers, a population of people that we had already stretched to their limits before the pandemic, now we’re asking them to stretch a little further. They have to use their time as efficiently as they can in the classroom to ensure all their students’ needs are being met, that they’re catching students back up, and that they’re not wasting any time. That’s an incredibly hard thing to do.”

For more information on Adapta Education, visit www.

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Entrepreneur Profile: Adell Badgett

Entrepreneur Profile: Adell Badgett
Dellstar VR

Entrepreneur Adell Badgett sees plenty of opportunities for the technology behind VR – or virtual reality – gaming. His company, Dellstar VR, looks to not only provide fun and entertainment, but also address the mental health crisis, particularly in the African American community.

Dellstar VR is a virtual gaming business, with a location at Generations AdventurePlex in Mishawaka, as well as a mobile gaming unit that can be rented for private parties and events. Players have a variety of virtual reality games to choose from. Goggles make the gaming experience immersive.

Originally from California, Adell moved to South Bend as a young child. He always felt inspired to start his own business, but it wasn’t until the COVID pandemic that he was drawn to act on it.

“The pandemic was obviously a bad situation, but there were opportunities,” Adell said. “The fact is it offered a pause where you could actually acquire some new skills, if you wanted. You could actually focus on what you really wanted out of life. The pandemic just allowed me to bet on myself.”

Adell lost his previous job during pandemic-related layoffs. While on the job hunt, he researched and experimented with VR technology and discovered it was a viable business opportunity. During this time, he was also going to therapy. Looking back, he credits the therapy with giving him the confidence to start Dellstar VR. He is looking to incorporate therapy and education into his business.

“One of the main things that I’m focused on right now is using virtual reality for mental health and wellness to connect specifically Black people with Black therapists,” he said. “It’s something that’s really needed in our community.”

He also wants to use virtual reality technology for experiences like education and job training, as well as other therapeutic uses.

“One of my passions is being able to offer families with kids with autism not only an experience that can come to them, but also be able to offer more therapeutic experiences that can actually put them in situations virtually that might be triggers,” he said. “Working with the therapist, they can learn coping mechanisms to be able to better function in the real world.”

Adell always felt he was meant to be an entrepreneur. He participated in HustleSBE’s Cohort 5 and found the business bootcamp for Minority and Female business owners beneficial. Each of the eight weekly sessions featured a different topic and guest presenters.

“Hustle – by far – has been the best one that I’ve been to,” he said. “It’s a lot more digestible than most of the other workshops that I’ve been through. It’s not about cramming you full of five different subjects all at once. Every class offered a gem.”

Adell finds his biggest struggle as an entrepreneur is taking the time to focus on marketing while undertaking all the other key business tasks needed to keep the business afloat.

‘I think it’s an essential part of any business and without that resource – to be able to market and get people in the door or get services and clients – can be the hardest task,” he said. “Especially when you’re doing it by yourself, it can be extremely tedious to not be able to afford to have somebody take that on while you actually run your business.”

Dellstar VR was previously a stand-alone business in downtown South Bend. Adell found that to be a time of learning as he pivoted his business model when it no longer was financially viable to keep the space open.

“That’s what being an entrepreneur is,” he said. “Now I have a mobile trailer where I don’t have somebody come to me. I can go wherever I need to go. And then I also have Dellstar VR inside of Generations AdventurePlex, where it’s already customers in there. It makes it a lot easier.”

Adell says being strategic is one of the best skills an entrepreneur can have. A self-described introvert, he feels it is important pull yourself out of your comfort zone.

“For an entrepreneur, that spirit is the person that just doesn’t give up, like you’re going to take on any obstacle that comes your way,” he said. “You’re just going to take it on, right? You’re going to use whatever resources that you have. Leverage those against whatever other resources you have, especially when you come from a disenfranchised community or oppressed community or marginalized community. You won’t have a lot of the resources that some people have. So, you got to use the tools that you have to the best of your ability.”

For more information on Dellstar VR, visit

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Entrepreneur Profile: Maricela Navarro

Maricela Navarro

Oxfox Carriers

Logistics and trucking have been a traditionally male-dominated industries. Maricela Navarro is an exception – a female founder of a trucking company.

Oxfox Carriers is based in South Bend. The small transportation company runs freight across the Midwest and South, using a team of 53-foot drive-in trucks. They mostly handle general freight.

Maricela’s father inspired her to start the company. He had worked as a truck driver for years and encouraged his children to get into the business. But once her brother entered the field, she began to take notice of things about the day-to-day work that bothered them.

“I think it’s just the fact that I saw how unjust the system was,” said Maricela. “How low they were getting paid compared to the work they did, the time they spent away from home. And this way they’re able to decide more. They have more autonomy.”

Marcela’s father is her primary driver. He drives 400 to 600 miles a day, mostly in the Midwest.

She founded the business in 2019. As the owner of Oxfox, Maricela handles filing with the Department of Transportation and insurance. She leases owner operators under the company and then dispatches them to their assignments. To make things simpler for her drivers, she also handles all the administrative work.

She finds one of her biggest challenges has been finding the right companies to work with.

“I think that really the networking piece is really tough for me – making those connections of who I can contact to see where their freight is going and how we can help like,” Maricela said. “We do over the road. It’s mostly 400 to 600 miles a day. If everything is a short haul within a 200-hundred-mile radius, then maybe I need to switch my business model a little bit and I can accommodate those in a different way.”

Maricela is a graduate of HustleSBE. The business bootcamp was developed for minority and women business owners who are focused on exploring new solutions for their customers, generating new ideas, and shoring up current business practices to create a solid foundation upon which to grow.

“I think everything in Hustle – everything! – has been so valuable,” she said. “Time goes by so fast. The networking was really big and having the lawyers come in was huge. All that was very, very useful. They have all been wonderful speakers.”

She has found communication skills are key to what she does. She acts as the primary contact for both the drivers and the companies. Trucking is a well-regulated industry, so Maricela feels that attention to detail is another important trait in her entrepreneurial toolbox.

“You have to be a good rule follower,” she said. “Compliance is huge.”

Born and raised in South Bend, Maricela is encouraged by the entrepreneur ecosystem in the South Bend – Elkhart region and feels there are resources to help her build her business. In addition to HustleSBE, she has also participated in the SPARK Business Accelerator for women at Saint Mary’s College.

“I think that it has been really wonderful because I have family in other states and they don’t have as much support as we do,” she said. “I’m actually really thankful that I am in an environment where I feel supported and the city – the region – has all of these initiatives going on.  I know there’s a lot going on out there too that I haven’t been able to join, but I think we’re in a great area and I’m convincing people to come move here if they want to start their own business.”

Her ultimate goal for Oxfox lies in developing technology – automation.

“I want to really get into the autonomous industry,” she said. “I would like to establish our own facility here with autonomous trucks with charging stations and everything. The semi self-autonomous trucks where we can still have a driver in there. That’s where I want to be in the future.

For more information on HustleSBE, visit

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South Bend – Elkhart Regional Partnership Celebrates HustleSBE Cohort Six Graduation

MISHAWAKA, Ind. (Jun. 7, 2023) — The South Bend – Elkhart Regional Partnership celebrated the graduation of its sixth HustleSBE cohort. The business bootcamp provides support and assistance to minority and women entrepreneurs across the five-county region.

This eight-session program is dedicated to bringing resources on topics including capital, certifications, financial management, and human resources to minority and women-owned businesses. Participants are required to have been in business for at least one year.

The classes were led by HustleSBE facilitator Jess Koscher of Write Connections | strategy + design, LLC, a HustleSBE Cohort Three graduate. The Cohort Six members were joined by guest speakers – including Jacqueline Barton of Specialized Staffing, Kyle Chamberlin with THK Law, Jenny Frech from Soapy Gnome and Alan Steele from the Indiana Small Business Development Center – sharing their expert knowledge in a variety of topics of interest.

“HustleSBE was a great experience,” said Jasmine Wall, owner of Goshen’s The Imagination Spot. “Our facilitator, Jess Koscher, is full of knowledge, ideas and is an inspiration. I loved learning from all the speakers every week who are experts in their field. All the participants are in various stages of their business, and it was great to brainstorm together and learn from each other.”

HustleSBE sessions were held at the LIFT Training Room at the South Bend – Elkhart Regional Partnership Office. The applicant pool for this cohort was 61 percent African American or Black business owners, and 39 percent Multiracial, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American or Caucasian or White business owners, with 87 percent female and 13 percent male. Cohort Six included businesses from apparel and fashion, retail, consumer services, and marketing and advertising.

“This new cohort joins a growing family of HustleSBE graduates,” said Bethany Hartley, President and CEO of the South Bend – Elkhart Regional Partnership. “The passion and dedication these graduates have shown for building their business is an inspiration, and the connections they’ve made will prove invaluable. These entrepreneurs help make our region a better place.”

Cohort Six Graduates include:


About South Bend – Elkhart Regional Partnership
The South Bend – Elkhart Regional Partnership is a collaboration of the economic development partners from 47 smart connected communities in northern Indiana and southwest Michigan. The South Bend – Elkhart Regional Partnership focuses on a long-term systemic approach to advance the region’s economy by aligning the efforts of various stakeholders around five key areas: educating a world-class workforce, recruiting and retaining great talent, attracting and growing new economy companies in complement to our remarkably strong manufacturing industries, promoting inclusion and sparking opportunities for minorities and helping entrepreneurs thrive. The South Bend – Elkhart Regional Partnership seeks to unify and collaborate so that together, the communities across the region to work together to achieve what cannot be done individually. For more information about the Regional Partnership, visit

Media Contact
Liz Folkerts
South Bend – Elkhart Regional Partnership

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Entrepreneur Profile: Riley Ellingsen

Entrepreneur Profile: Riley Ellingsen


 From Medicine to Entrepreneurship

Riley Ellingsen comes from a family of doctors and lawyers, inspiring him to take a pre-med track during his undergraduate studies at Whitman College in Washington state. After graduating Whitman in 2019, Riley began working as an ocular lab technician in New York City. Riley’s experience in healthcare coincided closely with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic really showed me the bureaucratic factors of practicing medicine in the United States,” Riley said. “I decided it wasn’t the path for me.”

After coming to this decision and leaving his job, Riley had to decide what he wanted to do. Since a recruiter from the University of Notre Dame ESTEEM program spoke to his class during undergrad, the program had stayed in the back of his mind. He applied and was accepted into the program in 2021.

“What drew me to medicine is what made me want to become an entrepreneur, I wanted to have a tangible and visual impact on the community around me,” he said.

During his time in ESTEEM, Riley showed his entrepreneurial spirit by taking on two startups at the same time. The first was a custom outdoor event furniture startup, BLYTZ, which he ultimately shut down in March of 2022. The second was a startup he co-founded with one of his roommates, called heARsight. heARsight is developing smart glasses which employ existing core technologies to deliver subtitles for d/Deaf and hearing-impaired individuals.

The inspiration for this idea came from Danny Fritz, Riley’s roommate, and heARsight’s CTO. Danny had a close friend who was hard of hearing and heavily relied on lip reading in order to communicate effectively with other individuals. When masking was in effect during the COVID pandemic, Danny noticed that his friend was having an extremely challenging time communicating and thought to himself while watching a movie, “Why can’t we take the subtitles off the screen and bring them into real life?” From there, heARsight was born.

Development of heARsight

Danny and Riley found there are 430 million people worldwide that suffer from hearing loss, and learned the World Health Organization estimates this will increase to 2.5 billion people by 2050. Additionally, they discovered that there is a huge treatment gap in those who currently have hearing loss, with only about 18 percent of people getting treated. Riley explained that there is no definitive reason why there is this treatment gap, but based off of what he has discovered, he concludes it is a combination of the stigma associated with hearing loss and hearing assistance technology, and lack of affordability. Riley explains that heARsight’s product is not seen as a substitute to hearing aids but, rather, a supplement to them.

Once the two discovered the already large – and continually growing – market for their product, they got to work on customer validation and, later, fundraising. During their time at ESTEEM, the two participated in the IDEA Center’s Friday pitches, where they were able to win $1,000 in Proof-of-Concept funds. After achieving this, the two turned their attention to the McCloskey New Venture Competition.

“Potentially participating in McCloskey pushed us to hit different milestones in developing our business model,” he said.

The pair was able to take home $11,000 in cash and in-kind awards from the pitch competition, which allowed them to do the early-stage development work for their startup. Then, heARsight participated in the IDEA Center’s Race to Revenue program in the summer of 2022 and an online accelerator, which provided them with additional funds and helped them to develop relationships with potential customers and various chapters of the Hearing Loss Association of America. Riley and Danny graduated from ESTEEM in May of 2022, and had a decision on what to do next. Would they stay in South Bend and continue the momentum behind their idea, or would they try their luck somewhere else?

They decided to stay in South Bend, and the decision was made easy for Riley once he discovered enFocus’ fellowship program.

“If it wasn’t for enFocus, I wouldn’t have stayed in South Bend,” said Riley.

Riley credits enFocus for allowing him to be an entrepreneur, while also having a steady paycheck and speaks glowingly about all the support he received during his funding round. By the end of 2022, Riley and Danny were able to raise $302 thousand for heARsight, ultimately providing 12-months of runway for him and the startup. Riley has recently transitioned to devoting 65 percent of his time to heARsight and 35 percent to enFocus.

Adversity and Advice

Riley is a perfectionist, which is a difficult trait to have while being an entrepreneur, as a common saying within the entrepreneurship world is “fail fast and fail forward.” However, Riley doesn’t like to fail at all, and has had struggles with overcoming his perfectionist mindset from time to time. Recently, he encountered a setback, which tested his resolve. This setback coincided with significant progress announcements from heARsight’s competitors.

“I thought then and still have to remind myself now that there is no expectation of perfection,” he said. “There is no such thing as the perfect entrepreneur. Everyone has those ‘oh shit’ moments but what defines your success is how your respond to them.”

Riley feels that battling through adversity is character-building, and that it has helped him to become a more well-rounded entrepreneur and person.

“My time management probably doesn’t help, still haven’t completely figured that part out yet,” he said, laughing.

Riley is also an instructor for the Regional Innovation and Startup Education (RISE) Startup Moxie program. He works from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. every morning to shape and influence our region’s young entrepreneurs.

“What attracted me is the same thing that attracted me to entrepreneurship,” he said. “I am able to have a tangible impact on young entrepreneurs and help them in their journey.”

To learn more about Riley and heARsight and to sign up for their product’s waiting list, please follow this link.

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Entrepreneur Profile: Rachel Mospan

Entrepreneur Profile: Rachel Mospan

Rachel Mospan Design

When Rachel Mospan decided to take the plunge and start her own interior design firm in 2021, she knew the driving ethos behind her new business. After years of hobbyist design, she wanted to offer renovation and redecorating services that were both beautiful and environmentally conscientious.

“I had been a part of enough renovation and redecorating projects to see how much waste was generated in the process or how many times something that was perfectly usable was thrown away in order to replace with the latest and greatest,” Rachel said. “Times when something that was historical or had some character that contributed to the history of a home was painted over or removed and replaced with something vinyl. That pervasiveness of that culture in the home was not something I wanted to contribute to.”

Her business, Rachel Mospan Design, offers interior design services with a focus on low waste, sustainability, or eco-friendly.

“All of those terms can apply in different ways for each project,” she said.

Rachel had doubts when debating leaving the security of her corporate job to work in the interior design field. The people who planted the idea of Rachel starting her own business had MBA degrees, which she does not. She fought the idea that she not only didn’t have enough education, but also not the right education, since she has not studied interior design.

“I had these doubts like ‘Who am I to start this business and call myself an interior designer when I don’t have formal training in that field?’,” she said. “I ended up speaking with a friend from high school who started her own interior design business a few years ago. Same situation as me. No MBA, no formal interior design training and she was like “You’re crazy. You don’t need that stuff. You’re good and people need what you have to offer.’”

Rachel’s friend told her about a podcast for interior design business owners called A Well-Designed Business. She became an avid listener and found confidence in the stories of people in the field, who got there in a variety of ways. This helped Rachel decide to start her own business.

“When I was looking at changing careers, I thought about working for someone else versus starting my own business,” she said. “I really wanted to have control and be able to influence each project and execute on my core values even if it sacrificed a little bit of the bottom line potentially, but I wanted to just be able to position my values the way that was consistent with my ethos. So, I decided to start my own business because I didn’t see anybody in my area doing it the way that I wanted to do it.”

Her husband was supportive and encouraged her to set up a business plan. Rachel found a business management platform and mapped out the first few years of her firm. She also analyzed the impact on the family finances with the loss of her steady income and cost to start the business.

“Interior design, as it turns out is a very low overhead business to start,” said Rachel. “You don’t have to have an office space. You don’t have to have employees. You don’t have to have materials or parts or manufacturing or transportation, or really much of anything besides a computer. And you could even go without that if you wanted. Just draw things – paper and get a measuring tape.”

Rachel participated in the SPARK Business Accelerator through Saint Mary’s College. She appreciated the mind work the program offered, which helped build her confidence in her firm right at the start. More recently, she took part in the South Bend – Elkhart Regional Partnership’s HustleSBE program for minority and women business owners. She enjoyed the weekly daytime format and found shared connections and experiences with her classmates.

“Those three hours just felt uplifting,” she said. “I would share something that to me feels small and someone in the class would be like, ‘Yes! That’s awesome!’ Having people see in you what you’re not seeing because you’re in your own cloud was really powerful for me. Hearing about other people’s wins was also inspiring for me, so having that community at a set time when I didn’t have to be thinking about how I should best use these three hours. I already know this is how I’m going to use these hours and I’m going to get something out of it and it’s going to be great and I’m going to, you know, hear what I need to hear at exactly the time I need to hear it. It was a very nice appointment to have each week with myself and my business and peers.”

Looking back on her original business plan, Rachel laughs at how far off it was. Initially, she thought she would be doing numerous in-home consultations, leading to many small projects. In reality, she found herself doing less projects, but each of those projects were bigger than what she anticipated.

“Fewer but bigger projects,” she said. “It’s been interesting to just see how it actually plays out, whereas the bottom line worked out to be pretty close to what I expected. It was just the makeup of that income was very different than what I expected.”

Two years into Rachel Mospan Design, she has earned a Certified GREEN Professional accreditation. Rachel is also surprised by how much she enjoys being an entrepreneur.

“I thought I would be like tolerating that part, whereas actually that’s the part that I feel really passionately about now,” she said. “In addition to the work that I do for clients, but just being able to mold and shape my business to be completely aligned with my family life, aligned with my values and I think it allows me to contribute in the most effective way to my community and my society.”

For more information on Rachel and her business, visit

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Entrepreneur Profile: Nakisha Thompson-McGee

McGee Medical Advocates

With a Bachelor of Science degree from Indiana University South Bend in Health Services Management and personal experience with healthcare billing, Nakisha Thompson-McGee founded McGee Medical Advocates (MMA), allowing her to guide others with her acquired knowledge.

McGee Medical Advocates provides group health and life insurance plans and education for small businesses, as well as options for self-employed individuals. In addition, MMA offers conflict claim resolution services. Nakisha added a service to McGee Medical that is not part of the insurance world. She facilitates group breaks where she educates teams how to leave home at home and work at work and how to build and sustain interpersonal communication and connections in the workplace.

“I am big on education,” Nakisha said. “I want to educate our community.”

She first became motivated to advocate for others in the medical system when, after securing safety and stability for herself and her three children, Nakisha found herself garnished to pay for her ex-husband’s unpaid medical bills. This came as a shock, since after the divorce was granted, she didn’t think there was still a legal and financial connection.

“What the heck?! How do I not go through this again, and how do I educate our community on the game of insurance,” she said. “Because it is a game.”

At the time, Nakisha was a patient care coordinator at one of the local hospitals. Because of her experience with the garnishment, she leaned in to learn more about the insurance industry to help patients and their families.

“What did the insurance terms actually mean to the patient and to the insurance company, because they are actually different things,” she said.

As she learned the ins and outs of the insurance industry, she put that knowledge to practice after her daughter suffered two concussions within a couple of months. Prioritizing her child’s medical care, Nakisha took a lower paying position at her daughter’s high school to get her foot in the door, later becoming a special education teacher. During this time, she was building the foundation for McGee Medical Advocates in her down time.

“When she graduated, I graduated from the school, too,” she said, laughing. “I went full force into McGee Medical, and I started taking different community courses.”

Nakisha participated in HustleSBE, a business bootcamp for Minority and Female business owners focused on exploring new solutions for their customers, generating new ideas, and shoring up current business practices to create a solid foundation upon which to grow. She also participated in the South Bend Entrepreneurship and Adversity Program through the University of Notre Dame, and the SPARK Business Accelerator, based out of Saint Mary’s College.

“I actually went through SPARK when I started at the high school, just to make sure I actually want to be in business for myself,” she said. “When I thought about starting my own business, I looked at the resources our there for women entrepreneurs. I just really meditated about it. I talked with God about it, but not with other people. And I watched. This door was opening up, and this door was opening.”

She keeps in touch with everyone from her HustleSBE cohort, and most enjoyed the connection and family unit of her class.

“It wasn’t just the course,” she said. “It was bringing us into the community.”

When McGee started, Nakisha became a licensed consultant through the Indiana Department of Insurance, but her end game was always to be the PECE provider for insurance.

“The PECE provider is Pre-Licensing, which is the P-E, and Continuing Education, which is the C-E,” she said. “The pre-licensing course was for anyone who wants to become a producer to take the course, and anybody that needed to keep their license needs the continuing education.”

As a consultant, Nakisha was unable to become a PECE provider. The law had changed since she entered the field, forcing her to become a producer. As she was beginning to delve into the requirements, Nakisha was hospitalized for what doctors initially thought could be a stroke. They found two causes to her health concerns – a thyroid condition and median arcuate ligament syndrome – or MALS. While she recovered, she reevaluated her business.

“What is my business model actually? Who is my market?” she said. “I had to change my business model totally, because as a consultant, you don’t get paid by the insurance company. You don’t even have an appointment with the insurance company. But now you’re going to have that. It took away my niche.”

She studied and became an accident, health, and life insurance broker. She is now a PE provider for the State of Indiana, and the leading PE provider for the region. Nakisha is now in the process of attaining the CE certification. She finds truly knowing herself is key to self-discipline and managing her business.

“I thought I was a disciplined person,” she said. “But going into business? You think I’m into business for myself – No, you actually work for other people. You work for the people you are servicing. It is highly important for me to know myself and what’s important for me. That self-discipline to move forward – it was how do I get that – for me – not just as a mom. I had it down pat as a mom. I did not have it down pat as Nakisha. Don’t look at the different roles you play outside of yourself, but who are YOU.”

As Nakisha built her business, she found the best way to utilize the area’s offerings for business, and found the best resources were people who shared knowledge and advice.

“Was it hard? Not so much as scary,” she said. “It was scary – and exciting. My ‘why’ has changed. First it was to leave my children with something. Now it’s for my freedom. I would tell anybody starting their own business to take their time and learn themselves.”

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Entrepreneur Profile: Paul Anthony

Entrepreneur Profile: Paul Anthony


Growing up in South Bend

“I thought South Bend was a wonderful place to grow up,” said Paul Anthony, founder of OpStart.

Paul went to St. Joseph Grade School, St. Joseph High School and attended the University of Notre Dame, where he studied finance. Paul grew up in a family of entrepreneurs: his parents founded Anthony Travel over 30 years ago, a business that manages travel for many university athletic departments including Notre Dame.

“I idolized the fact that my parents were entrepreneurs growing up,” he said. “They were my inspiration to take an entrepreneurial path.”

That being said, Paul didn’t immediately turn to entrepreneurship after completing his studies at Notre Dame.

Venture Capitalist to Entrepreneur

After college, Paul decided to go into investment banking. He worked for William Blair in Chicago, where he was part of the technology group. There he learned about tech as an industry. After two years at that organization, Paul took a job with Adams Street Partners, a Chicago Venture Capital firm. He participated in investments into tech companies. While he enjoyed the triumphant moments with founders when celebrating their new investments, the moments where funding was denied were difficult.

“I hated when we had to say no to businesses that I liked and founders that I respected,” Paul said. “As a venture capitalist, I felt completely underqualified to say no to these founders and kind of had some imposter syndrome set in.”

Paul eventually left Adams Street Partners and went to the Dominican Republic to reconnect with his old college roommate and fellow South Bend native, Scott Coppa. Scott had an idea on how to use technology to initiate data driven community development and had already recruited a technical cofounder, Hope Tambala, and country director, Crismary Gutierrez, to bring the idea to life. Paul felt as though the team that was forming could use someone with business and fundraising experience, so he joined as co-founder and CFO of the newly formed Puente Desarrollo Internacional in 2018. Puente is a data network that allows local residents to collect geo-tagged survey data assessing living conditions in their home communities. The data is then fed to NGOs who can fund projects that are backed by hard data and desired by community residents. Today, Puente’s technology is used in nine countries, and their team has directly improved health and sanitation conditions for tens of thousands of people in the Dominican Republic. In the early days, however, things were quite messy – in no small part due to Paul’s inexperience as a CFO.

“I made so many mistakes in that role,” he said, laughing.

In that role, he learned on the job what they had to do for taxes, paid his contractors via PayPal for the first year, and kept the company’s books on a spreadsheet. His experience – and struggle – with the back-office financials, combined with his desire to help other founders after having to judge them as a venture capitalist, sparked another idea. Eventually, Paul decided to move back to the United States, but he still serves as the Board President of Puente.

Landing in South Bend

After returning to the U.S., Paul was approached a family friend, Scott Jessup, about an idea he had to help tech startups hire back-office teams based in South Bend. Scott was working with fellow Notre Dame graduate Tim Connors, who has decades of venture capital experience and is regularly featured on Forbes’ Midas List. Paul suggested focusing specifically on finance and accounting services, after struggling with this function himself at Puente and seeing many Adams Street portfolio companies go through similar challenges. The idea resonated, and Tim and Scott ultimately asked Paul to join as co-founder and CEO.

OpStart soon received startup funding from a few angel investors, including Tim. Things continued to move quickly, and before Paul knew it, OpStart was signing customers. The problem? They hadn’t yet hired an accountant.

“That time was scary, but we got through it with that typical startup scrappiness,” he said. “I begged one of my college roommates to help with our first client in his spare time, then convinced my aunt to join as a part-time bookkeeper when our second client signed.”

Paul soon found another person to come on as OpStart’s controller and chief of staff, but that individual left for a new opportunity just two weeks into the job. Luckily, Paul was able to quickly pivot to a new hire, fellow Notre Dame graduate Adelle Barte, who remains in this role today.

“I wish I would’ve trusted my gut, but I definitely learned to hire people based on cultural fit rather than just work experience,” he said.

Today, OpStart powers financial operations for nearly 100 startups nationwide, including local companies like SIMBA Chain, Aeris Surgical, heARsight, Juke, SleepEasy, Rides2U, Tessellated, Kinga Safety, Soulstir, and several others. Elevate Ventures recently led a Series Seed financing round which positions OpStart to invest more into its technology and growth initiatives.

Community and Advice

Paul noted that while the majority of his funding came from outside the South Bend – Elkhart region, he has been able to get fully immersed in the community. In addition to funding from Elevate Ventures, OpStart received guidance from the organization’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Nick Kuhn. Paul also has worked closely with the IDEA Center at Notre Dame and participated in Startup South Bend – Elkhart’s Founder Factory, where he was able to connect with local entrepreneurs about the services OpStart provides. Paul also was a guest on the Startup South Bend – Elkhart and Elevate Venture’s collaborative podcast, Rooted & Reaching. He has become a staple of this community and is a founder who wants to help other founders, a unique characteristic in the world of entrepreneurship.

“Entrepreneurship is not about giant leaps and major strategic improvements, it’s about putting one foot after the other,” he said. “People hesitate to start their own businesses because they want to wait for the perfect idea, but being a founder is not about having the perfect idea: it’s about being gritty and resilient so you overcome the challenges that will inevitably come with starting a business.”

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