Early Childhood Learning a Top Priority

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
South Bend Region on Wednesday, November 30, 2016 at 12:00:00 am

In Indiana, a recent focus on building the necessary infrastructure and creating the right business climate has positioned the state to be a leader in job creation in the Midwest and across the country.

But business and policy leaders recognize that without the people to fill important positions in the employment pipeline, the state won’t reach its full potential. And they know that developing people begins with getting kids off to the right start with quality prekindergarten programs.

I was lucky. When I was very young, I was blessed with some outstanding learning opportunities at home, at my church, at the YMCA, and at my elementary school prior to entering kindergarten. I began school with a good educational foundation and a strong support network at home. That helped me excel in elementary, junior high, high school and college.

Those experiences prepared me well for the workplace and helped me succeed in the various jobs I’ve held through the years. Many of you likely have a similar experience. Unfortunately, these days many people do not. Many lack the opportunities prior to kindergarten to build that necessary foundation and spend a lifetime trying to play catch-up.

Today, Indiana is one of only eight states without a publicly funded pre-K program. Only 36 percent of Indiana’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K programs, compared with 46 percent nationally. And Hoosier families currently spend a higher share of their incomes on early childhood care and education than do families in other states, about $7,500 annually.

The need is great. For example, just 31 percent of low-income 3- and 4-year-olds attend public or private preschool/prekindergarten programs, as compared with 41 percent of their peers from higher-income families. Indiana’s share of children from low-income families is substantially higher than the national average — 62 percent of children ages zero to 5 are from low-income families, compared with a national average of 47 percent.

State leaders have taken the first steps to implement a statewide pre-K program. In 2014, Indiana lawmakers created a voluntary Early Education Pilot Program that offers prekindergarten in five counties. Elkhart and St. Joseph counties were passed over for that pilot. The pilot currently serves only 1,585 children, but the effort signifies a significant step toward developing a permanent state-funded pre-K program.

A statewide program will likely contain three priorities: creating or expanding existing highly rated child care programs, recruiting and retaining a well-trained preschool workforce, and funding infrastructure changes where needed.

But legislative leaders are advocating a go-slow approach to expanding the state-funded preschool program and warn there might be little money to boost school spending in the next state budget. Widespread rollout could carry a big price tag. Currently 65 out of 92 counties in Indiana have no state preschool investment.

Data from recent studies suggest that Hoosier families are unable to access, afford or realize the benefits associated with high-quality programs without an expanded state role in funding and regulation. It will be one of the most important debates in the 2017 legislative session.

Business leaders will have an opportunity to learn more at a “Success Starts Early” breakfast at 8:30 a.m. Friday, Dec. 9, at WNIT Television, 300 Jefferson Blvd., South Bend. There, leaders will learn more about how making a commitment to high-quality pre-K programs can yield a high return on investment and contribute to a stronger economy.

Representatives from Early Learning Indiana and local leaders will share information and answer questions regarding what is slated to be a hot topic in the next legislative session. Interested parties can register at For more information on pre-K programs in Indiana, visit

Celebrating Entrepreneurship

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
SouthBendRegion on Wednesday, November 16, 2016 at 12:00:00 am

On November 15, we celebrated one of those “holidays” that doesn’t get a lot of attention, Entrepreneurship Day. The day went along without much fanfare. Most of us didn’t even know about the special day. But none of us went through the day without interacting with a good, service or product that was dreamed up or launched by an entrepreneur.

The word entrepreneur originates from the French word, entreprendre, which means “to undertake.” In a business context, it means to start a business.

Think about it. From the time we wake up each morning, we encounter new products or services that were dreamed up or improved on by an entrepreneur.

Those new products have changed each of our lives, in many cases made life easier. Think about where we might be had Henry Ford not found a way to build cars or had the Wright Brothers not figured out how we could fly. Even a Sam Walton, of often-maligned big box fame, was an entrepreneur seeking a better way and turned that into a successful business model.

Locally, entrepreneurs like the Studebakers, Olivers, Beigers and Eberharts built our economy and a culture that saw hundreds of businesses launch across the region. But over the years as we became more of a company town, fewer people launched new ideas and more went to work at one of our larger employers.

But times are changing, and new businesses are the fastest-growing sector of our economy, with about 23 percent of workers in the South Bend-Mishawaka Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) working for firms that have between one and 10 employees. Some businesses are starting in their basements or garages, others in that vacant storefront that we’ve long hoped would be filled.

Great risk is involved in launching a product or venture and as many fail as succeed. But our community is working to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem to support those brave entrepreneurs aiming to take off. The Small Business Development Center, Elevate Ventures, SCORE and the SPARK Program at Saint Mary’s College offer great local resources and support services for budding entrepreneurs.

Our local universities also have become an important incubator for entrepreneurs in our region. In fact experts predict that real economic development and business growth will be centered around universities in the future. Efforts like Innovation Park at Notre Dame have served as a real catalyst to students, faculty, researchers and community members to launch business opportunities. A second building will be added in 2017 to further aid this effort. A few years back, enFocus was launched here locally to foster an innovative and entrepreneurial ecosystem for young professionals to support the founding of new companies, and help existing companies grow through data-driven process improvement, technology deployment, and business consulting and analysis.

For students, the St. Joe CEO program was introduced to prepare our youth to become entrepreneurs or entrepreneurial thinkers. In the program, students are immersed in real-life learning experiences with the opportunity to take risks, manage the results and learn from the outcomes. A similar program will be launched in Elkhart County in 2017. Junior Achievement also continues to introduce students locally to entrepreneurship.

When you are out today, remember to say thank you to those entrepreneurs you know for taking the risk and for making our community a better place. Happy Entrepreneurship Day!

Also published in the South Bend Tribune