Those who stayed

Meet some of Fort Wayne's young titans

Brandon Smits, photography by Dustin McKibben
Taber Olinger, photography by Dustin McKibben
Fancy & Staple, photography by Dustin McKibben
Kelly Bajic, photography by Dustin McKibben
Jamal Robinson, photography by Dustin McKibben
Nicholas K. Rorick, photography by Dustin McKibben

They grew up here and then did what many don’t.

They not only stayed or came back. They’re putting their own stamp on our city.

Whether designing fashion, making our sewers cleaner or pulling teeth, Fort Wayne has a slew of youngish citizens who are helping make the Summit City hip, cool and much more than a stopping point between Chicago and Cleveland or Detroit and Indianapolis.

These are just a few of the people who are making Fort Wayne what it is today and in the future – a city of dreamers who are realizing those dreams right here, sometimes right in the heart of the city that’s been thriving more and more in the last decade.

There are more of these people out there. This is just a sampling – but a sampling we can all learn from.

How not only to dream, but to turn those dreams into a reality.

Right here. Right now.

Brandon Smits

It took just one slip of his foot.

Sure, he was on a longer board that day, not one made for the bigger ramps at Lawton Skatepark, and maybe it was an older board where the grip had worn off. And maybe at 32 he was a little rusty. But it was just a little slip of the foot that made Brandon Smits wipe out one sunny afternoon a few months ago, causing scrapes to his arm and thigh and, maybe, a bit of a bruise to the ego, too.

It also happened right in front of his 6-year-old son.

Smits, though, turned it into a teaching opportunity.

“He was a little worried at first, but my son got to see me get up and see that I was OK,” Smits said. “It was one of those moments, and this is where it’s awesome, I got to show him when you fall down, you get up and keep going.”

Most entrepreneurs will tell you they have had their share of falls, and Smits is no different.

Currently a marketing performance strategist at Aptera Software and founder of the web video marketing agency Social Rocket Co., Smits has spent a life creating businesses while consulting with tech companies on how to get people to take notice of them.

The first business he ever created came at 18 when he and some friends decided they wanted to sell skateboards. They got everything in place, but, as Smits recalls, things didn’t go well.

“We spent most of our time skateboarding, so we didn’t make any money,” he said.

It was the first business of his to fail – but he still looks back fondly on the experience.

“I think there’s an analogy between entrepreneurship and skateboarding,” Smits said. “You have to fall in order to improve.”

In the middle of college, he spent some time in a small village in France editing video and then some time in Hawaii doing the same thing. But he always considered Fort Wayne – he moved here when he was 12 – his home base.

When he came back, he created several companies with the help of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, one of the country’s leading entrepreneur resources, located on the north side of town. There Smits got advice from others who formed companies and learned some of what works and what doesn’t when starting a business.

He also learned from his mistakes.

“You have to do it again and not give up,” Smits said.

He got into computers at a very young age and maintains his passion about technology, but in recent years his interest has shifted toward business. He feels marketing is where business and technology meet, and he loves seeing a business get the technological infrastructure needed to grow.

Currently he consults for medium-sized companies in bigger cities, and while Fort Wayne has changed with a growing downtown, it’s still not exactly a hotbed for tech jobs. What the city does have is strong support for new businesses from the locals.

“In general, people are much more supportive of other people starting businesses in Indiana than any place I’ve seen aside from Silicon Valley,” Smits said. “We have a ‘believe’ mentality.”

These days, with downtown becoming increasingly business friendly, buildings like the Ash project going up and music festivals coming to town, Smits sees a city becoming vibrant as well as one with the resources needed for entrepreneurs looking to find their place.

The city is changing, thanks to those willing to take chances.

“People feel like they can better their environment here,” Smits said. “They can create the city they want.”

Some of it will take a little learning, and most of it will take a lot of hard work.

And there will be falls.

Plenty of falls for those who take the risks.

But it’s not about how you fall off the board.

It’s all about getting back up.

Taber Olinger

Even when all her friends were itching to leave, Taber Olinger knew she wanted to stay.

She didn’t know what it was about Fort Wayne at the time. She was a teenager, and downtown wasn’t what it is today. She never went anywhere special or did anything – on the surface at least – you’d consider extraordinary. But whenever someone bad-mouthed the city, she found herself sticking up for it, which maybe wasn’t the coolest thing for a teenager to do.

Looking back, she now knows what kept her here.

“It was all sentiment,” she says. “Sentiment created a romance with Fort Wayne. Ever since I was responsible enough to care about this city, I knew I wanted to be here, and I knew I wanted to make it better.”

Olinger’s contribution to the city came last year with the opening of Fancy & Staple, a shop located near the corner of Broadway and West Jefferson Boulevard downtown dedicated to providing unique goods and gifts designed to inspire individuality.

The shop sells a revolving assortment of home, gift, paper, clothing, accessory, apothecary and pantry items from crafters, small indie lines, local artisans and obscure brands, according to the shop’s website.

While Olinger moved away for college to earn a bachelor of arts in fashion design and merchandising, she still schemed about ways to start a business back home. Some of her college projects were actually based on beginning a business here.

Saddled with a large student loan debt, Olinger worked at a high-end clothing boutique for about six years on the southwest side. She still dreamed about someday opening her own business, especially downtown.

“I knew I wanted to offer something special to the people of Fort Wayne, and I knew owning my own business was the only way,” she said.

On Friday nights, she and her husband would dream up different business opportunities over drinks at Henry’s, Olinger said. They thought of a French fry restaurant, a recording school, a music venue, clothing store, eclectic bar, even a food truck.

When Olinger’s grandmother passed away in 2015, she was left with a generous inheritance that allowed her to get out from under her student loan debt and make her entrepreneurial dream happen.

“There was no hesitation. I had it all planned out,” Olinger said.

Olinger describes the experience as challenging, tedious, frustrating and risky but fun and rewarding at the same time. As with many enterprises, there was a fear of the unknown, especially since a shop like the one Olinger was opening had not been done in Fort Wayne.

Those fears were quickly laid to rest by an outpouring of support from locals via social media.

“You never really know how it’s going to be accepted by the community, and I find that to be even more so here in Fort Wayne,” Olinger said. “It’s just that everything is so new for this city. It’s almost like your first step has to be to convince people that what you’re doing is cool, which can be very difficult.”

But she quickly found acceptance, especially with businesses popping up all over a revitalized downtown in the wake of the building of Parkview Field, new apartments and lofts.

All of it is a far cry from the time Olinger grew up here.

“There were plenty of cool people and cool activities, but as far as places to be, Fort Wayne was totally lacking,” Olinger said. “But that just meant it was full of potential. And that’s the best part about it. When something new happens here, it actually matters to people.”

“Fort Wayne’s not like the big cities that constantly have something new popping up, unappreciated and jaded. Instead, it’s a pleasant surprise that people really get excited about,” she said.

Three months after opening her shop, Olinger got another pleasant surprise: she was pregnant.

These days, daughter Eleanor has added a little bit of a twist to being an entrepreneur, with Olinger needing to hire someone to help run the day-to-day activities at the shop. She has no regrets about the choices she made, including coming here to make her dreams come true.

“Despite spending a fortune on my fancy education, my dreams of entrepreneurship prevailed,” she says. “And instead of moving somewhere awesome to start my career, there was no question Fort Wayne was calling me back.”

Kelly Bajic

It’s all about leverage.

That’s the trick, according to Kelly Bajic, who has had to pop open countless manholes in her 10-plus years working for City Utilities. But still to this day, if she’s out in the field and a man or two spots her getting ready to pop one, they sometimes come over.

“I still get ‘Can I help you with that, little girl?'” she says, laughingly.

The thing is, Bajic sometimes has to show interns how it’s done. And those who are young men sometimes try to drag the manhole cover and find it insanely heavy and burdensome. You know what they don’t know how to use at first?

Leverage.

Bajic is a project engineer and one of the main coordinators for a massive tunnel project the city is undertaking to reduce the overflow of sewage-contaminated storm water into the three rivers. To get an idea of how massive this project is, it is estimated to cost about $240 million and requires roughly five miles of a tunnel to be built under 150 to 200 feet of bedrock.

In short, that’s the kind of massive the city has never undertaken before.

While Bajic is at the forefront of this project, 20 years ago it might’ve been a long shot that she’d be the one going out into neighborhoods to talk to residents about what to expect with construction or coordinating plans among a slew of other engineers and construction teams. That’s not only because a woman having this position may have been a rarity then, per some city officials, but also because the Fort Wayne native took an unconventional path after high school en route to becoming an engineer.

“For some reason, I did not know what I wanted to do,” she said.

She took time off for some soul-searching and worked various jobs in the service industry along the way. Bajic said she met many great people, but she did not want to keep on with the paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle that comes with those gigs. She always knew she would go back to school.

But for what?

“I knew I liked science,” Bajic said. “But I didn’t know about engineering. That came later.”

The building blocks for her eventual career choice were set during a course at Ivy Tech when a professor talked about how a building was built. It sparked her interest, and Bajic soon found herself studying engineering at what is now Trine University and eventually earning a master’s degree from Villanova University.

Bajic at one point was offered an internship with Fort Wayne City Utilities, and, while a shade older than the typical intern, she took to the department and the people working within it immediately. She quickly knew it was where she wanted her career to take her.

City Utilities hired her shortly thereafter.

She’s been involved in just about every type of project when it comes to sewers and is now to an extent the public face of the tunnel project. Her previous history is a bonus, she said, because she’s an engineer who has experience dealing with people.

The road after high school may have been long to get to where she is, and it may have been different from the road taken by others who become engineers, but she does not regret taking it or doing it how she did.

“It was 10 times harder,” Bajic said. “But I feel for me it was the best choice. It can be done. People maybe think to go into something like this, you have to do it young, but you can do it. You just have to work hard.”

These days, she loves telling children what she does.

That usually draws snickers at first due to the sewer aspect of the job, but those usually defuse into genuine interest in her career. She especially delights in the new toys she sees coming out, for both boys and girls, that promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) aspects of education.

And then there’s the project.

The project.

Five miles of tunnel. 150 to 200 feet of bedrock. Hundreds of millions of dollars. Kelly Bajic is at the forefront of something the city has never done before, her city, where she grew up and lives and which she is now helping shape.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime project,” she said.

Jamal Robinson

These days, the crystals have fallen off and the sunglasses have long been broken.

Still, Jamal Robinson knows right where they are.

Tucked away in a china cabinet at his parents’ Fort Wayne home, this particular pair of sunglasses acts as a relic of a different time. As well it should, since this is the pair – once studded with Swarovski crystals designed to look like diamonds and made on a whim after seeing a famous R&B artist don a similar pair in a music video – that not only birthed his business but boosted Robinson’s motivation to begin it in the first place.

Without those sunglasses, there might be no DESIAR.

“They gave me the confidence,” he says today.

DESIAR, a play on “desire,” is now Robinson’s thriving sunglasses company with ties to sunglass carriers like Luxottica and accessory stores such as The Aldo Group and TJX. It began with Robinson designing his first pair of sunglasses in his University of Central Florida dorm room after seeing R. Kelly wearing diamond-studded ones on television.

“I obviously could not afford diamonds,” said Robinson, noting he went to a hobby store and used glue to attach the crystals.

When rapper Soulja Boy took notice of the glasses backstage at a concert Robinson attended, the idea for a business revolving around the eyewear became a real thing. Soon, Robinson was designing sunglasses at the table of his parents’ house.

“I was one of those kids that wanted to be a rapper in high school,” Robinson said. “But starting a business was always something I wanted to do. My dad is an entrepreneur, I have friends and people around me who are entrepreneurs, and I wanted to be in control of my destiny.”

Robinson got his first taste of the fashion industry as a freshman at Central Florida, taking an unpaid internship for a magazine company which looked to make a clothing line. While he did designs for the company, he learned about all the legwork involved in running a business, especially from the 30-something boss he had at the time.

“He knew I had no idea about business structure, but he knew I was hungry,” Robinson said. “I remember he showed me that it’s not just starting the company. You have to know and be able to run all the parts.”

Robinson came back to Fort Wayne after his freshman year and attended college here. He’d take his eyewear ideas to concerts or shows and began networking.

Many told him he needed to go to the bigger cities and that something so fashionable could not thrive here. Robinson says he’s found quite the opposite and wishes he had focused on the Hoosier state from the start.

“The local community is totally supportive of what I’m doing, and, to be frank, I had so many people say a business like this could not succeed in Fort Wayne,” Robinson said. “I found that to be totally wrong.”

Earlier this year, Robinson won $35,000 in capital for his business as part of winning Ivy Tech Community College Northeast’s New Venture Competition. He’s branching out in parts of Texas, setting up kiosks.

He said the best advice he can give to anyone wanting to start a business is to go make it a reality…and to not fear mistakes or roadblocks. Those happen to anyone with a vision or a dream.

“I’ve made so many wrong turns,” Robinson said. “You just got to believe. I have so many people tell me ‘no’ all the time. That’s just part of the process. But you just have to go out and do it. Have some perseverance and believe it’s going to work.”

Nicholas K. Rorick

He worked in genetics and even played a role in identifying a gene that can lead to cleft palates.

In doing so, he came into contact with dentists and orthodontists and became enamored with that field, so much so he left genetics and went into dentistry. Right after that, he found himself in the Navy checking the teeth of Marines entering the military.

At one point he moved his family to Japan and served as the dentist on an aircraft carrier powered by two nuclear reactors, living at sea as the United States Navy sailed him throughout Asia for months, making stops in Australia, Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Guam and the Philippines.

You listen to Dr. Nicholas K. Rorick’s life story for even a few minutes and you might begin to confuse him with a character straight out of a certain Mexican beer commercial. It’s that fascinating. Only he’s the real deal.

But Rorick, who came back to his native city this year to open Sycamore Hills Dentistry, shies away from describing himself as such. 

“I may have taken a convoluted route to dentistry,” he says.

The Homestead High School grad never thought he’d be back in Indiana once he went off to study at the University of Iowa in the late 1990s.

He didn’t expect to become a dentist then, either, nor spend time living in a place like Japan, where the culture shock can be overwhelming with the stress of finding your way around a country where you don’t know the language and where strangers want to touch the blond hair of your children because it’s so rare there.

All of that, though, helped Rorick and his wife, Concordia Lutheran High School grad Elizabeth, decide it was time to come back home.

“Any time you go someplace new and different, you gain a new perspective on where you’re from and your culture, and now you have a basis for comparison,” Rorick said. “That basis of comparison really led us back to Indiana. After living in different places, it was obvious — there are some drawbacks to Indiana, but there are a lot of positives and a lot of culture.”

Of course, Fort Wayne has changed much since Rorick left for college.

Downtown has been revitalized and seen a resurgence as a place to be instead of a place to be avoided, or a part of town where nothing happened. The population has gone up and even gotten a little younger.

“Back then, we only went downtown for Driver’s Ed,” Rorick said. 

Today he’s a family man, with three kids who were 5, 3 and 2 years old when the family boarded a plane to Japan. Now they’re older and getting the lay of the land that used to be his old stomping grounds.

Rorick and his wife had many long discussions about making such a move and about whether coming back to Fort Wayne was the right choice. So far, everything about the move has far exceeded their expectations.

The practice has tripled in size in just four months and offers cutting-edge technology while making the place a bit more friendly and up-to-date than dentist offices of old.

“It’s exceedingly stressful to open up your own business, but it’s really nice to have the support of the community and family members,” Rorick said. “The reception we’ve got in Fort Wayne has been nothing short of amazing.”

When you probe him about what it was like to do the things he’s done, Rorick can weave great stories. He wouldn’t change any of those experiences. But he wouldn’t change where he is now, either.

“You know, you can’t really plan things out,” he said. “For us to come back, it was kind of time.”

First appeared in the December 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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