Everyone, on some level, is an entrepreneur. That’s what entrepreneur and startup investor Steve Clark told a group of young professionals at a summit on Friday (Aug. 8) at the Record in downtown Bentonville.
“In some capacity you are investing your most valuable commodity, your time, for something,” Clark said. An employer, for example. “Is your trade a good trade?”
As keynote speaker for the Northwest Arkansas Young Professionals Summit, Clark told the group “It’s about stewardship. You’re obligated to do the very best you can with what you have.” By that token, “If you see a problem, fix a problem,” he said. “You don’t need permission to do the right thing.”
He started his first company, Fort Smith-based logistic company Propak, in 1999 at age 35, with nothing but “20 grand and a good attitude,” he said. However, once the company reached a certain level of success and self-sustainability, Clark found himself losing interest and through that experience he found his calling.
“What I’m good at is origination,” he said. Building the right team and empowering it.
By 2005, he was ready for a new project and, after meeting Kenny Tomlin, co-founded the digital agency Rockfish in Rogers. True to his team-building core, Clark said he partnered with Tomlin because “he possessed an ability that I didn’t have” in terms of technical knowledge. Rockfish has gained notoriety in its industry through the years. It was recognized by Hubspot as one of the top ten fastest growing mobile marketing agencies in the U.S. in 2014.
Because of his track record in starting businesses, Clark was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 2015 by the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business in Fayetteville.
Northwest Arkansas “has perhaps some of the most fertile entrepreneur soil in the world,” Clark said, alluding to legacy entrepreneurs Sam Walton of Wal-Mart Stores, J.B. Hunt of J.B. Hunt Transport Services and John Tyson of Tyson Foods. It’s the responsibility of the next generation “to carry the torch,” he said.
“What this group can do is be engaged,” he added. Be mindful of what is going on in the region and know “you have a right” to be part of it.
“I would have never started Propak if the emphasis wasn’t on supply chain right in my back yard,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t have started Rockfish without the importance of technology and marketing tied to Wal-Mart and its vendors.
In terms of tackling the issue of diversity in the NWA business landscape, “Acknowledgement that there is an issue is where you start,” Clark said. “This is real. It’s not made up,” he said. And it’s not going to get better “without intentional effort.”
As a leader, it’s also important to “engage people who feel like they’ve been marginalized” and listen to their story, he said.
“We are a healthy and successful region in a small, Southern state. We do not have the luxury to marginalize anyone, if we want to compete on a global scale.”
Elise Mitchell, founder and CEO of the advertising and public relations agency Mitchell in Fayetteville, agreed.
“It’s incumbent on us to keep this conversation going,” she said. “Say, ‘Tell me more. What’s it like to walk in your shoes?’”
Also in his speech, Clark emphasized the importance of giving back to the community.
“Just don’t write a check to feel good about yourself. It’s kind of like ‘liking’ something on Facebook and feeling like you’ve done something, because you know you haven’t. … It’s not enough to acknowledge the problem or write a check. It’s about looking at, ‘How can I contribute?’” Clark said.
In 2013, he co-founded with the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock Nobel Impact, an “educational venture” that “uses the lens of entrepreneurialism to solve societal issues,” he said.
Clark also started 64.6 Downtown, the nonprofit that brought “The Unexpected,” public art festival to downtown Fort Smith for the last three years. With “The Unexpected,” a group of international artists are brought in to paint murals and create other artworks in downtown Fort Smith. Public art is the “largest art movement globally since the Renaissance,” Clark said.
“The Unexpected” project has attracted new visitors and landed Fort Smith on lists of top destinations for mural arts in various trade magazines, he added. He also believes “The Unexpected” has and will serve as a catalyst for more growth and development in the city, because the fact that a group took a risk on the project, “It encourages others to take chances that perhaps they wouldn’t have taken otherwise,” he said.
In 2016, Clark founded the Future School of Fort Smith, a public and tuition-free charter high school that offers diverse education and learning models, pared with internships and other real-world learning opportunities.