Steve Clark and Isaac Davis believe a romantic spirit and an incessant need to make things better moves a business owner to become an entrepreneur. The two spoke during the third session of the Third Annual Invest Fort Smith economic summit Thursday (Nov. 19).
The economic summit was presented by 64.6 Downtown in partnership with University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and Fort Smith Public School’s Peak Innovation Center during Global Entrepreneurship Week.
“Those people who find themselves entrepreneurs. It isn’t what they do. Entrepreneurship isn’t like I want to be an accountant or I want to be an entrepreneur. It’s not a job. It is literally the lens through which you see the world,” said Clark, founder and CEO of Fort Smith-based Propak Logistics and founder of The Unexpected in Fort Smith.
Clark said he thinks people make a mistake in thinking that those who profess to be entrepreneurs are somehow set apart or different.
“I don’t believe that to be true. I think 100 years ago, we were all entrepreneurs. We were merchants and farmers and ranchers and trades people. I think the concept of modern employment factory work has created a mindset that separates what once wasn’t separate,” he said.
If a person subscribes to the fact that it’s their lens, then entrepreneurship is not limited to commercial aspects, Clark said.
“It becomes a social conversation, a spiritual conversation,” he said.
Davis, owner and co-owner of several businesses including M68 Service Solutions, said as a hopeless romantic, he has tried to live his life as poetically as he can and this has led to his life as an entrepreneur. Clark said he chose the path to entrepreneurship when he was 35 and realized he was not living the life he wanted, that he wanted more personal integrity.
Clark said once a person subscribes to the concept that the economy is global and not regional, then he realizes that his community is competing globally for talent and companies. That then means that your city has a basic price of admission it must pay to compete.
“There must be amenities that are consistent with other cities. There must be a celebration of the arts,” Clark said.
It was this notion that led Clark to create The Unexpected, which brings urban and contemporary art to Fort Smith and the state. Fort Smith historically, for a generation and half, has a strong manufacturing base, but the economy shifted and heavy manufacturing began to move out of the area, Clark said.
“Art is a powerful motivator, and my thought was how do we not only change the way we perceive ourselves but change the way we are perceived by the rest of the world. The notion was to bring in international artists with tons of followers who would push out our city and their work. The people receiving that information would only know we’re an incredible art installation. They wouldn’t know we lost Whirlpool. They wouldn’t think our employment was where we wished it wasn’t,” he said.
But becoming an entrepreneur requires more than just having a vision. A person must have a strategy, even if that strategy seems more like free jazz than a waltz, Davis and Clark said.
“First off, you have to know yourself, all of yourself. Just as you have to know that you cannot fit in a rigid box, you have to know you cannot be an artist who never finishes what they start,” Davis said, adding that entrepreneurs are artists whose canvas is a money-making venture. “Once you see your idea, you have to find the best way to fully unravel it and make it the best.”
Clark agreed, saying strategy in business is not necessarily the next mechanical engineering step forward.
“Strategy to me is can I be consistent in terms of personal integrity; can I be consistent in the quality of people I hire and associate myself with; can I be consistent in my transparency with my client; can I discipline myself to chase excellence over money because when you chase excellence, ultimately the money will chase you,” Clark said.
To the aspiring entrepreneurs in Fort Smith, Clark and Davis said to remember vision is boss and to remember it’s OK to be different.
“Do not conform for the sake of conformity,” Clark said.
As for a city wanting to attract entrepreneurs, Clark said the actual question the city must ask is how to attract talent.
“How do we make the city itself have more livable amenities, walkability, livability because that attracts the people we are talking about – the entrepreneurs, the young professionals,” Clark said. “Fundamentally it comes down to a mindset, a mindset of the city. I think it starts at the university. I think it starts in our public schools, in our parochial schools. We’re talking about not what job do you want, but what job are you going to make. And that’s the mindset.”