These are the stories of those leading the push toward a better Wichita.
Some you will know, others you won't. Either way, these people deserve our attention.
Click here for the full list of SBA partners in Wichita and beyond.
Wayne Bell eats, sleeps and breathes entrepreneurship. That’s not just because it's his job as the Wichita district director for the U.S. Small Business Administration. For Bell, it’s a philosophy that encapsulates his life.
“I think I take an entrepreneurial approach to try and solve problems,” said Bell. “That's a big part of who I am and what I do. I'm fascinated by the businesses, the ideas and things that evolve.”
In true entrepreneurial fashion, Bell’s journey to his current role at the SBA had many twists, turns and detours. A football scholarship to Wichita State University brought him to Kansas from St. Louis, Missouri. Upon graduation, he went straight to work for Beech Aircraft and, later, Boeing. After 12 years, it was time for a change.
“[Those roles gave me] an in-depth education on our aircraft industry, the whole supply chain and how it all comes together. But I realized I wanted to do something broader in business,” shared Bell. “So I went back and got my executive MBA at Wichita State. Also during this time, a buddy and I started a small business.”
Their business was a full-service commercial facility maintenance company that included janitorial services, lawn care and landscaping. Over the course of four years, their business grew to more than $2 million in sales. Bell eventually sold his shares to his partner. But the experience left a lasting impression.
“It was invaluable because I learned about the challenges of small businesses from infrequent cash flows, hiring and paying employees, accessing capital to getting the equipment and materials,” said Bell. “It was really beneficial. Especially now with the work I do today at the SBA.”
Bell’s next stop was at an aviation manufacturing firm in Hutchinson, Kansas. After experiencing the emotional and economic impact of the events of September 11, 2001, he left the private sector and became an integral member of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. As the administrative officer, he helped hire the TSA team for Kansas as well as managed human resources, customer service, stakeholder relations, purchasing and IT contract services. After six years at TSA, Bell’s entrepreneurial itch resurfaced once again, thanks to an unlikely job description.
“It didn’t even occur to me to pursue the [SBA district director] position until I saw the profile,” said Bell. “All of the things they were looking for seemed to be perfectly aligned with my background. Experience in small business, experience with large organizations in the area, someone familiar with the area. It all just worked out.”
Now, instead of starting his own business, Bell spends every day helping others begin and grow theirs. As the leader of the Wichita district of the SBA, which covers the 77 Kansas counties west of Shawnee County, Bell and his team provide access to capital and connect entrepreneurs to numerous local and national resource partners for assistance. Bell has spent his entire adult life in Wichita. It’s become his home, and he’s seen the effect SBA services can have on small business in Wichita. It’s a role he relishes, and not one he takes lightly.
Small businesses have had to really be fluid. They've had to change the way they do business. And we’re putting every resource we have and know into play to help with that.
“Small business really has a vital role, and it continues to shape culture in our area,” Bell explained. “There are over 12,000 small businesses that are employer firms and they account for over 33,000 jobs in the [Wichita] area.”
These numbers have decreased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every community Bell oversees has been impacted. With federal government aid and new lengthy legislation to sift through, many entrepreneurs are seeking guidance and assistance from the SBA.
“The Paycheck Protection Program was established, which became a huge program. [The Wichita district of SBA], in probably a period of three months, supported about 25 years' worth of lending,” Bell stated. “Small businesses have had to really be fluid. They've had to change the way they do business. And we’re putting every resource we have and know into play to help with that.”
COVID-19 isn’t Bell’s only focus for Wichita. He’s also looking to fix a large gap in small business representation.
“In 2033, it's projected that our community could go minority-majority and our underserved communities are typically challenged with access to capital and just the resources to get started,” Bell explained. “We’re working with a number of stakeholders to help minority-owned businesses and other underserved communities, including women-owned and veteran-owned businesses. There’s tremendous opportunity to continue and expand support for entrepreneurial growth, startups and existing businesses from all of these communities.”
Despite these challenges, Bell believes that his city will rise above them.
“It blows me away… the new ideas, the innovation and the creativity that we see from individuals,” Bell said. “I remain really optimistic about our future because we've got a great ecosystem. An individual is one call away from the resources they would need in order to turn their idea into a thriving business. And what I love about Wichita and our area is that everyone is accessible.
“‘No wrong door’ was a slogan that the SBA had a few years back. It’s still rings true. However you get to us, we're going to help you.”