Charting Vision: 20-Year-Old Community Developer Nick Arnett’s Journey

When twelve-year-old Nick Arnett’s peers were playing video games, Arnett wasn’t among them— he was founding his first nonprofit.


In the eight years since that first nonprofit dedicated to getting young people involved in the downtown sector of his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, now-twenty whiz kid Arnett has been hard at work. As a teenager, he spent four years managing communications for Fort Wayne’s Downtown Improvement District before moving onto work with Vision 2020, a program chartered by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership to identify goals for where Northeast Indiana should be by 2020. A lesser community developer might have stopped there, but it was while working with Vision 2020 that Arnett made a realization that would govern much of the visionary work he does today in community development and entrepreneurship.

“We realized that we were getting tons of great feedback and input, but input from the millennial generation was lagging, hovering around 5-6%. That’s a scary statistic, given that millennials are the generation that will inherit this vision,” Arnett said.

Though Arnett worked with Vision 2020 to negotiate the gap by founding Millennial 2020, a program intended to engage millennials in the envisioning process of change in Northeast Indiana, it wasn’t enough. The demographic and geographic limitations of the program soon become evident, and Arnett felt compelled to widen his scope.

“I realized I didn’t have a good sense of what other cities across the country were doing,” Arnett said. “I challenged myself to visit twelve cities over the next year, spend about a week in each one, and connect with as many people as possible in each city to get a true sense of what that city’s story is, what’s actually going on there, and try to find ways to bring that back to Fort Wayne.”

Arnett began the process with what he believed would be the easiest task, but what proved to be the most difficult: selecting twelve cities. He sought recommendations from trusted community developers with the suspicion that the same fifteen or twenty cities would continually rise to the top, but found himself saddled instead with nearly one-hundred-fifty disparate suggestions. He then overlaid the choices with economic background information and census data, which pared the list down to fifteen or twenty attention-catching cities that fit the desired parameters. Narrowing the list down via drawing from a hat was the final step to launching Arnett into the inaugural city on his twelve-city tour: Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“Chattanooga probably had the greatest impact on me personally of anywhere I went,” Arnett said. “If I could save the best for last, I’d put Chattanooga on the back end of the trip. I just love the openness of the residents, the way that they process things and think about things. They’re very much the types of people who are constantly looking at the horizon and constantly thinking about what’s next. They’re never content with what they have right now.”

After Chattanooga was Paduka, Kentucky; then Austin, Texas; Tucson, Arizona; San Jose, California. In each city, Arnett sought answers as to what the local infrastructure did to support local entrepreneurs, what the city was doing to attract and maintain millennial talent, and how exactly the city worked to foster a creative environment. However, the inherent limitations of the model soon became apparent in that disseminating information through public presentations and personal interactions didn’t create the shockwaves that Arnett intended.

“I realized that this wasn’t going to do justice to the results of the findings of each of these different trips, because in a lot of these cities, the momentum that you were seeing wasn’t coming from the leadership level. The real momentum was coming from a ground swell of residents celebrating what’s on the horizon for them,” Arnett said.

The answer? Turn Twelve Cities into its own nonprofit intended as a vehicle connected to each of these cities at both the administrative and grassroots levels. As Arnett says, “that’s a lot of social capital.”

Upon embarking on each whirlwind week-long journey in a new city, Arnett emailed the movers and shakers in each community to schedule meetings. However, he also spoke with strangers in coffee shops, and as the interactions began to snowball, the wheels began to turn.

“As time went on, I began to see a lot of exciting ideas germinate in different cities, especially ideas that were synergistic to things going on in other cities, but I realized that the people at the front of the movement would never have a reason to cross paths,” Arnett said. “They don’t know that the other people exist, which is a missed opportunity, in my eyes. There was something there, but there was no vehicle for driving cross-country collaboration on a grassroots level.”

With the model clearly in need of further refinement, Twelve Cities generated an online platform that allows these geographically distanced individuals to open a dialogue. The platform seeks to connect the middlemen in organizations that promote cultural and economic change— those who have their hands in the discussion, but who aren’t included in the conversation. However, the gaps are more than just geographical or infrastructural.

“Especially in Fort Wayne, we see a gap in support of young entrepreneurs,” Arnett said. “I’m talking fifteen-year-olds to twenty-year-olds. Our community needs to embrace these people and their weird ideas, to encourage them to go out on a limb and take that risk. Our entrepreneurial ecosystem altogether is a messy place to look at; we don’t really have an entrepreneurial ecosystem, for that matter, just a lot of scattered nodes of activity. After comparing our startup scene to the startup scenes of many other cities and seeing the different things that led to them having a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem, that’s going to be a long path for Fort Wayne.”

And so, the quandary for Twelve Cities became the question of how to encourage a startup scene that nurtures and attracts millennial talent. The answer? Embrace the weird.

“We need to embrace what’s different, because that’s the only way a city can succeed in a twenty-first century economy,” Arnett said. “Fort Wayne is seeing this as an issue, but it’s so deeply ingrained in our culture that we’re not sure how to change it. Openness is something that we score very low on in studies, and it’s something that we need to tackle.”

That much being said, fostering a culture of openness means more than changing the cultural climate in one city— it means changing the national landscape of openness. In order to foster open arms between cities, Twelve Cities is currently hard at work refining its online platform with the goal of identifying and connecting geographically distanced millennial leaders who would otherwise never interact. However, seeking to shift the culture of a globalized economy is a long, hard road, one that involves shattering a series of longstanding barriers.

“There’s a lot of talk about collaboration, especially in Fort Wayne, but there’s very little of it happening,” Arnett said. “It’s happening among a very specific group of individuals, but not at the grassroots level, and that’s what needs to happen within the greater community of people who are prideful about their region and excited about their future.”

Arnett’s longtime ambitions in fostering connection and collaboration between talented individuals have recently bled into his work with the Thiel Foundation, the San Francisco-based philanthropic organization of Paypal founder Peter Thiel. The Foundation and its esteemed Thiel Fellowship strive to support young entrepreneurship by selecting twenty young visionaries from a pool of applicants around the world, providing them each with $100,000 in startup capital, connecting them with top-tier mentors, and moving them to San Francisco to refine their million-dollar ideas with the goal of pushing humanity forward. However, as with many of his projects, Arnett soon recognized a breakdown in communication.

“It was exciting that we got so many applications, but it’s heartbreaking that we can only pick twenty every year,” Arnett said. “There are so many people in whom we see tons of opportunity, especially if they connected with another applicant, but they’ll never connect. We started thinking about bringing the top 15% of people together and giving them the opportunity to connect and build relationships.”

As with the efforts of Twelve Cities to bring together geographically distanced individuals, Arnett and the Thiel Foundation have sought to do much the same with these young visionaries. The Thiel Foundation now boasts two yearly conferences based in San Francisco and New York City that fold together about two-hundred fifty Thiel Fellowship applicants, a network of accomplished mentors, and a panel of keynote speakers. Throughout the course of this event, applicants are encouraged to connect with one another, to build relationships, and to share ideas. Since the conference’s inception, the Thiel Foundation has constructed a global network of roughly six-hundred exceptional young entrepreneurs and visionaries.

“The most exciting thing about it is that you have a network of the next Bill Gates, the next Steve Jobs, but they’re all connecting with each other before they reach that level, before they’ve even started their projects,” Arnett said. “That makes me wonder what this network is going to create. It’s hugely exciting. Scary, but hugely exciting. They’re doing incredible things, and they’re meeting each other before they’re twenty years old.”

It would by no means to be a stretch to lump Arnett in the same category as these young visionaries. At twenty years old, Arnett has led a life of remarkable accomplishment, and a life that many twenty-somethings would no doubt consider enviable, at that. For those struggling to accomplish their goals and suffering from millennial malaise, Arnett shared the secret to his success.

“Connect with as many people as possible,” Arnett said. “Reach out and ask how you can help. The more you can get people to buy into your vision, the more you’ll catch the attention of the right people, so find mentors, and don’t find just one. Fact of the matter is, they may be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but that doesn’t mean that their advice is right for you. Get a second opinion, because they’re not always right. Take all of the advice you can get from multiple people, and draw your own conclusions from it. You’ve got to be an individual and make your own decisions.”

At the end of the day, when parsing Arnett’s exceptional journey— geographical, entrepreneurial, community-based, and otherwise— one can’t help but wonder: why does it always seem to come back to cities for him?

“Cities take so much social and intellectual capital and so many fascinating individuals, and you’re densely compacting it all into one space,” Arnett said. “Cities are the driver of innovative conversations because you have tons of differences all reacting in the same space. Connecting, collaborating, and out of those discussions, something new is born. The city you see today is never going to be the city you see tomorrow.”


Photo by Tony Frantz