Pioneer Starts Here

Stéphane Frijia of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership proves that forging a path to success first requires the courage to change.
Jun 3, 2024
Tammy Davis
Jeffrey Crane & Provided

Growth happens, the saying goes, at the end of one’s comfort zone. As president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership (NEI), Stéphane Frijia proves that maxim daily.

“To change the outcome, you have to change the approach,” says Frijia. “To me, that’s the fun part.”

NEI’s mission is to drive business investment and strengthen the region’s global competitiveness and economic resiliency. It’s a good fit for Frijia, who previously served as senior vice president of strategy for the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. When he first considered moving to northeast Indiana, he was impressed by its “good bones.”

“People outside the market spoke well about it,” Frijia says. “John [Sampson, Frijia’s predecessor] had spent a lot of time getting people together, breaking down silos and building our identity as a region. The organization itself had a great reputation and a history of originalism.”

Nonetheless, Frijia imagines much more for the 11 counties NEI serves. When he arrived in October 2021, there was a goal in place for the region to compete for 20 opportunities. Frijia immediately challenged his team at NEI to double that; they closed out 2022 at 49. In 2023, the total reached 75. 

To reach for more, Frijia had to engineer an internal transformation. He wanted to build on NEI’s existing foundation while pushing it to new heights. He had to help people expand their thinking.

“Policies were created by people for a point in time,” explains Frijia. “You have to change the approach to change the outcome; keep changing to keep growing.”

His first order of business was a complete restructure of the NEI organization. He examined everything, from how NEI talked about itself and the region to its image and approach. He replaced NEI’s 10-year strategic plan with a rolling three-year plan, allowing stakeholders to understand the organization’s direction while providing the agility needed to meet constantly evolving challenges.

“I want the region to become more proactive and aggressive,” says Frijia. “There’s no shortage of opportunities if you know where to look.”

After aligning his people with the vision, Frijia drove a massive rebranding effort, led by Jonathan Sackett, who joined the team as vice president of marketing and communications in March 2022. While Sackett came with an impressive pedigree of launching successful campaigns for some of the world’s largest brands, the quality Frijia most values is his willingness to challenge peoples’ thinking.

“When I brought in Jonathan, there were plenty of good candidates across the region,” says Frijia. “But what I was looking for was someone who could throw me a curveball out of nowhere — someone who might have no idea who we were, but who would know exactly what our customer wants.”

Under Frijia’s leadership and Sackett’s direction, NEI completely rebranded itself and the region. In addition to its new posture, NEI introduced a new logo, terminology and digital platforms. All of it has been done in-house.

“We used to rely on outside marketing, but now we’re self-performing,” says Frijia. “It’s internal because we have to move faster. Everyone shares the vision; now we just go do it.”

NEI’s new website offers a visual reflection of not only the brand, but also of the region itself. It’s simple, punchy and focused. The visuals leave no doubt that NEI has the chops to accomplish its mission. At the end of the day, Frijia explains, the region competes for people and for investment. It competes to get a second look.

“Our job is to stand out,” says Frijia. “Our mandate is to stand out. We don’t have mountains or beaches to get people’s attention, so we have to find other ways to add value.” 

Eschewing the “Hoosier humble” attitude he often encounters, Frijia wants to put successful people and businesses in the spotlight. When people don’t speak about their successes, it keeps others from knowing what is possible. 

“We don’t want this region to be the best kept secret,” says Frijia.

“Pioneer Starts Here,” NEI’s new digital storytelling platform, aims to change that. This effort showcases the pioneers of NEI’s 11-county region in video form, through which people tell their stories of triumph through adversity. An annual Pioneer Starts Here event celebrates entrepreneurialism by honoring those who create positive change in the community.

To complement this effort, the NEI Pioneer Podcast launched in February 2024. The biweekly, video-based episodes provide a virtual stage for some of the region’s outstanding pioneers. 

“The podcast highlights the very type of people we’re trying to attract,” says Frijia. “We have to change what we say and how we say it. We have to look at how people get information today and embrace those types of media.”

Frijia continues to push change not only across the organization, but also throughout the region. He continually asks area leaders if they are reviewing policies, zoning codes and aspirations. ‘Is this the best you can do?’ has become his mantra. It’s working.

“Our do-better attitude is starting to spread across the region,” says Frijia. “Everyone is looking, sharing and talking. Change is contagious, and it’s a good thing.”

There’s still much work to be done to attract business and talent to northeast Indiana, more work than NEI can do by itself. Rather than trying to funnel everything through his organization, however, Frijia encourages community partners to tackle these initiatives. 

“When someone comes to us with a good idea,” he says, “I ask them, ‘What are you willing to do?’ Now groups of people outside NEI are working together and taking on specific objectives. Everyone is seizing the opportunity to grow.”

Although NEI was on solid footing when Frijia took over just under three years ago, his vision and drive for continuous improvement have already taken it to new heights. NEI has nearly quadrupled the number of projects it’s pursuing and has positioned more people and organizations to lead critical efforts. Better yet, it’s attracting attention from the outside.

Positive results like these spur Frijia to keep pushing forward.

“We can’t lose momentum,” he says. “We need more strategic thinkers with ideas about how to move a project forward. We have to embrace this region and embrace change.”

Pioneer starts first and foremost at NEI. 

Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership (NEI)

Owner(s): President & CEO: Stéphane Frijia

Address: 200 E. Main St., Suite 910, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46802

Phone: (260) 469-3469


Products & Services: The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s mission is to drive business investment and strengthen the region’s global competitiveness and economic resiliency. NEI represents 11 member counties: Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Huntington, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley.

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