The Social Impact of Entrepreneurism: Steve Clark
Fort Smith, a city on the rise through most of the 1800s as a gateway to the west, took a major hit during the great depression. It then reinvented itself as a major manufacturing center and started on the rise again only to take another major hit. As recently as a decade ago, visitors could cross the Arkansas River into downtown and see a strip of crumbling historic buildings, empty storefronts, and struggling local businesses. Today, however, even though the area may not be booming yet, it is definitely blooming. Buildings are being restored to their former grandeur while others are adorned with murals by international artists. Small businesses are thriving, and larger corporations are taking note of Arkansas’ second-largest city as a location for potential expansion. A common driving force behind all of these changes is Steve Clark.
Owner and founder of Propak, Inc., Clark has made a name for himself in the River Valley as not only an entrepreneur in a business sense, but also an entrepreneur for social change.
Originally from Dallas, his family moved to Roland, Okla., just across the state line from Fort Smith, when Clark was in fifth grade. His upbringing was traditional for the time: working father, stay-at-home mother, younger brother, sports at school, church on Sunday. While the family never went without, they were also not wealthy, a fact that forced Clark to have to take a job during his college years at the University of Arkansas, an experience he says helped teach him skills not learned in the classroom, such as time management, professionalism, and how to juggle multiple responsibilities.
Clark’s various college jobs finally landed him at McIlroy Bank and Trust, which sparked his interest in finance, the field in which he received a degree in 1986. After graduation he moved to Little Rock and worked buying and selling mortgages while his wife attended pharmacy school. But no matter where the couple lived, they knew they eventually wanted to make their way back to Fort Smith. Upon their return Clark worked for his father-in-law’s transportation company, rising as a young vice president after the company was bought out.
But quick success does not come without its downfalls. Clark explains that, though he enjoyed his job, he was on the road five days a week, flying out on Monday morning and back on Friday night. Even when he was physically present at home, part of him was always on the job. Sitting in an airport bar in Detroit one weekend after a missed flight, Clark looked around at his coworkers, all future versions of himself, and saw where his life was heading.
“I was looking all of a sudden into this time machine,” he recalls. “I was looking at these guys doing the same thing as me. And I started thinking about what these guys had in common … And unfortunately these fellows were great guys, but they were all divorced and to some measure estranged from their children … That was, if I could avoid it, something I didn’t want for myself.”
When he finally made it back from Detroit, he had a talk with his wife. He told her he did not want to end up like those men in the bar, a group of men he had always viewed as his mentors, and a change was needed in order to ensure that.
“You’re on a treadmill,” he explains. “When does that treadmill ever end? And the answer is, it doesn’t. Business takes what you give it.”
Clark realized he had been giving business his all, and in return, the business was going to take all from him, an exchange he did not feel was worth his while. He knew he did not want to continue living separate lives from his wife and kids. What he wanted was a way to keep his home and his family, take a vacation now and again, while doing something that to him was worth the time he would have to invest, and not just in terms of money. He also knew it was worth the risk of failing in order to take control of the situation and avoid a life he did not want.
That one missed flight was ultimately the catalyst for the creation of Propak, Inc. Building off the Walmart’s constantly increasing demand on the service industry, Clark developed his company to logistics, transportation, and supply chain management solutions.
“Really it was kind of a consolidation play,” he explains. “We went in and tried to offer this professional service in a professional environment and do work that historically was dirty and not very sexy.”
Propak was just the launching pad for Clark’s ventures into construction, investments, and technologies. His next venture was Rockfish Interactive, a digital media company, which was started 10 years ago. Though he eventually sold the business in a deal that was finally closed in December 2016, he credits this endeavor for the majority of his leadership lessons.
“Rockfish taught me that you have to be a life-long learner,” he says. “Gone are the days when you can graduate from college and you’re through … You have to expect to remake yourself several times throughout the course of your career … We cannot rest on what we have done. We must constantly be remaking ourselves and be willing to take the chance of remaking ourselves.”
Through the creation and development of both Propak and Rockfish, Clark began to recognize his natural talents for the creative aspects of starting new projects, which also presented him with new challenges compared to day-to-day operations and kept him on the cutting edge of relevance in the business world, pushing him to learn more about different aspects of a diverse range of industries, such as artificial intelligence, technology, and art. Expanding his understanding and appreciation of different sectors, he says, makes him a better leader in his own.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about potentially non-related industries that I think represent the tip of the spear,” he says. “I have found, personally, that the more that I can spread horizontally in terms of interests … it’s able to free my mind in a way that I think helps me be better at being a leader, being a businessman, an entrepreneur.”
Another way Clark has learned to expand and express his appreciation for business solutions is by taking traditional entrepreneurial tenets and utilizing them to effect positive social change. Clark believes that blending capitalism and social awareness can be beneficial for the greater good, not necessarily to profit monetarily, but to build a sustainable model for social issues.
Clark’s social impact can be seen through multiple efforts, including Noble Impact, a partnership with the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock and the Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; Future School of Fort Smith, the area’s first charter school; and most readily noticeable, The Unexpected, a yearly art festival that draws national and international muralists to create work using downtown Fort Smith as a canvas.
“We are a species built to respond to things of order and design and beauty,” Clark says, “and to deny a community or even yourself of those things is done so at your discount as opposed to your benefit.”
Noble Impact was created as a push to foster entrepreneurship through liberal arts and as a means to blend capitalism and social awareness. Clark recognizes that the leaders of the future are fully invested in sustainability and environmental awareness, and utilizes Noble Impact to create a common ground for applying entrepreneurial tenets to social issues.
By the 2018-19 school year, Future School of Fort Smith will accommodate 450 students in grades 10-12, teaching a curriculum based on real-world internships. He says the school was founded in an area of town that is wanting of economic development and refocus, specifically so as to be mutually beneficial to the city as well as the students, who may not be able to receive such experiences elsewhere.
The Unexpected, curated by Just Kids, began in 2015 to bring urban and contemporary art to the area by capitalizing on the public mural art movement. In addition to murals, the festival has also introduced sculpture and installation art to the streets of historic downtown Fort Smith. Clarks states that the intent of the project was to re-energize and revitalize the city, to recast the perspective of Fort Smith while reintroducing the citizens to the town and the town to the state and region.
“It’s in our selfish best interest to put our best foot forward in terms of economic development,” he says. “We’re no longer competing with Tulsa and Oklahoma City; we’re competing with everyone … I think we have every right to pursue things of a grand nature, and that’s my interest and my intention.”
Though Clark admits his current focus is simply to grow and expand Propak, he intends to continue applying everything he learns through the business to as many other aspects as possible, such as city improvement and education. He claims being able to improve multiple aspects of life for the betterment of his community is his biggest personal satisfaction, blaming it all on how he was raised coupled with a foundation of faith, family, and fear of failure.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it?” he rationalizes. “You’re supposed to make things better, if you can.”
And making things better is definitely an ability Clark has demonstrated successfully. His natural curiosity motivates him to continue challenging himself, refusing to become complacent in order to foster advancement and apply his experience for the greater good, whether it benefits his company, his city, entrepreneurs of the future, or society as a whole.
“We have a right to be as good as we can be.”