To you, what is an Ecosystem Builder?

An ecosystem builder is a person, institution, or team that works towards a common goal to forward innovation, technology, equity, and opportunity in an ecosystem by creating initiatives, programs, and networks to help all succeed.

What motivates you as an ecosystem builder?

In my former role as the founder and CEO of Hello Parent, I struggled to find and learn from other startup founders in the Cincinnati ecosystem who were experiencing some of the same issues that I was going through. Being tasked to tackle everything from fundraising, to scaling, to managing your own mental health is quite taxing, and you’re often alone. This is particularly true for women of color– so I understood that the journey to startup success for me was going to look very different than for some of my peers– and that we needed to create a real community of support and resources intended to service my demographic. This motivated me to first create the Black Founders Network, which led to the creation of the Minority Entrepreneurial Connectivity Assessment report, which catalyzed the creation of the Hillman Accelerator.

What is the most successful/impactful program/event/thing you do/have done in your ecosystem?

To date, I am most proud of our creation of the Minority Entrepreneurial Connectivity Assessment report. This report was the first comprehensive assessment of the tech startup landscape for underrepresented founders in Ohio, and quantitatively demonstrated the massive gap in the ecosystem for founders of color and women to thrive. This report helped us to change small business funding allocation to represent at least 10% underrepresented businesses, and launch the Hillman Accelerator, which was the first business accelerator program dedicated to underrepresented founders in the Midwest. We continue to grow and scale startups to date.

What is the biggest challenge you face as an Ecosystem Builder?

The biggest challenge that we face is the constant constraint of funding for underrepresented startup founders. In theory, I would love to be able to invest in all of the fantastic companies that call our region home, but this just isn’t possible. One way that we are working to mitigate this issue is by fundraising for our seed fund, Lightship Capital, which invests both in Hillman companies as well as other innovative startups across the Midwest and beyond.

What is your biggest frustration as an ecosystem builder?

Our biggest frustration continues to be that sometimes people do not understand the severity of the fundraising gap for underrepresented founders. To date, less than 1% of founders who are venture backed, are Black; and women founders receive just 9% of investment capital. This is an incredibly overlooked problem, which is frustrating, because without truly understanding the issue we can not move forward with a real solution.

What ecosystem building skill/knowledge do you want to gain?

Because we are raising a fund, in addition to running our accelerator and a bootcamp series, I continue to struggle to find the appropriate amount of time to give each person or task that needs my attention. Everyday I try to juggle our work with companies in the ecosystem while also being a mom with 2 kids, and even with a supportive husband– balancing is hard. I could absolutely benefit from some more effective time management skills.

What are the most important things that need to happen to advance the field of ecosystem building?

I think it’s important to remind ourselves that doing the work is even more important than talking about the work. Many people have opened the doors to these conversations about equity in venture capital and fundraising for underrepresented founders, and that is great, but we need to ask ourselves, “How do we then turn those conversations into action?”.

Jeff Bennett

Founder and Editorial Director at Ecosystem Builder Hub. Former/retired co-founder and President at StartupSac. Semi-retired ecosystem building writer.