As with any movement, there comes a day when grand visions need to either remain that, or be executed on so that they may evolve to the next stage of development and maturation.
We found one of those exemplary steps in southern Virginia where the Dan River Region Entrepreneur Ecosystem recognized the need for an ecosystem coordinator and rallied their stakeholders to hire the first entrepreneurial ecosystem builder for the region.
In a nascent field like entrepreneurial ecosystem building, practitioner examples are rare and we were not going to pass up the opportunity to speak to four representatives of this pilot project to learn more about:
- What gave rise to the need of hiring an ecosystem builder
- How they envisioned the role and necessary skills of an ecosystem builder
- How they managed to rally other ecosystem stakeholders into supporting these efforts
- What success looks like in this three-year pilot
- What challenges and success the initiative booked in the first six months, and how COVID-19 impacted the project
- What advice the initiators have for other ecosystems looking to hire a professional ecosystem builder
Thank you to Jessica Edwards, Eva Doss & Varun Sadana at The Launch Place (TLP), Alexis Ehrhardt at the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce and Diana Schwartz at River District Association for sharing their thoughts and experiences to build this case study!
We developed this case study through interviews with the aforementioned stakeholders to learn what led to this pilot project, how it is being implemented, and to share good practices with other entrepreneurial ecosystems in hopes of igniting a trend of professionalizing the role of entrepreneurial ecosystem builders around the nation.
From Tobacco & manufacturing to entrepreneurship
According to Diana Schwartz, Executive Director at River District Association, economic and societal shifts were having an enormous impact on the community’s economy, “For over 100 years, Danville, Virginia , has been a textile and tobacco powerhouse, and that is what the local economy depended on heavily for the majority of that time. But as manufacturing moved overseas and the landscape morphed and changed in the tobacco industry, our community has had to do some collective ‘soul searching’ to ensure that we are finding ways to diversify and strengthen our economy and move forward. Like many communities in this position, it has not been easy or straightforward. We are fortunate to have leadership that have masterminded strategies utilizing public and private funding, along with a stellar regional foundation (Danville Regional Foundation, or DRF) to slowly work this puzzle out. We have brilliant minds working together to leverage our opportunities and assets to move our community forward and so far, the plan is working.
In doing this work, there has been a significant amount of investment of both funds and time in moving entrepreneurship activities forward. Despite having both those pieces, we were not having the success moving the initiative forward as successfully as we wanted. This was in large part due to the grassroots nature and loose organization of the ecosystem. To be successful, it was time to put together a more specific plan, find the funding, and hire the right person to take us to the next level.” says Diana Schwartz
Eva Doss, President and CEO at The Launch Place, elaborated, “We had multiple organizations in the region that were providing specific services to entrepreneurs and small businesses: business counseling, seminars, workshops, investment capital, pitch competitions, networking events, etc. The programs offered were fragmented (and duplicated) and additional capacity was needed to coordinate and to focus efforts. We thought we needed a coordinator who links the activities of service providers and provides insights into entrepreneurs’ needs.”
The need for an ecosystem builder
Alexis Ehrhardt, President & CEO at Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce, explains “For two years, Danville Regional Foundation provided a fellow to support the development of the ecosystem. We knew that when her fellowship ended, we needed to bring someone on board who was solely focused on this work. While this is not unique to our community, we understand that critical initiatives must have someone who wakes up thinking about them every day in order to be successful. For the work to continue, and to be successful, we felt strongly that it couldn’t rely on parts of several team members’ time—it required a full-time coordinator to move the work forward.“
Diana Schwartz adds “ We also knew that to be successful, we needed to take the time and find a leader that brought passion, expertise, and experience to this work.”
Envisioning a new role: A connector with technical expertise and social skills
Alexis Ehrhardt views the role of an ecosystem coordinator as “the hub of the wheel, convening partners and entrepreneurs, facilitating connections among them, ascertaining their needs, etc. Someone who could understand the current landscape, help envision where we want to be and collaboratively develop a plan to get there.”
With an eye toward localized needs, Diana Schwartz adds “It looks a little different in every community, and ideally that role would be developed based on what that community/region needs in order to be successful. We have extremely talented people in our entrepreneurship support network, but as with all collaborative efforts, partnerships can also bring their own set of challenges. We wanted someone that understood not only the KPIs/metrics of what we wanted to accomplish, but also had experience in navigating the social aspects of coordinating the partnerships. Since our region is blessed to be diverse in race, religion, socioeconomic factors and education, we intentionally want to present opportunities for anyone and everyone with a passion to learn how to take advantage of opportunities, create wealth for themselves and their families, and hopefully to build a legacy. For us that meant recruiting an ecosystem builder who is passionate about reaching and engaging a diverse audience.”
Engaging stakeholders in a shared vision
We wanted to know how Eva, Diana and Alexis managed to rally the key stakeholders to come together and support the role of an ecosystem builder. Eva talks about the early days. “Though TLP is headquartered in Danville, Virginia we have been involved with multiple statewide and national entities (Angel Capital Association, State Science and Technology Institute, Kauffman Foundation, etc.) where we learn and share best practices. We try not to operate in isolation and always explore new ideas and opportunities. We also have a regional foundation that can provide initial planning grants to explore new initiatives. A small planning grant from DRF in 2015 brought many service providers together. Over a period of time, only few remained at the table who became the core architects of the current ecosystem initiative we have today.
TLP identified the Kauffman Foundation’s Inclusion grant that we thought could provide financial resources to have a formal and structured ecosystem. With the Chamber and the River District Association, we applied for the grant, but did not make it past their semi-final round. Since we saw the willingness of the core group to take on this project, we decided to apply for a grant with the Danville Regional Foundation. DRF liked our scope of grant proposal, entities involved, and understood the need for such an initiative and approved the grant. With this grant, we were able to hire the Principal Ecosystem Coordinator, increase capacity and bring all the service providers in the region together.”
Alexis chimes in “As a result of the transition from tobacco and textiles to a more diversified economy, our region in some ways has been forced to work together to move forward. We are much more collaborative than we were 20 years ago, because we have realized that we can do more together. At the end of the day, our work is about connecting entrepreneurs to resources and to one another, and about cultivating a vibrant region that is welcoming and supportive of entrepreneurs. All of our partners realize that, and while we accomplish the work differently, we share those goals.”
Defining long-term success in ecosystem building
The team felt that defining what long-term success looked like was critical. According to Alexis, “success looks like an integrated network of providers and entrepreneurs who have access to resources, capital, training, etc. It’s an environment that entrepreneurs would seek out not only for its resources but also for its entrepreneurial spirit. We want this region to be a hub where entrepreneurs can access everything they need to start and grow their businesses.”
Eva offered some specifics, “We will monitor a variety of quantitative and qualitative indicators encompassing both tangible and intangible outcomes. Traditionally, these metrics include numbers of entrepreneurs, companies, and jobs created in the region, as well as number of events hosted, attendees, companies involved and similar metrics. We will vigorously document the structure, projects, programs, relationships, strategies and tactics used by the coordinator. We understand that hiring the Principal Coordinator or building this intentional ecosystem will not solve all the problems related to start-ups, but it will move any already existing collaboration to a new professional level.”
Diana added, “Personally I feel the end goal in these three years is to have solidified the processes, systems, and partnerships that will allow us to move DRREE into a long-term sustainable mechanism to grow entrepreneurship regionally. I feel like we are solidifying the foundation of the house and beginning to frame it out, but this “construction job” will have a number of phases. Ultimately there won’t be an ‘end’, because all organizations need to remain agile to reflect the needs of the entrepreneurs and systems in the region as they evolve.”
The first 6 months: Challenges and Wins
As might be expected, the team has already seen challenges and early wins in the first few months.
The core leadership team agrees that the biggest win in the first six months was to hire Jessica Edwards, an experienced entrepreneurial ecosystem builder with a track record of global engagements in this area (read about Jessica’s experience as Dan River Region Ecosystem Builder here).
“She is convening and connecting partners and entrepreneurs, ascertaining gaps in the ecosystem and working to articulate a collaborative and comprehensive vision for the region.” says Alexis.
“Many state and national organizations confirmed that what we are doing is exemplary and we are further along in our efforts than a lot of rural communities. We are also grateful for the flexibility from our funder in terms of adjusting to change in strategy to address challenges related to COVID-19,” Eva adds.
According to Eva, the list of challenges is rather short and — for the most part — to be expected:
- Lack of trust among some organizations in the ecosystem
- A sub-region within the Dan River Region has different needs
- Not all service providers will be on board with the initiatives
- Lack of understanding of some partner organizations of professional ecosystem building
Diana explains “Because the partners have been involved for so long and there have been different plans and iterations that for various reasons did not always move forward, we needed an infusion of energy and expertise to help with focus and continue to build trust in the process. More than anything though, our community deals with a lack of self-esteem that is not necessarily unjustified. Part of the importance of this project is to give people the tools, information, and resources of course, but to give some much needed encouragement, structure, and support to those that take on the challenge of entrepreneurship. One of my oft-used phrases is that there are no losers in entrepreneurship—anyone that tries to take it on has already won.
I would be remiss if I did not mention COVID; we have added an addendum to our original funding request outlining a specific pivot strategy to be responsive to the needs of small businesses in our area.”
Alexis sheds light on how the pandemic altered the original course of the project:
“Jess’s objectives are based on the grant proposal to DRF, specifically, articulating progress in the four primary program areas:
- a fragmented ecosystem;
- the lack of intentional entrepreneurial programming for women and people of color;
- an underdeveloped pipeline for youth entrepreneurship; and
- lack of support for entrepreneurs facing isolation.
That said, with the onset of COVID-19, we had to pivot the work in the short-term to provide immediate support to entrepreneurs in the region. Jess now is focused on these primary challenges:
- Adapting to New or Innovative Online Marketing Strategies
- Addressing the Need for a Comprehensive Business Strategy Pivot
- A Curated Online Directory to Help Navigate Resources and Support”
Patience is key. Advice for replication in other ecosystems
Alexis shares “This initiative has never been about benefiting or accessing grant funds for a specific organization—it’s about our regional economy and supporting/developing entrepreneurs. Partners must be clear from the onset about goals and strategies. We also held out for the right coordinator, believing it was better to have no one than the wrong one.”
Diana recommends “While I don’t think any of us can be patient in finding ways to move our community forward, we do have to try and be patient in the process itself and give it a little space to become what it can be. People that are truly passionate and focused about moving a community/region/state/nation forward are generally very energetic and want to do it all yesterday. While I admire and feel that same drive, it takes time to understand when/what/who is needed, find the appropriate people that have the time and desire to work through it, and have a lot of perseverance.”
Eva leaves emerging ecosystems with this advice:
- There is no one approach that fits all; you have to tailor your strategy based on the assets and resources you have.
- Intentional ecosystem building efforts are needed if you don’t have all the resources for organic growth
- It’s a process and requires a long-term investment strategy. Results won’t be seen in 2-3 years
- Support of the community and entrepreneurs.
- Leadership role – somebody has to take up the challenge to lead the efforts
- Do not wait for 100% participation from all service providers, you will never get started.
- Understand that entrepreneurial ecosystem building is a new trend, and not all organizations have the skills or understanding to do it right, or for the right reasons.