For Chris Cain, what sets entrepreneurial ecosystem builders apart from other players in a community is that for ecosystem builders, there’s a part of your soul in it and that a lot of ecosystem builders can’t see doing any other work. This soulful approach is reflected in her commitment to and focus on helping small businesses have a collective impact in rural communities.
Chris started her career out of college working at Capital One and quickly learned that she didn’t want to work for a large mega corporation. She moved to Ithaca, New York where she worked for a community development credit union and learned how to use traditional financial tools to help people out of poverty.
As part of that role she ran a program that took her into schools to help kids learn how to save money and even how to start businesses. She became an individual account coordinator – helping people of “modest means.” This role got her thinking about how people fit in their communities with the resources that they have. She taught financial literacy, business planning to help people get their business started. She helped people start companies at the smallest scale, igniting a passion for helping small, main street entrepreneurs. Chris found that in the community connections and the periphery economy that was being built around all of these small businesses, everybody played an important role in the community and collectively made a big impact.
“That is the essence of what ecosystem building is for me. It’s identifying all the resources around you to help you either build an idea or a company in a way that makes you a better person and makes your community a better place to live.”
From her early days as an ecosystem builder at the credit union in Ithaca to her current role as the Director at the Staunton Innovation Hub in Staunton, Virginia, Chris has remained focused on small, main street entrepreneurs which she feels has a huge impact on their local communities.
“One of the things that I love to see are those main street companies make neighborhoods better places to live in and create good jobs around them and they’re able to make themselves better people.”
Chris thinks of the Staunton Innovation Hub as “physical entrepreneurship ecosystem,” a “coworking space with some bells and whistles,” including other resources like a micro lending platform, a tech lab that has laser cutters, 3D printers, and robotics, among other things.
“What we’re actually doing is creating a physical entrepreneurship ecosystem in a rural area.”
As ecosystem builders we all face challenges but being an ecosystem builder in rural communities brings additional barriers. For example, taking entrepreneurship seriously in a rural area can be a mental barrier that’s difficult for many to overcome. While many in rural areas expect to see small mom and pop shops, the idea that rural areas can be innovative and creative is a foreign concept to many. But Chris believes innovation can happen anywhere.
“If you have the right idea and the right resources and the right people, any idea can flourish anywhere.”
Chris pointed out another hurdle that many of us in cities take for granted like Wi-Fi and a good internet connections. The lack of access to basic infrastructure like internet creates additional barriers for rural entrepreneurs. Working to break down those barriers influences the programs that Chris and the Staunton Innovation Hub creates.
“One of the initiatives that the Staunton Innovation Hub is working on, I mentioned having a tech lab, but one of the things that we’re also going to be doing is have a tech bus. So we’re going to have a mobile maker space type bus that will go out to some of our rural areas, that has some of that technology onboard as well as being a Wi-Fi hotspot. So that can start breaking down some of those barriers in the itty bitty, tiny rural areas that are around us.”
I asked Chris if she had any additional advice for ecosystem builders in rural communities and what they can do to support entrepreneurs there.
“There is a mental barrier for folks who live in a lot of rural areas that it just can’t happen here because we don’t have resources. So being able to show that there are resources here… I would say the second thing for rural entrepreneurs is the safety nets, monetarily aren’t here in the way that they are in other places. Right now, it’s kind of in vogue to talk about how cool failure can be. Low income rural people cannot afford to fail so they don’t even try. So one of the things that I would like to do is to be able to have enough resources around people, if they can give it a shot on a level that is doable for them and if they do fail they land softly.”
Asked what her number one piece of advice for people wanting to start building entrepreneurial ecosystems in rural communities is, Chris replied:
“Talk to as many people as possible. And, build it from within that community. What I mean by that is, there’s so many good people in an organization that go into rural areas and tell people and other organizations that have been there forever, what they’re doing wrong and how they’re going to fix it. And that’s not what people need. Whether it’s a low income urban area or a rural area, if you’re going to build an initiative, especially doing any kind of ecosystem building, it has to be done from within. Because really, ecosystem building is all about building relationships and strengthening those relationships to come to a common goal. And you can’t do that if you come into any area and say ‘I’m going to fix you. This is all you need to do.’ And I think especially in rural areas and low income areas the powers that be feel like they know best. And sometimes they don’t.”
As Chris and I are both members of the Startup Champions Network (SCN) I wanted to shift gears a bit and talk about this network of ecosystem builders from around the country. I asked Chris to explain what SCN is and what it means to her.
“The Startup Champions Network is really a group of movers and shakers and creative thinkers and doers that just happen to put all their energy into helping businesses start and grow. That’s what I love about SCN, is it’s people from a wide variety of disciplines and education and experience and we see ways to make our communities better.”
She went on to describe a moment at her first SCN summit in Fargo, where a local member of the Fargo startup ecosystem told her that what he thinks is left out of entrepreneurship in small business communities is friendship – because we need friends, peers, colleagues, and confidants in everything we do, especially in small business development because the challenges are so difficult. That statement hit Chris in a way that changed the way she thinks.
“And that really kind of defines what SCN means for me. I’ve been able to build friendships and alliances and relationships with other ecosystem builders throughout the country. If I have my head in my hands and I’m like ‘what the hell am I doing?’ I have a group of people that I can reach out to.”
One of the key programming elements of SCN is twice yearly summits where members convene for a three day conference to connect with key peers and resources, improve their knowledge, learn best practices, and develop mission-critical skills. The summits are one of the few places entrepreneurial ecosystem builders can gather and connect to learn, grow, and together advance the field of ecosystem building. The next summit is approaching quickly and will be held in Portland, Oregon March 19 – 21. Several new ecosystem builders will be attending this summit for the first time and I asked Chris for any words of advice for new SCN members attending their first summit.
“The same thing I would say for any ecosystem builder – talk to everybody! And, there’s a handful of different sessions, seminars, and workshops. Go to a couple that you wouldn’t normally. Push the envelope a little bit. Talk to the facilitator. Talk to the people around you. This is a fantastically welcoming group. So I think that would be the first thing is just don’t be shy, jump right in and do all of the things that you can.
Wrapping up the interview, I asked Chris what is her hope for ecosystem building.
“My hope is that whenever I say it [ecosystem building], to someone, I don’t get a deer in the headlights look. I want to be able to have recognition and for people to kind of get to a point where people understand what it is rather than giving them, ‘we’re this, and we’re that, this is how we do it, this is why we do it.’ I would like it to get to the point where not only is it easy to understand, but the value is easily recognizable. And I think we have a lot of work to do with that.”