This post is part of a series featuring highlights from the Unsung Heroes of Ecosystem Building campaign which shone a spotlight on 40+ entrepreneurial ecosystem builders from around the U.S. and abroad between February and September 2020.
As an emerging field that is challenging the status quo of entrepreneurship in economic development, ecosystem builders are bound to run into obstacles along the way which – if repeated and consistent – make us want to pull our hair out. Having worked in entrepreneurial ecosystem building ourselves, we were not surprised that the main challenges in our field arise around a typical old-school mindset and a severe lack of equal opportunities for entrepreneurs of ALL ethnicities, backgrounds and gender. The 40+ Unsung Heroes who we interviewed shared some deep and personal insights into:
- What holds them back in their work (scarcity, silos, unrealistic expectations and an unwillingness to collaborate)
- The consequences of under-representing the New Majority, and
- How we might professionalize the nascent field of entrepreneurial ecosystem building (raise awareness, fund the role of ecosystem builders, practical metrics and measurements)
Scarcity, silos, and unrealistic expectations
We asked all 42 interviewees what their greatest challenges and biggest frustrations are in their day-to-day to work:
Silos and scarcity mindset … Even some of the people and organizations you’d think would be our biggest allies have struggles to overcome being siloed which is often driven by a scarcity mindset that thinks our organizations are somehow in competition for limited resources or influence. The scarcity mindset holds us all back.
Carina Boston Pinales
Having to deal with the culture entrenched with the decision-makers and having to dissolve the old way of thinking in order to utilize best practices of the past and integrate these practices into forward-thinking methodologies.
I wish the small business ecosystem had something equivalent to the angel investor networks that support technology startups. Imagine what the diversity of ownership and in the workforce would look like if people with the means to invest would care as much about social and human return on investment as they do about potential profit.
My biggest frustration I encounter is silos in ecosystems. In an ecosystem, there should be multiple entrepreneurial support organizations, coworking spaces, incubators/accelerators, investors, etc.communicating about the resources they have to support entrepreneurs. I often find that they don’t always work together throughout the year due to competition. While I understand competition, the goal is to be working together to provide an ecosystem with all the resources necessary for a startup to start and grow. Silos breakdown the flow of information between actors in an ecosystem and in turn, more difficult for an entrepreneur to navigate.
My biggest frustration is when others solely focus on their silo rather than looking to connect with other people and businesses in the area. We’re better together.
I wish that ecosystem partners offering programs and opportunities for entrepreneurs – like grants or training programs – made that info easy to find and put it into human speak so that non-program-entrenched people can understand. It can be frustrating to know that there are a plethora of great opportunities out there to help and educate our entrepreneurial community, but if our entrepreneurs have to spend their precious time trying to understand or simply find the info they’re looking for, they’re not making money and their frustration grows as well.
The most challenging aspect in working with different ecosystem partners has been trying to get them to collaborate, or at least stop seeing each other as competitors. Getting others to stop for a moment, let go of any past grudges or judgements or assumptions and just see how they might actually complement each other’s efforts can be a wee bit challenging. That said, Santa Fe has come a long way with that even in the 3 ½ years I’ve been here, so it just goes to show that change is possible.
Jeannette Balleza Collins
Making our ecosystem more easily navigable and ultimately founder-friendly.
I am most frustrated when there are obvious synergies overlooked and efforts that are duplicated by (in many cases) new entrants into ecosystems across the country. Economies of scale are left “on the table” and therefore entrepreneurs, service providers and existing partners don’t experience and realize the best of what their ecosystem could offer. In another vein, I wish that the importance of entrepreneurship was more respected and valued at all levels of society – including by our policy makers and larger corporations. The driving force of economic growth for the US is gains in productivity driven by calculated risk-takers, passionate entrepreneurs and disruptive innovation.
Our biggest challenge is continual impostor syndrome. No matter how many entrepreneurs we support and jobs they create, our state and local government only care whether we create a major tech company that employs 100-1,000 people.
We live in a world where expectations exist around instantaneous success. In ecosystems, that’s not realistic or even preferable. We need to give people time to adapt.
My biggest frustration is how few corporations engage in ecosystem building and long-term building. Most want simple answers quickly rather than understanding that transformative change takes time.
Carina Boston Pinales
The biggest challenge we see is burn-out. We live in an instant gratification society which can challenge vision. We strive to educate our community that success takes commitment, strategy, discipline, and patience to sustain the journey and see long-term growth. The success of small/local business is incredibly vital for a sustainable economy. Helping start-ups and new business owners to have and hold a long term vision is important and we’re constantly working to address this message in our programming.
Why won’t you play? The frustrating reality of non-collaboration
The biggest frustration I have is when people place their personal and professional drive before the needs of the ecosystem. An ecosystem is about many, not just one, and a rising tide lifts all boats. Getting people to believe in the vision is not a challenge; that is the first step. The real challenge is ensuring that those who see the vision are empowered to take up the mantle so that they have the capacity & take ownership in the ecosystem they’re helping to build.
When people get into turf battles or let their egos get in the way of meeting development goals.
My biggest frustration in my work is that we lack a local team of advocates and genuine partners that are working together toward improving our community’s economy and prospects for our future.
Change is hard and it can lead to a rejection of trying something new and sticking to the way it’s always been done. It can be frustrating, especially when it brings territorial issues into play – when partners worry more about who gets the credit than what’s the best way to serve our clients and community.
Lack of representation: More seats at the table, or new tables?
Candice Matthew Brackeen
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.
Lack of diversity especially when it comes to immigrant and refugee communities.
I see amazing entrepreneurs still being met with significant bias in their grant applications, pitches, accelerator experiences, and interactions with investors is immensely frustrating. More than half of our entrepreneurs have participated in other support programs and all of them have shared negative experiences with those programs that specifically centered around racism and sexism.
We work closely with angel investors, venture capitalists, technology transfer offices, federal and philanthropic funders, and other entrepreneurship support program providers. Those we refer to as “enthusiastic allies” make ready use of the tools and strategies we have to offer for making more equitable decisions and to support a greater diversity of founders. Those stakeholders have seen dramatic financial returns and greater social impacts in their portfolios. Dealing with resistive funders, however, is our biggest challenge. The more resistive funders are quick to dismiss data that shows that diverse founding teams outperform homogeneous teams on a number of financial and decision-making metrics. There is a lot of inertia in keeping things the way they are, which largely funds and supports the innovation coming from founders who are white or Asian men. We’ve had to develop tools and strategies to meet funders where they are in terms of receptivity and willingness to change.
The need to professionalize an emerging field
Lack of awareness: Eco… what?
Spreading the word about ecosystem building! It’s a newly recognized and emerging field, though people have been doing it for a long time. It’s hard to get partners and community members on the same page and find a common understanding of what ecosystem building is and can be. It’s a challenge to examine our worldview and ask, “what can we do together if we think about our community and economic development in a new way?”
My biggest frustration and battle are to keep saying that building an ecosystem is a need and it matters. You need to engage others and sometimes the vocabulary is not the same and we still need to educate and try again and again. To build an entrepreneurial ecosystem you need to engage in a long-term strategy to convince others, you need to show results. Ecosystem builders make noise, engage, act, and this several times can be disturbing for the ‘system’ that needs to be transformed into an ‘ecosystem’.
I believe it is that this vision is too visionary for the majority of the existing leadership in our ecosystem. Though evidence, globally, shows otherwise, we’ve not yet had success in convincing the power players to adopt this as a priority in economic and community development. The scarcity mentality voices tend to drown out anything that is perceived to have the potential to rock their boats. If we could have open conversations with these folks, I believe that we could change their mindsets. However, these are underlying behaviors that are not shared.
But there is good news, too. Jacob Miller, for example, describes the progress in his ecosystem:
More people are seeing what is happening, becoming willing to volunteer and help, and helping us get connections for financial sponsorship so we can continue to gain momentum and increase the quality of our events. We still become amazed by the new faces that never knew events and groups have been existing in our community for the past 5 years or more. It’s great to be able to get in touch with new people through better awareness efforts.
Funding the role of ecosystem builder
I’m already a busy person, some days having the time and energy to get everything done can be overwhelming. With financial and volunteer support, we can divide and conquer so we can all do our best to put on better events and help the community as needed.
Whereas resources for funding the different ecosystem projects we have built have exceeded our initial expectations over 10-plus years ago, a frustration that’s persisting in our work is maintaining the proper funding levels to obtain the right resources as we grow. As stewards of this monstrous, yet rewarding endeavor to make a significant and sustainable social and economic impact, we have been challenged to attract and retain key resources to match our growth trajectory.
I’m lucky enough to get paid for my work, but many many people I know with excellent skills are uncompensated or under compensated.
Our greatest challenge is securing consistent, flexible financial support to address the critical work of partnerships development and maintenance.
In general, it’s funding and other support for ecosystem building activities – the work and various meetings that lead to more collaborative efforts – and stronger relationships among entrepreneur support organizations – in our ecosystem.
I believe that resource and time constraints are the biggest hurdles that I face as an ecosystem builder. Ideas, partners and opportunities that I am blessed to have been presented over the past 5 years far exceed the resources that I can apply to meet them. I hope to continue to grow the variety of programs that I am leading / co-leading in the areas of smart city/urban tech work, fintech, music tech, water tech and healthcare so that they are truly sustainable, impactful and scale to reach their optimal potential.
Connecting, chasing leads, and educating is very time consuming and not immediately scalable. Managing my time and making sure that my contributions have impact is the biggest challenge. It’s challenging because it can be difficult to determine when a conversation, meeting, or simple advice can make a sharp impact on an entrepreneur. And just as hard to tell when a line of conversation might be fruitless.
Metrics and practical measurements
Lauren Pehler Pradhan
Measurement. It is tough to make ecosystem building tangible with metrics as this is such a new field. When you work to cultivate a community, it is hard to attach yourself to a specific business if you are not offering technical assistance. Instead you are driving visibility to the community itself as well as encouraging more engagement from the larger entities in town. These can feel more causal and a harder sell to individuals who want a direct cause and effect or silver bullet solution.
The startup world asks founders to disrupt their industries with data. But there is no driving force critiquing the startup industry, informing learnings, and making it better. We are iterating on our gut instinct. Think what advertising was before big data. It was a lot of guess work. Think how much more effective it is now that data drives the decision making and allocation of advertisers. The same will be true for our work, but first we have to stop believing that startup success is luck and magic. It’s not the wild west anymore. How to build a scaling startup is a known process that can be understood, taught, and achieved in a repeatable way.
Measurement and learning! Without a clear way to understand my impact it’s hard to get better, hard to know who around me is effective, and hard to manage funding.
To seasoned ecosystem builders, a lot of these challenges will sound familiar and as a field, we have a lot of work ahead of us to
- Change mindsets towards abundance, collaboration and a more nuanced and realistic understanding of what success means in entrepreneurial ecosystems
- Educate ourselves and others on the importance of becoming true allies to ALL entrepreneurs
- Professionalize our field through
- Advocating for stronger support and more resources to do our work well and with longevity
- Measuring the impact of entrepreneurial ecosystem building efforts
- Raising the profile of our and each other’s work to educate stakeholders on the importance of investing in entrepreneurial ecosystem building.
As is true for any emerging movement, we commit to leading by example to model what’s possible and holding up a mirror to each other and the outside world to keep ourselves accountable and share the stories of impact we are creating in communities throughout the U.S. and beyond.
To help guide us on the way road ahead, here is a selection of resources:
- Now More Than Ever We Need Ecosystem Builders, Jeff Bennett
- Reframing the Entrepreneurship Narrative through Stories of the New Majority, Jeff Bennett
- Allyship with the New Majority, Anika Horn
- The Infinite Game of Ecosystem Building, Anika Horn
- It’s Love, Actually. Ending my one-sided relationship with ecosystem building, Anika Horn