To you, what is an Ecosystem Builder?

An ecosystem builder works to holistically develop healthy innovation and entrepreneurship supports, practices, policies, programs, and systems that are infused with social equity – from supporting a diversity of entrepreneurs, to serving a diversity of customers, to solving social and economic problems, and more.

What motivates you as an ecosystem builder?

Knowing that there are incredibly talented, skilled entrepreneurs who are addressing grand challenges facing our world who go overlooked simply because of the social groups they belong to. I’ve seen entrepreneurs who have been ignored and excluded for years make a huge difference in the world through viable businesses once someone has been willing to give them a chance.

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

We have supported three cohorts of STEM women entrepreneurs across the country in building their businesses and commercializing their research. 64% of them are women of color and a third to half are first generation college grads, LGBTQ+ founders, and/or entrepreneurs with disabilities.

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

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.

What is your biggest frustration as an ecosystem builder?

The resistance that I described above can be frustrating, especially when we see amazing entrepreneurs still being met with significant bias in their grant applications, pitches, accelerator experiences, and interactions with investors. For example, more than half of our entrepreneurs have participated in other entrepreneurship support programs and all of them have shared negative experiences with those programs that specifically centered around racism and sexism.

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

I’d love to learn more about what we can do to help establish ecosystem development as a field of research, policy work, and practice.

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

I think to advance ecosystem building as a field, we need to develop greater collaboration between researchers, policymakers and advocates, and practice. Often, different ecosystem stakeholders from these areas operate separately, resulting in gaps in how research might inform policy and programmatic design and vice versa. In our program, we have researchers, policy professionals, and practitioners working together, which has made our efforts even stronger. If we could scale this kind of collaborative work across ecosystem building activities, we’d not only have more well-informed efforts, but we’d also have a greater collective impact.

What others are saying about Heather

Heather Metcalf is AWIS Chief Research Officer and Analysis and PI/Project Lead for STEM to Market (S2M). She has undergraduate degrees in applied mathematics and computer science (Clarion University of Pennsylvania), master’s degrees in computer science (The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and gender studies (University of Arizona), and a doctorate in higher education science and technology policy (University of Arizona). With her unique interdisciplinary background, Heather has research, policy, and programmatic expertise on myriad topics in STEM, such as bias; educational and workplace cultures; innovation and entrepreneurship; career pathways; organizational and systemic change; mentoring; sense of fit; self-efficacy; and more.