Jess Edwards’ Reflections as Dan River Region Ecosystem Builder

The Dan River Region Ecosystem Development Project as a promising sign for the sustainable future of Ecosystem Building… 

As a project-based Ecosystem Builder, I have observed the exciting recent shift in conversation and strategy around building and scaling entrepreneurial ecosystems. Evolving from, “We need to be collaborating more and breaking down our silos…” to a much more accountable and deliberate “We are committing to putting in the time, effort and resources to make that mass collaboration happen because it is absolutely necessary.”

An even more progressive step further is taking that evolution and creating an action plan with desired outcomes. The Dan River Region Entrepreneur Ecosystem (DRREE) has done exactly that, inadvertently creating a case study for the next phase of ecosystem development (read the Dan River Region Case Study). The local leadership team created a strong vision and scope of work leading to a formalized process, in which all of the resource providers streamline communication and efforts to help entrepreneurs and small businesses in the region succeed. Additionally, they committed to a major focus on the diversity of the local entrepreneurs and small businesses they are serving.

This advanced approach and active involvement in the ecosystem building process is why I accepted the opportunity as the Principal Coordinator of the DRREE. It’s been an absolute privilege to receive the leadership support, access to stakeholder resources, and community’s trust to work closely together over the next 3 years to build a more inclusive and robust ecosystem.

In comparing the DRREE project to previous projects, this is by far the most organized and intentional in regards to a group of ecosystem stakeholders making space (in all ways) for an Ecosystem Builder to help move the ecosystem forward. It will be interesting to see if the results and opportunities are more abundant and significant with such intent for Ecosystem Development. So far it is looking very promising… stay tuned!




Why Rural Entrepreneurship & Innovation Was My Next [Ecosystem Building] Step…

Initially, when people hear “Buffalo to Dubai, Dubai to Anchorage, and now Anchorage to Danville” the immediate response is usually  “Well, that’s pretty random!”

However, the projects, both in scale and responsibility have been following a very intentional trajectory: going from a mid-sized U.S. city in the Rust Belt looking to rebuild and reinvent itself, to an international city with arguably the greatest opportunity for meaningful collisions between east and west, to a statewide effort creating the critical paradigm shift from an oil-centric economy to a new (blue) economy, to now a progressive regional rural ecosystem development project with a deep bench of highly motivated and engaged stakeholders. And although the “type” of entrepreneurial activity and innovation may differ, there are 2 common denominators shared among these diverse communities: 1. They all agree entrepreneurship and innovation are absolutely necessary components of their overall economic growth strategies and 2. They share a desire to develop their own entrepreneurial landscapes. So, while perhaps contradictory at first sight, the four stations of my journey as an ecosystem builder collectively have allowed my career to become a cohesive professional case study within the emerging field of Ecosystem Development.

Why The Dan River Region Entrepreneur Ecosystem (DRREE) Development Project Stood Out…

I’ve been on enough projects at this point to have a set of criteria to know if the work will actually work! Some of the most important criteria can be summed up in “3 whys” for taking on a project. The DRREE project met all 3.


The 3 whys…

1. What they are trying to achieve…

First and foremost, it’s always about the actual scope of work for me. Looking beyond all of the shiny bells and whistles of coolness and futuristic language when people talk about innovation… is it truly progressive work that will have tangible results? Is there an advanced understanding of what needs to be achieved or a new way of thinking to move the ecosystem forward into the next phase of development? In the case of the Dan River Region the answer is yes. During my onsite visit and learning about the rich entrepreneurial history of Danville, it very much reminded me of my hometown of Buffalo, NY. After decades of decline from the loss of manufacturing jobs and a built up risk averse atmosphere, finally there were several leaders from across industries coming together to turn the momentum into action about 6-8 years ago. Sitting at a table with the Dan River Region leaders discussing as a group about where they are and would like to be going, it felt very reminiscent of that time in Buffalo when we were first building the startup community in 2014. An ‘all hands on deck’ and a little bit of luck approach made the stars align. It was something truly magical to witness and be a part of. I can feel that same ‘perfect storm’ brewing here…


2. Who is at the table…

Entrepreneurship will always and forever be about people. By nature, ecosystem building work is highly collaborative and for it to even be possible there needs to be a baseline understanding among stakeholders that they need to be engaged and collaborating in the process. More specifically, I have discovered that without high level leadership support and influence it is very hard to get the work done (not impossible but very strenuous).

So, early on, I always look to answer this question: Are individual efforts grounded in genuineness and thoughtfulness to truly drive the greater mission? In the case of the Dan River Region the answer is – once again – yes. During my onsite visit and interview, speaking with the wide variety of entrepreneur support organizations was not only impressive, but it was also the right mix of stakeholders that needed to be involved. It was a great start. However, what truly made this ecosystem development project next level and unique for me was meeting the leadership team. Three savvy women all with different leadership styles and vantage points, pooling their talents and resources. This by far is the most holistic and complementary approach to ecosystem building I have seen in the field, and also, what makes them such a compelling force.


3. How committed the stakeholders are in the process…

Stakeholders easily get excited about the promising field of “innovation” and are dedicated to making it happen until the process gets messy… which is inevitabile. The ‘risk versus reward’ for making ecosystem development work a priority can sometimes be forgotten in the mix of everything. Everyone knows the benefits and importance of collaborating, but is it being put into practice on a regular basis, especially when innovation gets ugly and isn’t always fun? In the case of the Dan River Region the answer is yes. While most communities are still having the conversations about ‘needing’ to collaborate and being accountable, the Dan River Region is already at the next stage of ‘let’s get it done’. From the beginning, I sensed a deeper level of accountability and readiness to act on their values. Taking everything into consideration it was very apparent that this is the next phase in ecosystem development.


Those are some of the reasons I am so excited to be a part of this project and community! The DRREE is not only at the forefront of rural ecosystem development, but also, at the forefront of ecosystem development in the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as nationally.

I have a deep appreciation and feel very blessed that my career has been a compilation of truly innovative and purpose-filled projects so far. As I continue to examine my learnings and results across communities… It is exciting to see what emerges as common themes in the needs, wants, opportunities and struggles emerging ecosystems face together.


A 3-year, Rural Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Development project primarily focused on Diversity & Inclusion programming. Since early 2014, The Dan River Region (DRR) has been intentionally building its entrepreneurial ecosystem, in order to create pathways to push momentum forward, break down silos and facilitate opportunities for entrepreneurs across the region to collide in new and innovative ways. The highly collaborative project includes a consortium of 10 resource provider organizations in the Dan River Region that help entrepreneurs and small businesses: The Launch Place, The Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce, the River District Association, Danville Community College, The Institute for Advanced Learning, Pittsylvania County Economic Development, Longwood Small Business Development Center, Caswell County Economic Development, Danville NAACP, and the City of Danville Economic Development Office.

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