To you, what is an Ecosystem Builder?

An Ecosystem Builder is a listener, connector, convener, and doer. They listen to what the actors in the ecosystem need, want, and hope for now and in the future. They facilitate connections between people, resources, and services. They bring people together to share insights, experiences, and stories and to collaboratively problem solve. Then, they do! They take everything they have heard, seen, and experienced in the ecosystem and take action to get things done – all while prioritizing the relationships between people and forgoing the need to control and get credit.

What motivates you as an ecosystem builder?

I’m motivated by the challenge of ecosystem building – it is a never-ending quest. The world is constantly changing, and so these ecosystems evolve, grow, and adapt, bringing new opportunities and challenges. Thus, the work is never complete. As an ecosystem builder, you will never be done, never “solve it,” never do all there is to do. I’m not motivated by instant gratification, but rather by something way out there in the distance that will only reveal itself after a long, unknown journey.

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

West Slope Startup Week (WSSW)! We organized the first Techstars Startup Week on the western slope of Colorado in June 2019 – it’s the largest gathering of entrepreneurs on this side of the continental divide. WSSW is unique because it’s regional – calling upon the entrepreneurial ecosystem from Steamboat Springs to Durango (350-mile geographic reach). It’s 5 days of education and celebration rooted in our western ethos and tailored to rural communities. With equal parts programming and play, it is a “choose your own adventure” model. We had over 300 participants that went to 52 sessions showcasing 96 speakers in six cities/town across the western slope. We brought in even more partners this year in 2020 and can’t wait to see how the second year unfolds.

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

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?”

What is your biggest frustration as an ecosystem builder?

There is a national shift in economic development away from traditional recruitment strategies toward entrepreneurial ecosystem building, entrepreneur-led development, and economic gardening. This is a huge shift and can be scary to embrace and hard to try and wrap your arms around. It makes us all ask hard questions of our work: is there a better way, can we innovate, do we need to pivot? 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.

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

Ecosystem measurement and metrics… How to measure what’s happening on-the-ground and capture the network of relationships and connections between people. How to measure the impact of people collaborating. How to create metrics that give us a better understanding of the changes in the ecosystem and the impacts of programming and initiatives. How to move away from the traditional, static metrics of jobs created, capital investment dollars, number of companies that relocated, etc. And then sharing that story.

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

It’s moving the right direction and gaining traction, but we need more people to learn about it, to all get clear on what “it” is, and more research to show the power and impact of it.

What others are saying about Mara

Mara recently moved to Grand Junction and has instantly made an impact on the entrepreneurial community in Grand Junction and the entire Western Slope of Colorado. Mara started West Slope Startup Week to highlight and celebrate entrepreneurs throughout the rural parts of Colorado