Governments at all levels have recognized the devastating impact of COVID-19 on entrepreneurs and small businesses and they have rallied with funding and loan programs in an effort to shore up that vital segment of the economy. Witnessing this recognition of the vital role of entrepreneurs in the economy has been encouraging. While it’s been heartening to see government and industry step up in recent weeks to infuse entrepreneurship and small businesses with needed capital, there’s another group of people who have been working, often unnoticed and unheralded, behind the scenes, to support and catalyze entrepreneurs for years — ecosystem builders. And, with the exponential challenges brought about by pandemic, entrepreneurs and communities will need ecosystem builders more than ever.
The Role of Ecosystem Builder
If entrepreneurship is the life blood of the economy, ecosystem builders are the circulatory system, the arteries and veins that facilitate the flow of ideas, resources, connections, and collaborations in entrepreneurial ecosystems.
Framing entrepreneurial communities as ecosystems has been a growing trend over the last decade or more. At the forefront of this movement, the Kauffman Foundation has become the leader to promote entrepreneurial ecosystem building as vital to economic and community development. In version 3 of their Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building Playbook, they summarize the benefit of ecosystem building to entrepreneurs. “An ecosystem that allows for the fast flow of talent, information, and resources helps entrepreneurs quickly find what they need at each stage of growth.”
Ecosystem builders are the people who facilitate and catalyze that flow of talent, information, and resource by focusing their work on building a system of support and resources for entrepreneurs in their communities or industries.
“Ecosystem builders connect, power, and collaborate with others to build the whole system.”– Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building Playbook
The playbook goes further to add, “Ecosystem builders are creating an invisible infrastructure in their communities to support entrepreneurs. It’s not like traditional infrastructure. It’s not about physical spaces, fancy buildings, pools of capital, or big institutions. Instead, ecosystem builders focus on building consistent, collaborative human engagement. It’s about process, not product. Context, not content. The journey, not the destination.” (Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building Playbook)
A vital role that ecosystem builders play in entrepreneurial ecosystems is as a connector, convenor, and a concierge of resources in their communities. Ecosystem builders foster conversations, connect the community, and tell its story. They celebrate entrepreneurs. They champion them, connect them, provide resources and direct them to other resources. They provide access points to the ecosystem so that anyone can participate and intersections for the serendipitous connections.
Communities need to grow, and now re-build their economies. To do that, they need entrepreneurs. But entrepreneurs need ecosystems of support to be successful and ecosystems need ecosystem builders—the people who think about the systems that support entrepreneurs in their communities and who take a systems-wide approach to build, grow, support, and nurture an entrepreneurial ecosystem and make it thrive.
Social Capital: Connecting, Shepherding, and Stewarding
The federal government, the SBA, local governments and local Chambers of Commerce, are providing an infusion of financial capital to prop up entrepreneurs and small businesses impacted by COVID-19. But in addition to financial capital, other essential elements such as human capital, policy, culture, and social capital are needed to maintain and rebuild.
There is a plethora of research on the essential elements of entrepreneurial ecosystems. In one example, published by the Kansas City Federal Reserve, author Dell Gines highlights elements of entrepreneurial ecosystems, two of which I think are especially relevant for ecosystem builders in this crisis—Capability and Connection. Ecosystem builders are well-positioned to assist entrepreneurs in terms of capability—the “formal and informal sources of knowledge, education and technical assistance available to help foster the necessary business skills of local owners.” They’re also best positioned in terms of connections—the “relationships that provide a variety of ways for entrepreneurs to network and build relationships that increase business opportunities and growth.” (Grow Your Own: Entrepreneurship-based Economic Development for Local Communities)
While ecosystem builders may not have vast reserves of financial capital, they typically are rich in social capital “the networks and relationships entrepreneurs have available to them, which allow them to access resources, information and support they otherwise would not have been able to access.” (Building Entrepreneurship Ecosystems In Communities of Color)
Ecosystem builders are well-positioned to figure out who can help who and make those connections. They are also uniquely positioned to connect innovators to challenges that arise as in the current crisis.
What do ecosystem builders do? They run accelerators, incubators, and other educational programs to teach entrepreneurs necessary skills. They run coworking spaces where entrepreneurs and their teams can work. They organize events like pitch competitions, demo days, office hours, and happy hours, where entrepreneurs can showcase their businesses and make connections. They organize and facilitate mentor networks to connect entrepreneurs to experienced professionals. They are the very fabric that connects entrepreneurial communities.
Many entrepreneurs are already facing radically different markets and operating conditions and are having to pivot their business and adapt to the new normal. What may have worked before the crisis isn’t working now. They may have known the resources and connections that they needed before the crisis but may not know where or who to turn to in the post-COVID-19 world. They’ll need ecosystem builders to help them connect and identify resources and to help validate new business plans.
Ecosystem Builders in Action During COVID-19
As social distancing and stay at home mandates have disrupted in-person connections and convenings, ecosystem builders are stepping up to the challenge and organizing online meetups for entrepreneurs to connect and network, webinars to share knowledge, tips, and best practices for operating in crisis. It is ecosystem builders who have organized virtual 1 Million Cups events, virtual demo days at accelerators, and virtual happy hours so that entrepreneurs can continue to network and connect safely. Through the crisis and after it has peaked, these network weavers and community builders will continue to develop innovative ways to connect and support entrepreneurs.
While the financial capital and resources that are being gathered to support entrepreneurs and small businesses is a critical first response, entrepreneurs need more. They need the support, connections, and resources to optimize the use of that financial capital. They need entrepreneurial ecosystems and they need ecosystem builders.
“In times of crisis, entrepreneurship ecosystem builders mobilize.” – Sourcelink
To my fellow ecosystem builders out there who continue to work hard to cultivate your entrepreneurs and your communities, keep up the great work! You are shining examples of selfless servant leadership. Our economy, our communities need you now more than ever.
If you’re new to the concept of ecosystem building but you have a passion for helping entrepreneurs and innovators rebuild maybe you, I invite you to learn more and to start your journey to become an ecosystem builder.