“Communities seeking to grow their economy need to understand the impact entrepreneurship and small business play in economic growth.” — Grow Your Own: Entrepreneurship-based Economic Development for Local Communities, Dell Gines, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City

Ecosystem builders know that entrepreneurship and startups are critical for a healthy economy. But in too many communities entrepreneurship is an underutilized and underleveraged strategy for economic growth. Civic and business leaders in these communities are unaware of the role of entrepreneurship as a key driver of job creation, economic diversification, and improving local quality of life. It is a tool for poverty reduction, reducing economic disparity and creating a positive sense of community.

“Entrepreneurship is a key driver of job creation, economic diversification and improving local quality of life. It is a tool for poverty reduction, reducing economic disparity and creating a positive sense of community.” — Grow Your Own: Entrepreneurship-based Economic Development for Local Communities, Dell Gines, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City

In my role as an ecosystem builder in Sacramento, I’m doubling down on my efforts to raise awareness about entrepreneurship and ecosystem building as an economic development strategy to civic and business leaders in our region. In the interest of exploring how other ecosystem builders have done this in other cities, I asked a group how they’ve raised awareness about entrepreneurship in their communities as part of the Insights from the Field campaign. Several responded with their experiences and insights and through these responses some interesting themes emerged.

Identify Potential Allies

The work of supporting the entrepreneurs in our communities is challenging as it is. But when you factor in the need to engage with and educate the broader community it’s an even bigger challenge.

Jess Edwards, in Danville Virginia, recognizes this and emphasized the need to take a strategic approach. “If you are strategic enough with where you focus your energy (the little you have outside your primary work), then you can generate traction. More importantly, you can create critical awareness regarding entrepreneurship and its impact on the local economy,” said Jess.

To help prioritize and focus, Jess suggests an exercise to identify likely allies by mapping out organizations with overlapping missions in the broader professional community. “Who in government or the business world also has a mission to help and support entrepreneurs, startups, or small businesses? Once you have narrowed down the organizations, then identify the decision makers and individuals responsible for accomplishing those goals, and finally, build your database for outreach,” said Jess.

Jess suggests starting with local economic development offices. “First try the Economic Development offices and/or Community Development agencies. They’ll be the most interested and invested in the startup and entrepreneurship work happening. Also, while ecosystem building is somewhat new as an industry or methodology, I have found that these more formal economic development professionals tend to have at least heard of the terminology. They understand it from a general sense. This greatly helps with explaining the value and importance,” said Jess.

Another key type of ally to consider are institutions of higher education. Kate Jackson in Chicago and shared the importance of allying with institutions of higher learning, as they are seen as trusted anchor institutions. “Colleges and universities provide the connective tissue necessary to build the ecosystem, and the care and feeding an ecosystem needs for its health and sustainability over time,” said Kate.

Kate’s organization, Lake Forest College’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation program, has been actively engaging and forming partnerships with the local Chamber of Commerce, local business leaders, local incubators, and local entrepreneurs. “As a trusted anchor institution, we can help connect disparate groups, provide support and resources, and engage all the actors and factors in a meaningful way for the betterment of the entire ecosystem, making it more resilient, inclusive, and stable,” said Kate.


Connect and Build Relationships to Build Trust

Once you’ve identified a set of allies it’s important to connect and build positive relationships and trust. It’s all too easy to criticize ‘the establishment,’ but it’s crucial when building these relationships to avoid the negative.

Cecilia Wessinger in Tulsa, Oklahoma emphasized this importance. “One of the very important things in engaging civic and business leaders is to connect and build relationships. It is challenging to spark and make a difference if all one does is to complain or criticize without offering proactive input as well. Leaders are not as apt to listen if the only interaction you have with them is negative, even if they are elected officials and that’s their job — they’re people too,” said Cecilia.

Magalie Yacinthe in Winston-Salem, North Carolina echoed the importance of connecting with local civic leaders as part of her strategy to raise awareness. “I’ve engaged the assistant city manager, members of city council, and county commission, as well as leaders at our foundations to stress the importance as entrepreneurship as a means to economic mobility,” said Magalie.

Some ecosystem builders may resist the idea of connecting with their local economic development office but doing so may actually lead to surprising wins. After learning how to position the messaging and impact of her programs, Melanie Lenci in Santa Fe, New Mexico reached out to her economic development office  and secured a sponsorship for her Kick Ass Entrepreneurs (KAE) program. “And thanks to you all, that helped me communicate KAE’s value and secure a local annual sponsorship from the City of Santa Fe’s Office of Economic Development. Before this I know they were aware of ecosystem building as an economic development strategy and keen to include it, but they were just way too overloaded with other priorities and didn’t have the capacity to initiate ecosystem building efforts of their own. With KAE, it was served to them with a bow wrapped around it, making it super easy for them to throw their support behind,” said Melanie.


Plug Them in and Get Them to Participate

While connecting, building relationships and trust and crucial, to really create buy-in and support, you need to plug the local leaders into the entrepreneurial community and get them to participate.

Jess Edwards encourages ecosystem builders to identify upcoming events or initiatives that civic and business leaders can be invited to participate in. She shared an experience she had with this in Buffalo. “We hosted a Civic App Challenge powered by AT&T in the coworking space I ran, and invited the Mayor’s office and Economic Development offices (since the app would be enhancing the lives of the city residents). This was a perfect opportunity to showcase the crossover in missions, discuss future funding opportunities, and create continued interest among government partners to collaborate,” said Jess.

Jess now works in  the Dan River Region Entrepreneur Ecosystem (DRREE) and shared another experience there getting local leaders involved with Global Entrepreneurship Week. “We were able to get the City of Danville involved in our Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) celebrations. I worked closely with our ecosystem development partner, City Of Danville, Office of Economic Development to participate. As a result, Mayor Alonzo Jones and City Council presented us with an official “Entrepreneurship Day” proclamation. The Mayor also recorded a video recognizing the importance of entrepreneurship that was nationally featured during GEW 2020,” said Jess.

Jess also recommends inviting local civic and business leaders to participate as judges at pitch competitions or to emcee events. “Think of various ways you can invite them into the entrepreneurs’ world and help showcase your work!” said Jess.

Dustin Shay works for Village Capital in New York and shared his success with getting others involved with events. “We pull together leaders from foundations, regulatory bodies, and domestic economic development groups (SBA, OIE, etc) to hold conversations that focus on pushing support of early-stage entrepreneurship (and the importance of ecosystem building) forward. One example was the Moonshot convening we held with Access Ventures in the past. These kinds of events are essential to get a wide range of folks in the room to share their unique perspectives, and to give representatives of economic development organizations the chance to get to know the impacts of their work first hand,” said Dustin.


Broader Public Campaigns

In addition to strategic connections and alliances with local civic and business leaders, some ecosystem builders have focused their efforts on broader public messaging.

In Erie, Pennsylvania, Beth Zimmer was instrumental in a multi-year campaign to raise general public awareness of entrepreneurship. “We developed and deployed a broad reaching awareness campaign. It was effective in shifting the region’s culture from one of risk aversion and complacency to a culture that is encouraging, excited about, supporting and celebrating calculated risk taking and entrepreneurship,” said Beth.

In Boise, Idaho, Norris Krueger recommends reaching out to your business media and writing op-eds for the local business journal or newspaper in an effort to change the narrative.

Norris pointed out the growing body of evidence that innovative new and small businesses are what leads every economy out of every recession. With the humanitarian and economic devastation of the last year of the pandemic, entrepreneurship and ecosystem building are needed more than ever before. We can make a difference. Let’s make some noise! Identify the allies in your community that you can build relationships with and spread awareness of the impact of entrepreneurship as an economic development strategy.


Helpful Resources to Raise Awareness about Entrepreneurship as an Economic Development Strategy

Check out the resources and articles below for additional information, ideas, and talking points to help you raise awareness about entrepreneurship as an economic development strategy.

Right to Start 

America’s New Business Plan

Grow Your Own: Entrepreneurship-based Economic Development for Local Communities

How To Grow Your Economy. Build It, Don’t Buy It!