Dozens of ecosystem builders share their perspective on what an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder is, and does.
One of the challenges in turning ecosystem building into a recognized profession is the lack of a recognized definition for what it is and what an ecosystem builder is. The Kauffman Foundation’s ESHIP Goal 3 recognizes this as an ongoing challenge, stating, “Strong collaboration will require alignment on our desired outcomes for ecosystem building and a common terminology for this work. We must build consensus on these cornerstones of our profession to facilitate communication and collaboration within the field and make ecosystem building practices more accessible to the broader community.”
There are so many ideas as to what an ecosystem builder is. I shared some of these in a previous article, “Ecosystem Building and Ecosystem Builders: What is it? Who are they?” In their first Keystone Podcast episode, Yuval Yarden and Charlton Cunningham also asked the same question.
When Anika Horn, Jess Edwards, and I surveyed dozens of ecosystem builders to profile them in the Unsung Heroes campaign, we asked each one for their idea of what an ecosystem builder is. The resulting set of answers is intriguing and informative to read. We thought we’d share this cross-section of opinions with the ecosystem building community to help illustrate the ideas and opinions related to this discipline that so many of us are so deeply involved in.
As we look at this cross-sectional cut of Unsung Hero responses, several key terms and themes emerge.
Perhaps the strongest signal I see in the responses from our Unsung Heroes cohort is the concept of connecting. The vast majority feel that making connections—connecting entrepreneurs to resources and stakeholders, and connecting the dots—is a primary attribute of who ecosystem builders are and what they do. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Connecting people is the fifth of the Seven Design Principles for Building Entrepreneurial Ecosystems identified by the Kauffman Foundation in the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building Playbook. Clearly, if we’re going to come up with a professional definition of what ecosystem building is, it needs to include this connector/connecting aspect.
Identifying Needs and Gaps
Another key theme that jumps out to me in these responses is that of seeing and identifying needs and gaps in the ecosystem and then finding ways to address those needs and gaps. These ecosystem builders believe that filling or bridging gaps is necessary to help ecosystems thrive and grow and that a key aspect of their job is doing that.
Systems Thinking Perspective
Identifying needs and gaps is difficult to do without taking a systems thinking approach. As Henry Rael put it, ecosystem builders look at the “challenges and opportunities in the context of the larger systems in which they occur.” This holistic approach of working to optimize the system, rather than an individual program or organization, is a prevalent theme in defining what an ecosystem builder is.
Advocating, Championing, Cheerleading
“An ecosystem builder is a champion for others…” Whether they’re referred to as cheerleaders or champions, many of the Unsung Heroes we interviewed believe that singing the praises of others and amplifying the voices of others in the system is central to being an ecosystem builder.
“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.” The trait of servant leadership—one who leads by doing and amplifies the work of others rather than themselves—emerges throughout many of the responses. Even though it may not be explicitly referred to as servant leadership, the concept of serving and empowering others is a common thread woven throughout the responses.
Analyzing the words in the responses offers another insight. After removing expected common words such as ‘ecosystem,’ the most oft-used words in the responses are ‘community’ and ‘people.’ My interpretation of that—when it comes down to it, ecosystem building is about helping people and building communities.
Of course, that’s just my interpretation of the responses. Ultimately it’s best if you read the responses to glean your own insights from them. Want to get a sense of how your ecosystem builder peers define what an ecosystem builder is? Read on.
Unsung Heroes of Ecosystem Building answer the question, “What is an Ecosystem Builder?”
“I think it’s someone who actively mines for the best in those around them and strategically knits together varying resources in their community.”
“An ecosystem [builder] is a champion, resource, connector, and mentor for entrepreneurs, startups, and other ecosystem builders. Someone who scopes out, provides strategy, and knows how to support, cheerlead, and provide sweat-equity to work toward collaborative economic development goals.”
“An ecosystem builder is someone who: looks at challenges and opportunities in the context of the larger systems in which they occur; designs solutions that are grounded in self-sustainability; and takes actions to connect stakeholders and seek funding to enable local leaders to do the work.”
Eric Renz Whitmore
“I’ve seen more than a few types of ecosystem builders, but I think there are a few common traits or aspects that unite us all: Putting the system first – when I have my ecosystem builder hat on, I think about what’s best for the community before whatever program/activity I’m working on (Potential) Entrepreneur focus – we’re always thinking (and checking in, verifying) about whether our entrepreneurs are getting the best access to the resources they need. Always Be Connecting – nearly all ecosystem builders are almost always thinking about how they can connect entrepreneurs and the organizations that serve them with people and resources that could help them; Long Term & Short Term – we know that these are long term efforts AND that what happens now is in the context of that. Most ecosystem builders seem to be able to keep both in mind.”
Carina Boston Pinales
“An ecosystem builder is a creative who sees a gap in the diversity of a potentially vibrant, regenerative community. They are the natural connectors because they see the strengths in a community down to the smallest contributions and unique qualities each person and organization offers. They build from a place of purpose and accountability well beyond their own individual gain.”
“Someone who takes action today that will benefit the future. A person who selflessly gives in order for others to shine. A champion who uses their voice not to sing their own praises but rather to amplify the voices of others.”
“To me, an ecosystem builder is someone who’s constantly out and about, networking and engaging in loads of different circles and areas of the community to get to know people and what they do so they can help connect them to others who may be able to enrich their lives or help them with a problem they may be facing. An ecosystem builder busts through silos as if they’re not even there. They’re a constant learner with a natural lust for meeting new people and informing others of new or old programs, resources, people, places and opportunities that may be helpful.”
“Someone that focuses using their personal identity on representing and growing a local industry.”
“Someone who helps others, and empowers in a way where the student becomes a teacher. Core to building new prosperous ways of being, is a focus on empowering autonomy for others to succeed and use their skills not only for themselves, but collaboratively with others.”
“An ecosystem builder is a champion for others, a collaborator, one who “gives first” and attains great personal reward in helping those around him/her. An ecosystem [builder] is relentless and deeply committed to equipping their clients, their ecosystem and partners with the tools, vision and resources to measurably move forward. Equity, inclusion and diversity are intrinsic in ecosystem builders as they take system wide strategies and approaches forward to foster and amplify innovation in their community.”
“Based on the traits and behavior of ecosystem builders around me, an ecosystem builder to me is someone who actively engages with different stakeholders in an ecosystem and welcomes new members as well. They are builders, connectors and mentors who are well aware of the strengths of their network and know how to connect people to resources. They strive to create and generate consistent activity to keep their stakeholders engaged and keep the ecosystem healthy and growing through meaningful collaboration.”
“An ecosystem builder is a community switchboard and a triage nurse all in one. They create a sustainable network through active listening to identify the problem followed by determining who best in the community can help solve the problem. They uplift the entire community through education (experiential and classical) that allows the community to effectively communicate with each other and the external world.”
“Someone who skillfully and strategically builds and grows relationships to impact complex problems in unpredictable, positive ways.”
“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.”
“Ecosystem building isn’t likely the term I used when I set out on this journey over a decade ago. I simply saw needs that had major gaps in resources and set out to “connect dots.” And where we couldn’t penetrate wholly and systemically some needed resources, we decided to create and/or build our own, hence the Verite Investors Network (VIN), a social impact fund, and more broadly, our due diligence platform. As we gained momentum, successes, supporters and resources, “ecosystem building” became a clear descriptor of our mission, passion, and expertise. So, I guess that makes me an Ecosystem Builder.”
“Someone that is willing to invest their time and energy into understanding what the community needs to grow and taking action. They provide equal opportunities for all people to get connected and engage with others, showcase the amazing people and organizations to inspire others, and help establish new relationships that can make a lasting impact.”
“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.”
Jeannette Balleza Collins
“An ecosystem builder is a patient cheerleader meets-truth teller who gives before she gets, who detects patterns of needs and feels compelled to fill those gaps, who believes in the potential and good nature of people, who wants to leave things better than they were when he found them, who is buoyed by what the future might bring, who has the superpower of turning indignation into opportunity, who understands that human connection is transformative, who delights in the successes of others, and who understands that love, wrapped in story, conquers all.”
“An ecosystem builder is someone who creates meaningful connections that support the interests of both founders and the groups that work with them – professional services firms, investors, other ecosystem builders, etc. We’re intermediaries that actively make this system work better for the people that are creating the new economy.”
“An ecosystem builder is a connector, someone that is constantly connecting the dots, bridging gaps and collaborating intentionally. An Ecosystem Builder puts the entrepreneur first.”
“Someone who works at the intersection of economic-, community-, and ecosystem development, is data-driven, collaborates and connects diverse stakeholders, focuses on being the right kind of busy and has a give #GiveFirst attitude.”
“An ecosystem builder contributes time and resources to the development of a supportive environment related to a specific industry, economy, or issue.”
“We amplify the voice of the innovators and entrepreneurs, of small business and new ventures. All of them. ALL of them. In my world, there’s a great term “liaison-animateur” connectors who are professional, unselfish, enthusiastic, and proactive. Effective ecosystem builders are them?”
“An ecosystem builder is an economic systems advocate, building community, economy, relationships, and densifying networks.”
“An Ecosystem builder is someone that observes or is capable to identify a problem as a system and contributes or provides a solution in a holistic manner.”
“Ecosystem builders provide the framework of support that founders need to scale. They do this by diagnosing needs and connecting founders to the right information, resources, organizations, and people at exactly the right time. What is not often included in this definition, is the additional role of education and coaching.”
“A person who encourages current entrepreneurs and those who want to develop and grow their own businesses to be aware of and get to know each other and to show them the advantages of exchanging experiences, problems and successes to learn from each other.”
“Someone that contributes to making economies more entrepreneurial and increases well-being in that way.”
“An ecosystem builder is a connector, convener, listener, problem solver. They work towards creating an environment where entrepreneurs can start and grow businesses with the resources they need to be successful.”
“I see an ecosystem builder as someone who takes a holistic look at creating the conditions for entrepreneurship and innovation to thrive in a community. Direct entrepreneur support is critical but only a part of creating a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
“To me, an ecosystem builder is someone that is a servant leader who is naturally optimistic and focused on solving systemic problems. We appreciate collaboration and work diligently to identify appropriate networks & partners within ecosystems to convene and apply solutions collectively. Ecosystem builders exist in a variety of places, such as communities, organizations, industries, etc.”
Lauren Mehler Pradhan
“An ecosystem builder is someone who brings together the disparate and disconnected resources, engaged people and assets of a company and looks for ways to maximize their collective power.
“An ecosystem builder is someone who can view the complexity of issues while creatively experimenting with solutions and partnering with others who can amplify impact.”
“An ecosystem builder is a person that takes the system-level view of the innovation and entrepreneurial assets in a community, connects them, and fills in the gaps where necessary in order to help the ecosystem to continue to thrive and grow.”
“An ecosystem builder is someone working to make resources available to support entrepreneurs in their community.”
“A person who connects the initiatives that otherwise would not have collaborated in a way that they can support and raise each other in their entrepreneurial journeys.”
“Ecosystem builders are people who look at all levels of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, from helping entrepreneurs startup, to connecting them to funding, to making sure they have talent to hire when they’re ready.”
“An ecosystem builder is someone who connects an entrepreneur to the resources they need to be successful.”