This post is part of a series featuring highlights from the Unsung Heroes of Ecosystem Building campaign which shone a spotlight on 40+ entrepreneurial ecosystem builders from around the U.S. and abroad between February and September 2020.
There is a dire need to grow dynamic, inclusive economies in communities and many are beginning to realize that entrepreneurial ecosystem building is the way to do that. But, if the work of ecosystem building is to grow, evolve, and expand, this nascent and emerging discipline needs to organize into a recognized field.
That realization led to the Kauffman Foundation launching their annual ESHIP Summit in 2017 to, “advance ecosystem building as a new approach to economic development to help more people and communities achieve economic independence through entrepreneurial success.”
The establishment of the 7 ESHIP Goals at the 2018 Summit was intended to define what the community needs to focus on to bridge the gap between the current state of ecosystem building and mainstream adoption. But what do ordinary ecosystem builders think needs to be done to make this happen. The 40+ Unsung Heroes who we interviewed shared what they believe needs to happen to advance the field of ecosystem building.
The first thing that is apparent to me when I read through these answers as a cross-sectional cut is that there are differing perspectives through which ecosystem builders approach this question. Some approach the question through a macro-lens—a field-wide perspective—while others answer with their local-level ecosystem building lens, as if the question were, “What needs to happen for ecosystem building to have greater impact in your community.” Regardless of the perspective though, the responses provide valuable insights to consider.
Many of the responses from the Unsung Heroes fit neatly into the ESHIP Goals structure.
Creating Broader Awareness – ESHIP Goal 6
One of the more prevalent needs that surfaced in our interviewed ecosystem builders was the belief that there needs to be greater public awareness and understanding of the value of entrepreneurship, particularly among policy-makers, economic developers, city leaders, and business leaders.
I don’t know that I can speak to the entire field of ecosystem building, but I can speak to seeing the need for those in roles like local economic development to open their minds, and their budgets, to innovative entrepreneur gathering initiatives, especially with a storytelling component. Of course, I’m biased here, but I truthfully never imagined that Kick-Ass Entrepreneurs (KAE) and Entrepreneur Story Time events would become such an experience where entrepreneurs would not only connect with each other, but also learn from one another what local and other programs, people and resources helped, or didn’t help – a topic I now ask all KAE’s entrepreneur storytellers to address. Once KAE events started to get a little buzz, then ecosystem partners, like local city government officials and entrepreneur program-related personnel (actually, really fun people I’m now thrilled to know!) started showing up and joining in the fun and each event now not only feels a little like a party, but people are actually meeting and connecting in a way that doesn’t often happen in an office or a conference room. If local economic development offices were to put some of their time and $ behind efforts like this, I could see it as being transformational for disconnected entrepreneur ecosystems struggling to truly engage with their entrepreneur community and those who’d love to support them, but have no knowledge or means on how to connect with them. With ecosystem building generating a bit of a buzz these days, I’m over-the-moon with hope that city and community and other leaders will begin to see the value in innovative ecosystem building methods like storytelling to strengthen their communities while having a heck of a lot of fun.
I think we need a nationally shared set of policies and agenda items that can revitalize American entrepreneurship by educating decision and policy-makers on the value and importance of entrepreneurship. I think that this could help deliver economic growth that can address under-employment, pervasive economic inequities, extreme poverty rates, hopelessness, etc. for a large segment of our country’s population.
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.
Awareness of the opportunities and resources in your city. Support from city leaders, business leaders, and organizations to help efforts grow and improve. Passionate people; You need a team of people that believe in the cause and willing to volunteer and help make a difference.
Educating the rest of the world as to why this field is critical, resulting in sustainable resources being deployed across the country. This is why I’m so adamant about Goal 6, initiative 2. I’ve seen it work at a micro level. Let’s get to the macro level, via the EDA, state wides, etc.
Engage in a long-term policy to build the ecosystem and give power to ecosystem builders who struggle to collect all the components.
Ensuring that local, regional and national government officials and politicians create an “enabling” environment for so that entrepreneurs can develop their businesses, taking account of reasonable regulations. They should not try to introduce an entrepreneurial ecosystem top(?)- down, but encourage entrepreneurs and others (such as universities, chambers of commerce, business organisations) to develop the ecosystem from the ground up.
A Common Lexicon – ESHIP Goal 3
Common definitions, common principles. As a nascent field, we’re constantly tripping over the lack of a consistent definition of what an entrepreneur is, what an ecosystem is, what ecosystem building is, what an ecosystem builder is and does.
A commonly accepted definition. A common set of principles. Better data and stories around ecosystem building efforts that have been successful
The three that come to mind immediately: – A broader understanding that ecosystem building isn’t just direct entrepreneur support but everything that goes into creating an environment in which innovation can thrive. – A common taxonomy – Metrics that everyone uses.
We need to develop a broader lexicon and systematize ways of working.
Education and Training – ESHIP Goal 7
ESHIP Goal 7 focuses heavily on developing professional resources for ecosystem builders, recognizing that many of us operate without any training. The ESHIP community has identified several initiatives to address the lack of training including several initiatives to create ecosystem building training, certification, and accreditation programs.
These findings were echoed by many of the Unsung Heroes in their responses to what needs to happen to advance the field. The Unsung Heroes suggested annual conferences, educational seminars, better understanding of how theory can be made actionable to help ecosystem building become more of a professional discipline.
Who knows how to build a house better, an architect or a carpenter? I think sometimes what makes sense in theory isn’t always practical in practice and a lot of bad programs are the result. Better understanding how theory can provide actionable information would be helpful in advancing the field of ecosystem building.
I think it’d be great to have workshops/trainings around the community in order to aggregate resources and allow people to network. Access to capital is really important as well, so opportunities for grants and low-interest loans would be helpful.
Valid training, communication, and a realization of strengths & uniqueness of one’s ecosystem vs emulating another ecosystem.
Integration of behavior change science, specifically motivational interviewing theory into the way we communicate.
The recognition that ecosystem building is a process that can be defined, studied, and improved upon. And most importantly, replicated.
When I began my journey to develop our ecosystem it was challenging due to my lack of knowledge in the technology industry. Annual conferences, educational seminars or other local resources would aid individuals like myself so that we can learn more about ecosystem building and understand what it means.
I think to advance ecosystem building as a field, we need to develop greater collaboration between researchers, policymakers and advocates, and practice. Often, different ecosystem stakeholders from these areas operate separately, resulting in gaps in how research might inform policy and programmatic design and vice versa. In our program, we have researchers, policy professionals, and practitioners working together, which has made our efforts even stronger. If we could scale this kind of collaborative work across ecosystem building activities, we’d not only have more well-informed efforts, but we’d also have a greater collective impact.
To advance the field, ecosystem building/development needs to be better defined as a role/career path and recognized as a crucial element of economic development.
The field of ecosystem building needs a “home” or “bridge” to current models of economic and community development so that it can be consistently resourced properly. Ecosystem building needs to be a sustainable revenue generating profession.
Ecosystem Builders need a sustainable business model. The vast majority of the people we support cannot afford services. Investors don’t understand the value of financially supporting the entities that provide them with dealflow, and foundations pit each of us in competition with one another for a limited pool of resources.
Ecosystem builders need to be fluent in multiple tools and strategies in order to be effective in solving complex problems. I don’t see ecosystem building as one field — I think all fields should have an understanding of ecosystem approaches — but I think there’s an opportunity there to connect various fields together to realize the full promise and potential of our cities. At its core, ecosystem building is interdisciplinary. Just like a gardener, you can’t only be proficient in using a rake or knowledgeable about one kind of plant, you need to be able to use multiple tools and continuously learn about different plants and how they work together in order to create a thriving garden. There’s no one solution to address our nation’s historic and systemic inequities. Ecosystem builders need to be fluent in multiple tools such as policy, public/private finance, data and market research. They also need to be familiar with multiple strategies such as transit-oriented development, affordable housing, small business development, growth, and preservation. It will take all the tools in the toolbox working in new combinations to ensure that as we rebuild and recover, we don’t return to a fragile, inequitable economy that keeps workers under-paid and precarious.
Data & Metrics – ESHIP Goal 5
Broader adoption of shared data systems.
Better systems for measuring the impact of ecosystem building work!
Data-based decision making is imperative, to achieve true economic development and also to truly value diverse founders.
I think that ecosystem builders as a group need to do a better job of telling the stories of entrepreneurs – not the sugar coated ones. In doing that, things like metrics and expertise matter. By building metrics and expertise, ecosystem builders can influence decision makers and policy much more directly. But, again it starts with the entrepreneur’s story – not the numbers per se.
Equity and Reducing Barriers Through Systems Change – ESHIP Goal 1
We need to be intentional in reducing the barriers and being inclusive. Everyone has the right to turn their dream into an economic reality for themselves and their families.
I don’t think we can have an honest conversation about advancing ecosystem building without constantly addressing racism and sexism and the barriers to the American Dream intentionally created and maintained by traditional power holders.
The inclusion and advancement of people who look like me that understand the need and the passion to leverage entrepreneurSHIP as a tool to close the racial wealth gap in Black and Brown communities.
Reconciliation… It is hard to trust others because of past hurts. In order to build an equitable ecosystem, there needs to be trust. Trust comes when we reconcile our differences.
Candice Matthews Brackeen
I think it’s important to remind ourselves that doing the work is even more important than talking about the work. Many people have opened the doors to these conversations about equity in venture capital and fundraising for underrepresented founders, and that is great, but we need to ask ourselves, “How do we then turn those conversations into action?”.
A Mix of Ideas that Cross Multiple Goals
Many responses included a mix of ideas that spanned or included multiple ESHIP goals.
Acknowledgment that it’s a field. I think there needs to be some sort of organized place for people to congregate in the field. Someone needs to step up and be the leader – setting goals and actions those of us in the field can take.
Carina Boston Pinales
Having a universal system that opens up the opportunity for multiple forms and channels of capital that can be measured and valued – not only monetary capital but also social, human, and knowledge capital so transactions can naturally happen in an ecosystem without being constrained by monetary capital.
Successful tech startups, home grown.
Having opportunities to connect with mentors who’ve been on a similar path would be beneficial to members. Having some place where members can find important information that they need to be successful instead of solely being dependent on an ecosystem builder will also be helpful to ease the burden on them and also encourage members to seek out methods to collaborate with other community members independently.
Jeannette Balleza Collins
Professionalization of the field, mastermind groups or peer-to-peer forums, as well as shared mentor and investor networks.
Specialization: Many groups are good at doing certain things (ie: partnership development, investment readiness, etc.), but few are familiar with and lean into those specialties. This is a critical aspect of development for this field. If we don’t do this, we cannibalize the limited support available and make a more confusing path for founders. Organization: We need a clear vision of what the path to success looks like and what resources (capital, professional services, etc.) are appropriate at which stage. Without this, we will never align our work in a strategic manner.
More understanding of the multi-disciplinary role of an ecosystem builder today, and the ability for aging stakeholders to adapt adequately.
(1) Find ways to reward bold action. We also see this in our own communities. As ecosystem builders, we are new entrants coping with well-entrenched incumbents who are well-motivated to hold their turf. So I was wrong, action isn’t enough… (2) how do we take action in ways that differentiate the ecosystem builder by being hard to imitate & provide significant new value? (3) How do we teach our fellow ecosystem builders how to be badass at understanding and managing stakeholders?
Lauren Mehler Pradhan
An appreciation for the complexity of ecosystem building itself and an appreciation for the softer parts of community building including convening, increasing participation from critical stakeholders and that solutions are solved by removing a variety of barriers vs one.