What I have learned about Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building.
A personal journey into an emerging field.
In 2017, I was invited to a conference in Kansas City by a foundation I only had a passing acquaintance with, I was told I had been nominated to attend.
We need you and people like you to empower the makers, the doers, the dreamers of our society. We believe that everyone has the fundamental human right to turn their idea into an entrepreneurial reality, regardless of who they are or where they’re from, with zero barriers in the way.
The ESHIP Summit is the Kauffman Foundation’s inaugural gathering of ecosystem builders and leaders fighting to make that happen at scale in their communities across the US.
Over two-and-a-half days, we will engage in deep conversations on how we pioneer a new model of economic development where entrepreneurs are celebrated and accelerated. You will emerge from the Summit with new connections to problem-solvers from around the world and new ideas, approaches and best practices to apply locally.
Takeaway: Intentional and bold invitations matter.
I had little understanding of what all that meant and no idea it would change the trajectory of my life. I was a bootstrapping entrepreneur who just had my dream (lovingly) squished by my mentor. It may not seem the case, but there is great kindness when someone recognizes that the path you are going down is not your best work and tells you. It is easier to be nice; supporting and advocating someone because you do not want to hurt their feelings or tell them they are wrong. My kind friend saved me from a future fraught with missteps, stress and struggle. She told me though my concept was good, I was not the best person, in that moment, to execute my long sought goal.
Takeaway: Being supportive requires honest, caring input. This is best when relationships have been intentionally built with trust and not simply transactional self interest.
So, without a firm plan in place for the rest of my life, I attended the Summit and met some of my soon to be friends and colleagues. It was a very different kind of convening, with more talk coming from the attendees than the speakers on stage. I interacted with people I had never met, but felt like I knew for years. There were only a few times in my life when I felt this way, but it was a familiar and comfortable sensation…I found my people.
Attending the inaugural summit, was like drinking from the firehose of people who were recognized as thought leaders of an emerging field. We set about on “Missions” as summarized by Amanda West to address the common challenges faced by people doing this work.
It was not for everyone, though. Some might have thought it was ‘woo-woo’ or ‘fluff’, there was great emphasis on inclusion, paradigms and culture. Not steeped in data, as much as storytelling, not filled with seriousness, but moments of whimsy and delight.
I left the ESHIP Summit that summer with new hope and notion of where I wanted to head. Almost a year later, I was reminded of that with a postcard I had written to my future self.
Takeaway: Saying “Yes” will take you to further than saying “no”.
In 2018, I returned to the ESHIP Summit, a bit more confident as a second year attendee. Sitting in the audience during the opening plenary, watching a video, I was surprised to see MY face on the screen, expressing MY thoughts about the importance of inclusion and diversity. The interview had been recorded at the 1 Million Cups Organizer Summit in the fall after ESHIP 2017. I had shared things I learned over the years supporting diversity and inclusion efforts locally and lived experiences.
That summer, I joined some ESHIP Goals (monthly meetup) calls and started to learn more about the work others were doing, and threw my name in the hat, applying to be an ESHIP Community Manager (Activator) to support ecosystem building practitioners. The process itself was interesting, because there was no job description, it was a request for proposal. This included 7 responsibilities, 3 ‘must haves’ and 9 ‘like to haves’. It was apropos for a position that never existed before. That fall, I joined the ESHIP Goals Team as a consultant to a globally recognized foundation, advancing efforts on an emerging field of entrepreneurial ecosystem building.
Takeaway: Taking chances will lead you to places you may not have imagined.
I often share the experience of my first Summit design session at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, because I learned a great deal that day. I was experiencing a heavy dose of imposter syndrome sitting around that large conference room table, in hallowed halls of a well respected foundation. I was surrounded by people who are recognized leaders in the entrepreneurship world and beyond, As we went around the table introducing ourselves I felt small and insignificant. I was older than most of the people in the room, I did not spend years as a entrepreneur or lead a team of people doing big things. I came from decades in corporate America, single mom trying to make ends meet while helping my son get through college. When it was his turn, Victor Hwang, then Vice President of Entrepreneurship, changed the dynamic of the meeting. He told us we were at a pivotal time in history, like the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. We were seeing the convergence of currently established power and the rising energy of people seeking change; Me Too, LGBTQ+ rights, Brexit, Black Lives Matter were some visible shifts, particularly around access.
“We’re meeting at a time when the world feels a bit anxious, it feels a bit rudderless…I sincerely believe we have the chance to change the trajectory of human history.”~ Victor Hwang
Feeling the pressure and weight of that burden, I could feel myself shrinking in my chair. Then came the unexpected. He said this was ‘20- 30 year work’ and the initiatives we were working on ‘would not be solved by the next summit, AND we were going to get it wrong (!)’?? I was surprised and ready to exit the room and move into a cave. To think that we were going down a path that would lead us astray for decades was a lot to take in. Also that the leaders of a multi-billion dollar foundation did not have the answers and we would make mistakes was too much. Check, please…I’ll see you in a few decades.
Then he said, he firmly believed ‘we had the best people at the table to get it right more than we were going to get it wrong.’ I felt a yoke lifting off my shoulders, and when it came my turn to introduce myself, I was more comfortable and shared my insecurity of feeling that I did not have the credentials to be there. I was told that my work as a volunteer, and insights on inclusion, as well as being an older entrepreneur was needed and my presence mattered. Later when I saw Victor in the cafeteria and thanked him for taking the weight off my shoulders and empowering me to come with my best, boldest ideas because we were all figuring it out together. He confirmed that we were part of a big, long movement, then leaned in and whispered “isn’t this fun?”
- Leadership is not about telling people what to do or candy coating the mission.
- You create a seat for yourself by showing up and doing the work, regardless of your pedigree.
- Being vulnerable is not a weakness or flaw.
- Work can be challenging and arduous, but it should also be fun.
Going back to what Victor said about 20–30 year work; if a movement takes 30 years to take shape, I believe we are about a decade into this paradigm shift. For far too long, we have been lifting up the goal of financial maximization. 50 years ago, Milton Friedman wrote, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits”. I feel along the way, we have lost a great deal and I am done paying for his soul. The summer of 2010, Dan Isenberg wrote a piece in the Harvard Business Review, titled, The Big Idea: How to Start an Entrepreneurial Revolution; in it he uses the term ‘ecosystem’ to describe the network of resources supporting entrepreneurs. In 2011 the Obama Administration partnered with the Case and Kauffman Foundations and created the Startup America Partnerships. In that effort they identified a number of people who were supporting their respective communities to thrive; we think of them as the OG of ecosystem building. Around that time, Brad Feld wrote Startup Communities , Victor Hwang and Greg Horwitt penned The Rainforest. Recently there have been a number of mainstream books expressing more holistic approaches towards business and success. Yancey Strickler’s This Could Be Our Future and Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game are two of my favorites. They write about the goal of business not being solely about profit, but more people centered. This, more sustainable orientation is not anti- capitalist, but conscious capitalism. It offers a more equitable model where purpose and meaning making is highly valued. The evolution is taking shape. These days “ecosystem” is a buzzword and it will be important to support a definition that speaks to the work we want to elevate.
Takeaway: We are in the midst of a movement and it is picking up momentum.
My view of entrepreneurship and ecosystem building has also changed. Along the way, I discovered how messy mass collaboration is and how we need to lean into it. Also realizing that what I had heard and assumed, no longer tracked with me and it is okay not to go along with what I had been told. There are ways people show up and there are ways people show up and collaborate. And regardless of the circumstances, there is an opportunity to design the path we are on.
- The field is evolving and we are still learning.
- Great ideas come from everywhere.
I have respect and admiration for people like Dan Isenberg and Brad Feld who were innovators identifying key elements of an entrepreneurship ecosystem. There are a few points where our thinking diverges. Startup communities has nuanced difference with entrepreneurial ecosystems I prefer focus on. Entrepreneur is defined in a myriad of ways and many define them as 1–5 year businesses with an inclination towards high tech/ scalable ventures. My wider view of the environment includes those doing entrepreneurial things. This can include legacy businesses, lifestyle, Main Street, large corporations that innovate, learning and civic institutions, government… Also, as I mentioned in a previous blog, I do not adhere to the notion you should ‘give before you get’. I acknowledge the charitable aspiration of the phrase, and appreciate the benevolence of ‘servant leadership’, but feel this comes from a place of privilege and hierarchy. I am conflicted with the notion that you need to bring specific elements into the community to create an ecosystem. Just as in nature, ecosystems exist; mycelium is present whether or not it is visible to you. It may not thrive in the manner you recognize or feel is iterative. The things you bring or how energy is focused can skew the environment sometimes to its detriment. I am not denying the importance of technology, but identifying what a region is uniquely advantaged to do can boost an economy greater than trying to become “the Next Silicon Valley”. (White paper for those interested in diving deeper into the importance of clusters of innovation).There is a hierarchical nature to these intentions and a power dynamic, though well intended, lacks equitable and accessible pathways to entrepreneurship for many.
Takeaway: One size does not fit all and there are no universal answers (except perhaps, 42- thank you Douglas Adams)
A common condition seen across the country and around the world is scarcity mindset; the belief that there are finite resources and we are fighting for our piece of the pie. We hone in on problems, which is important, but limiting, we tackle one issue at a time, and tend to utilize limited assets, tactics and people, instead of creating goals wherein more resources can action towards a unifying vision. The challenge is, the named concern is not usually the entire problem, we tend not to look upstream or downstream to see why they exist and what else is affected. This is a narrow and prescriptive approach to how the dilemma is identified and response is orchestrated. It is often highly curated and not usually inclusive. No matter how amiable, it is constricted; nothing is a monolith; we exist in systems. While Margaret Mead was right, “a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world”, she did not dictate which ones. Kennedy offered up the ‘moonshot’ goal and within a decade countless people contributed in custom and bespoke ways towards that objective and it was achieved. No individual or small group, no matter how affluent or well resourced could have gotten there alone.
Takeaway: Ideate on large ambitions and invite others to contribute, it will likely take you to greater heights.
Beyond vision…while it is important to have something that motivates, there needs to be more. The fine people at Strategic Doing speak about the value of coherence and a framing question. We continue to seek answers, which is good; but I have since learned the importance of questions; and there are good questions and better questions. We solve for the thing we ask ourselves. There is also a better way to ask for something, which is another blog onto itself (yet to be written). All in all, I have realized we need to remember to put our entrepreneur hats on and apply lean startup methodology on our efforts. I have been part of a large number of ecosystem building gatherings and countless times heard people talk about the fabulous new ______ they have created, but they are having a hard time connecting with entrepreneurs. We continue to mentors starters, advising them to find customers, because without them you have no products/services. We need to heed our own advice and stop being solutions in search of problems. Like the aforementioned resources, there is a wealth of knowledge on leadership, community building, teamwork, and systems thinking we can apply to this work. This is just a small portion and the ESHIP Community has contributed to a growing recommended booklist.
- Be entrepreneurial~ Pick a project, try something, learn, and do better.
- There is a lot of great information out there, be open minded and adapt it for your purposes.
The challenge is somewhat, but not wholly complicated, it is complex. This, added to the scarcity mindset and personal paradigm we are hindered by our natural instinct to gravitate towards the comfortable. What got us here, will not get us there and the current state of the world illustrates that emphatically. So how do we navigate uncertainty and emergence? I advocate for improv. Tina Fey’s Four Rules for improv resonates for entrepreneurial ecosystem building, they have been applied to other aspects of life such as customer service , workplace, mental health benefits and playing with kids.
#1~The first rule of improvisation is to AGREE
We spend far too much time and energy combating other people’s ideas and work. Perhaps it was correct for them in that moment, we can be more productive working towards what is next.
#2~The second rule of improv is to not only say YES, say YES, AND.
It is not either/ or, it does not have to be one or the other. Just because you are right, does not mean the other person is wrong. Being additive is beneficial and builds on what came before.
#3~ The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS.
It is difficult to know what to do when there is ambiguity (see graphic about complexity above). There is a desire to be all things to all people when we are unsure and insecure. When things are defined, it offers an environment for one to be grounded, and from there, it is possible for each of us to clearly engage.
#4~ THERE ARE NO MISTAKES only OPPORTUNITIES.
We advise entrepreneurs to fail forward, we cannot innovate and create without taking risk, with that comes new opportunities. My friend, Jessica Kinsey shared, “Recognizing it’s going to be hard and we will get it wrong along the way to getting right is critical to understand. But we’ve been conditioned to think that being wrong will ruin everything, so we don’t want to take the risk.”
People want to get to mass collaboration, but it takes some intentional work to get there. There is no fast track and it builds onto itself, so you cannot skip steps and it takes time. Below is the evolving framework for how to endeavor towards it.
Invitation~ people need to know they are invited, it cannot be assumed and invitations should be focused. You can always go wider, but without specificity people will show up in a myriad of ways and that is not their fault.
Community~ Until people get to know each other, trust is not built. Without it, conversations and interactions remain transactional. There will be little investment towards the future and if there is, it will be finite. Everything moves at the speed of trust. *
*I want to make a special note about dissent. There are people in communities who pushback or voice conflict. This is not wholly a bad thing, they do this because they care. Not that one has to agree with them or they are right, but if they did not care about the community and feel like they belonged, they would simply go away. Conflicts arise and it takes effort to work through. Avoidance will not make the discord disappear, it usually shows up again in other forms. Strife does not go away, people do; and growth, innovation and creativity happen at the end of your comfort zone.
Communication~ Once connections are made, there is communication. As the bonds and awareness are cultivated, there is more clarity. I abstain from using “transparency” with its negative connotations, I have found that most people are not hiding things, as much as they are uncertain of what you want to know and why. This goes back to the need for strengthening trust and community, assuming good intent is contingent on that foundation. For the most part, people are not that malicious, usually because they are more focused on their own lives. People do not think or talk about you nearly as much as you speculate.
Coordination~ Once the communication flows, we have permeated the silos** that persist. As we find alignment in how we navigate, we can work together when opportunities present, in tandem, or pivot.
Clarity of direction is vital for people to find their own course and avoid collision = communication.
We tend not to careen 70 miles per hour down a residential, one way street the wrong way where we live = community.
As you can see it is superstruct and you cannot achieve the goal of collaboration without the groundwork preceding it and time.
**Note about silos~ I do not believe they are entirely bad things, silos are created for containment. By honing in on one thing, you can get a lot accomplished. The obstacle is the lack of communication between the silos that blocks integration, collaboration, and innovation.
When our team gathered to discuss this framework, inspired by an article by Leo Davis on Collaboration vs C-Three, we correlated with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Fay Horwitt, from Forward Cities pointed out the triangle is inverted, we should build towards more, not a pinnacle. Metaphors matter and help us envision our goals, sometimes we need to rethink the ones we incorporate to visualize our ideals.
Why do we keep talking about diversity? Because the message has not gained enough traction. Joss Whedon has been continually asked why he writes about strong women characters, his response speaks volumes.
Fay shared an important framework for discussing diversity and inclusion. In her personal reflections, she outlined why we need a wider approach beyond “DEI”, eloquently.
Takeaway: Here is how I think about ABIDE
- Access is the path
- Belonging is a goal
- Inclusion is an action
- Diversity is a fact
- Equity is a condition
As I have been writing about and doing this work, in particular as a consultant to the foundation, people have looked to me for answers. I am better equipped and have more experiences to inform and influence my thoughts, than when I started. I have also had the honor and privilege of being part of a community of ecosystem builders. These early adopters forming, storming, norming and performing to build this professional field. BUT, this has never been done before; we are all still figuring it out. It will take more people and time. If each of us help move the flywheel just a little bit, we can gain more momentum and it will get easier. We have made positive impact already. It is nice to be reminded when you raise your hand and say you want to make a difference, it is possible.
We have come a long way since my invitation, raising my hand and rolling up my sleeves, but there is a long road ahead of us. More to explore, learn, and cultivate…we will not be able to do it alone. We do not have all the answers and sometimes we come away with more questions. We all have parts of the answer and together we will change the world…literally.
Consider yourself invited!
#masscollaboration #ecosystembuilding #makersdoersdreamersbuilders