The ESHIP Summit
(If you attended ESHIP with me, you know all this. Feel free to skip to the next section.)
In June, I had the opportunity to participate in the inaugural ESHIP Summit in Kansas City. Hosted by the Kauffman Foundation, the summit brought together diverse people from across the country who are actively creating new ways to empower the makers, doers, dreamers, and disrupters in our communities. You might know them as incubator directors, investors, economic developers, artists, entrepreneurs, etc. but in one way or another, all of the attendees were also entrepreneurial ecosystem builders.
Why a host a summit of ecosystem builders?
Kauffman is working to define and elevate the role of an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder. They have a draft playbook in the works, which they shared with all attendees for feedback, and during the conference they asked us to work in teams on challenges like:
- How to we better connect the ecosystem builder community?
- How do we share best and emerging practices among the ecosystem builder community?
- What will the future role of the ecosystem builder look like?
Lots has been written about the conference itself so I'll leave it here for now but just know that this was the most well-run and invigorating conference I've ever attended.
"We are here to reinvent the economy."
- Victor W. Hwang
I heard about and was invited to attend ESHIP through Jim Damicis, a Camoin Colleague, who introduced me to Rick Smyre, President of Communities of the Future (COTF).
COTF is a multidisciplinary network of persons collaborating to build capacities for economic and community transformation in an environment of rapid change. Their core principles are best explained in the recent book, Preparing for a World That Doesn’t Exist – Yet by Rick Smyre and Neil Richardson, which discusses building economies and communities based on innovation and entrepreneurship.
An Economic Development Consultant's Perspective
Defining my own role in the system.
Hanging with the cool kids of economic development for a few days got me thinking about my own role as an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder. Starting with: Am I one? A: Yes, most certainly. Just with a different angle.
I work for a leading economic development consulting firm that does everything from strategic planning to economic impact analysis. Branding ourselves as "all things economic development", entrepreneurship and innovation is often one element of many considered a part of community's economic development strategy. My own talents and expertise includes communications, engagement and community building; strategic planning; brownfield and main street redevelopment; and entrepreneurship. Basically, I know a little bit about a lot of things – whatever it takes to strengthen local economies.
As a consultant, I get to work with many communities at a time instead of focusing all of my efforts on one. So, when it comes to ecosystem building, my role is less about connecting individuals and entities within the local system. Instead, my value is connecting individuals and entities from different places, different ecosystems, who are facing similar issues and can benefit from sharing knowledge and information. This became clear at the ESHIP Summit - I'd love to know how many times the words "Oh! You should talk to…" came out of my mouth.
My role in entrepreneurship ecosystem building: I'm a cross-community idea connector and conversation starter.
An often overlooked element of an ecosystem.
In the draft playbook Kauffman is working on, they list key elements of a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem:
- Entrepreneurs, obviously
- Talent, to support new businesses
- Knowledge and resources, to support growth
- Champions, to support and lead when needed
- Access points, so anyone can participate
- Storytelling, to encourage the exchange of ideas and knowledge
- Culture, to support collaboration and build trust
There is one more element I'd like to see added to the list: quality of place. The physical environment plays a critical role of how the humans in that environment interact. It is where important in person connections and collisions take place. Places like downtowns are often cited as encouraging interactions and exchange of ideas, but not every downtown has a vibrant startup scene. Why not? What role does a place play in why innovation and knowledge seems to be "locked up" within companies and organizations in some communities and shared more readily in others?
The nature of a place can create access points.
Think coffee shops, open offices, and pocket parks where people interact formally and informally. Certain spaces create collisions. The good kind of collision, where introductions are made, ideas are exchanged, and new ones are formed. What is it about some places that encourage people to interact?
Quality places attract talent.
For those who attended the ESHIP Summit, think about how the conference planning team turned a huge grey, rectangle room into a place that drew you in and inspired you. That's what talented workers, who could live and work most anywhere, want in the community they reside. People want authentic, connected environments that inspire creativity and generate the exchange of rich ideas that will support their own personal and professional pursuits. Talented people aren't looking for a job; they are seeking an environment that stimulates and inspires.
Your place is part of your brand.
Want to know a secret? My own company kept a P.O. Box in Saratoga Springs, NY for years when our actual physical space was next door in Malta, NY (we're happily in Saratoga now). The communities we live and work in are the backdrop for every social media post and marketing plug. Communities with strong brands are naturally going to attract people and businesses who want to be a part of that image.
A challenge for ecosystem builders.
I'm seeing a disconnect in communities between planning and efforts to support entrepreneurship and innovation. In planning, there are a lot of assumptions made about what types of places and spaces are needed to encourage exchange of ideas and natural "collisions"; but the actual entrepreneurs are rarely engaged in these planning discussions. And I'm finding that entrepreneurs don't necessarily spend time thinking about what attracts them to certain places and how those places affect their work - they just know that's where they want to be. Deeper discussion and collaboration between the two groups is needed to better understand what is it about certain physical environments that allow for natural interactions among individuals within the ecosystem. Beyond incubators and accelerators, how does access to housing, transportation, services, natural assets, and amenities support a community's entrepreneurial ecosystems? How does place contribute to a shared identity and culture of the ecosystem?
Understanding and sharing these planning elements can give rise to more strong, well-connected networks. Let's add quality of place to our table of elements and invite some planners to the party.
“It’s not uncommon to find people coming together in an urban center, creating rich networks and ecosystems. Bridgeport’s downtown certainly has that going and growing. But what makes Bridgeport’s so captivating is that we’re not just working together to build businesses, but to genuinely build up each other and to build a grand vision for our City.”
Founder of B:Hive Bridgeport & The Bananalan