In 2011, I took an executive job in rural Appalachia Kentucky, an area of the country that was new to me. My job was in the nonprofit world of economic development, supporting entrepreneurs with loans, training, and technical assistance.
Like many professionals moving to a new job, I enrolled in a community leadership development program where I toured the town halls, factories, universities, and boardrooms to hear leaders share how their work affected the well being of the community.
Looking back, I did not see much cross-sector collaboration to address the "Big-with-a-capital-B" problems, but rather efforts were separate and segmented. I remember asking myself, “How much more good could come if these groups were working in a coordinated effort?” I believed that poverty alleviation and economic development in my rural community required collaboration.
That was when I was introduced to the idea of Entrepreneurial Ecosystems to support the development and growth of new ventures. Just like a natural system requires light, water, soil and other nutrients to thrive, entrepreneurs need a combination of many elements in the community engineered to grow them.
It was refreshing to find other executives working in my industry who had a similar mission. I was invited to join their informal meetup coffee once a month. We shared our stories of what is broken within our industry and how entrepreneurs don’t know how to access the many resources we have to offer.
We decided to organize to build a network of other technical assistance providers like us with a mission to support entrepreneurs and small businesses. This became a loose membership of about 24 people, a website resource directory, and commitment to serve entrepreneurs.
What we did not have within our network were the entrepreneurs themselves, nor was our group adequately connected to a sub-group of entrepreneurs, and this was the first lesson learned.
My leadership has been influenced by the book Startup Communities by Brad Feld. I’m now reading his followup book, The Startup Community Way: Evolving an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem. It has given me a balm of reflection to see what we got right, where we fell short, and other lessons.
What we got right and where we fell short:
Start with relationships.
All our gatherings happened around a table over a meal (even if it was a large table with 24 seats). We also spent time on a listening tour with entrepreneurs in multiple small towns and counties to get insight into what they wanted, and where they saw gaps in access, knowledge, and resources. I only wish we had let that evolve into having local entrepreneurs join our group.
Clarify our purpose, and put entrepreneurs at the center.
It was apparent early on that this was a group of people representing private groups, government, and universities. We had to find a unifying purpose and culture to always put the entrepreneur first.
Feld says that groups should always ask, “How does this help the entrepreneur?” However, this purpose, while useful, did not evolve as far as it should have in our group. What I did not understand was the complexity of the ecosystem we were trying to affect. The lesson is to understand more about the complex systems and how they operate and have realistic expectations.
What I learned…
If I had it to do over, I would add some of these key cultural principles when trying to make change in complex startup communities and ecosystems. I call them the three “I’s”:
Open any network to as many groups that want to collaborate. Understand that there will be weak and strong ties between various nodes in the network. Create a culture and expectation of inclusiveness.
Recognize, celebrate and foster more interdependency. Don’t settle for just collaboration. This starts with humility and a willingness to give first without thought of getting something in return. Look out for competitiveness and challenge the status quo from policy makers or grantors of funds that create such environments.
This may be trite. But unless we are open to new things, we limit the group’s culture and progress.
I now find myself as a mentor and coach to leaders in startups who are community builders across the United States, both rural and urban.
Regardless of the role you play in your startup community, you can have these mindsets and join others who are working towards the three I’s.