Overlooked Aspects of Inclusion in Ecosystem Building, Part 3

This article is the third in a three-part series covering sometimes overlooked aspects of inclusion in entrepreneurial ecosystem building. Part one considers age inclusion. Part two explores how to have productive conversations about inclusion.

Rural Innovation

Struggling rural economies present unique challenges to ecosystem builders. Rural areas often share the same fundamental challenges as urban and metropolitan areas, such as permanently lost industrial jobs. But lower population densities and remote locations often mean that many of the assets urban areas rely on are missing in smaller communities. Research universities, deep talent pools for finding cofounders, employees, and mentors, not to mention investors and supportive nonprofits are much less common in rural communities. In many small towns, the historic loss of one large industrial employer has been more than enough to start a downward economic spiral that is more difficult to overcome than it would be in places with more remaining jobs and some of those other assets.

Matt Dunne is the founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), a two-year-old nonprofit that is building a network of rural innovation hubs to help revive struggling small towns across America. Though CORI is new, Dunne has been active for many years in developing innovative solutions in rural America.

Dunne served 11 years in the Vermont House and Senate, helping to implement the state’s first broadband grants, brownfields revitalization funding, and downtown development program. Since Vermont’s largest city has just over 42,000 people, all those programs were implemented in rural areas or small towns. He helped grow a Vermont-based software company, directed the AmeriCorps*VISTA national service program under President Clinton, and created Google’s national community affairs program, which he led from Vermont. After an unsuccessful run for Vermont governor in 2016, he started CORI.

Matte Dunne with CORI

“We launched Center on Rural Innovation to address what has become the largest rural opportunity gap in our nation’s history. There is a massive division between rural and urban places in terms of economic and health indicators by almost every measure.”  —Matt Dunne

Based in Hartland, Vermont, CORI currently works in nine communities, located in eight states and three time zones, to create digital economy jobs by building innovation hubs. As a capacity building entity, CORI helps rural communities create digital economy ecosystems using innovation hubs that support distributed workers working for software companies, build a pipeline for those workers through computer science training for students and adults, and support entrepreneurs to create scalable technology-based businesses. CORI also gathers data and information about rural places to help policy makers, investors, and philanthropists be more strategic in their work. 

Dunne offers key learnings from his and CORI’s work in several small communities to reverse economic decline. All involve ecosystem development, in which many pieces come together to help the overall community.

Treat Low Expectations as an Asset 

In 1993, White River Junction, Vermont was a dying railroad town. “It had some interesting architecture, but the municipality had given up on it and was focused more on development near the interstate interchange,” says Dunne. “A group of unofficial leaders came together over 25 years to try a variety of things, and it took that long to get full lift.”

When someone proposed a Day of the Dead parade for Halloween that would include cross dressers, no one said ‘no,’ and it brought some vitality to a place that needed it. “Because no one in power cared about the town, we could try things that normally might not be allowed in a more precious New England town,” says Dunne.

Embrace Unexpected Opportunities 

One key redevelopment in White River Junction was finding a professional theater company to take over a classic opera house that was barely hanging on. The theater has since been so successful that it has invested $9 million to build a second venue, while leaving the opera house available for other programming. Finding a new tenant for a beautiful old building is a strategy that makes intuitive sense, but leaders also recruited the Center for Cartoon Studies, which has become the top graphic novel MFA program in the country.

“No one would have put ‘land a cartooning school’ in the strategic plan, but the opportunity came up, and we were able to convince them this was the right place,” says Dunne. “They’ve become incredibly successful and a huge part of the community.”

Reach Parents By Helping Kids 

When he led Google’s community relations program, Dunne worked with communities throughout the country where the company was building data centers. Helping Google be a good corporate citizen in these rural communities meant supporting computer science education. Something Dunne had not expected was the impact working with children would have on parents. In one company-sponsored program, Google volunteers worked with children to build a working computer out of separate elements the company provided. At the end of the session, the kids had built a working computer they could take home and use. 

“When parents saw their kid could make a functioning computer, that gave them a new and more positive outlook on what their kids could do as part of this community moving forward,” says Dunne. “That was an ‘aha’ moment we hadn’t anticipated, and it definitely informed the way we did other kinds of work in communities around the country.”

Win People Over with Engagement and Persistence 

After a false start in one community with a downtown fair that didn’t get much participation, Google kept looking for ideas that would embody the company’s values and engage the community. It eventually found what became one of its most successful events: a competition in South Carolina to build and use trebuchet-style catapults. The event brought together The Citadel military college, public schools from across the state, and Google data center employees. That experience provides lessons that apply to a variety of rural economic development situations.

“People are forgiving if you try something and it isn’t overwhelmingly successful. What we found is if you try things with good intention and inclusivity, and you continue to improve and to iterate on your ideas, that’s the fastest way to get to a place where you’re really finding ways to create community connections, energy, and momentum.”  —Matt Dunne

Use the Power of Optimism 

CORI’s first pilot project is located in Springfield, Vermont. The town had the highest per capita income in the state for many years until the machine-tool industry declined and disappeared. It soon became one of the highest poverty communities in Vermont and ground zero for the heroin epidemic in northern New England. The community did have assets, however. During the same period, the local telephone company had received a grant to install world-class broadband to the home, and beautiful downtown buildings remained, as a result of community investment during the prosperous years.

Invited by the local community, CORI started on the path of building a digital economy ecosystem, including investing in computer education for middle and high school, building supports for a distributed work process to attract mobile workers who wanted to move out of cities, and launching an entrepreneur center called the Black River Innovation Campus with funding from the Kauffman Foundation, Siegel Family Endowment and the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Interventions like these are the heart of CORI’s activity and the broad model for what it plans to do in communities around the country. But ultimately, these activities are intended as catalysts to spur further activity. When CORI’s program of work in Springfield was announced formally after weeks of preliminary work, Dunne was surprised to learn that CORI had already inspired new development. Around the same time, a new coffee roaster and a new bistro had opened, and a brewery had opened a new tap room.

“Those business owners said they were encouraged  to launch those enterprises because they heard about what CORI was doing. They knew they wanted to do it, and they felt like they were given permission to go ahead and make it happen. It’s so powerful to have that message of optimism that starts to turn the narrative and catalyzes a community.”  —Matt Dunne

Engage the Entire Community

Dunne offers one final lesson: Work deliberately to engage all parts of the community, not just consulting them but collaborating with them to plan the work.

“The only way to unleash the full entrepreneurial spirit of a community is to be sure you are tapping into the entire community. Identify allies, who are frequently unofficial leaders, then bring them into the conversation about how they could get engaged, and do so in a respectful way.” —Matt Dunne

He acknowledges that CORI is at an early stage in this process, since the organization is only two years old, but says “We are really excited to see how different strategies work to engage different parts of the community—including groups that have been divided along racial lines—to be part of an overall inclusive initiative.”