At this year’s CO.STARTERS Retreats, we conducted a visioning exercise aimed at getting to the heart of our work’s shared purpose. Participants were prompted to consider their community becoming a national success story for creating a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem by 2025. Working in pairs, then small groups, and then all together, we discussed and created a backstory for what led us there. Several important themes emerged.
The Nature of the Ecosystem
In recent years, the word “ecosystem” has surfaced to describe the sorts of entrepreneurial communities we’re trying to create. But what characterizes the ideal entrepreneurial ecosystem? Through our conversations, it became clear that a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem is characterized by several things.
First, the ecosystem is both diverse and inclusive. Diversity will not only be in terms of race and gender of founders, but also consist of an array of socio-economic and educational backgrounds, business types, and business stages. The ecosystem will be inclusive from the beginning. As one participant commented, inclusivity isn’t “bringing brown faces into white spaces.” The ecosystem, from its inception, belongs to all.
Second, the ecosystem is interdependent and connected. All parts work together to support the whole. This includes the many support providers from both the public and private sector, as well as the entrepreneurs, investors, and community leadership. One participant reminded us that in an ecosystem, “we can’t exist without each other.”
Third, the ecosystem is organic. No one set path exists for all entrepreneurs to follow. People and ideas may circle back several times as they find their way. New, unexpected paths or players may emerge that prove pivotal to success. While we commonly talk about creating pipelines, perhaps a roundabout is a more fitting analogy.
Lastly, the ecosystem is adaptable and resilient. Recognizing that change is inevitable, new learnings are embraced and the process itself is valued. Moreover, when hardship or challenges appear, the ecosystem is ready to weather them and emerge stronger.
Strategies to Get There
While our ideal ecosystem is diverse, inclusive, interdependent, connected, organic, adaptable, and resilient, the groups felt that we still have a ways to go to realize this dream. Several strategies were discussed as vital.
The overwhelming consensus was that we must collaborate; organizations or individuals working alone will never achieve the vision. We need to acknowledge that because we are interdependent and connected, we must all work together to move our communities forward. Collaboration requires trust, and trust is built through developing intentional relationships.
Additionally, if we want a diverse and inclusive ecosystem, we need to remove barriers to create access for all. This means meeting people where they are, not where you want them to be. The ecosystem must provide something for everyone, while acknowledging that not everyone needs the same thing.
Finally, we need to take risks. As one participant put it, “how do we rethink everything” and start new to create a new paradigm? While pushing new boundaries might be scary, mediocracy poses a similar threat without the promise of reward. And in our collaborative ecosystem, working together will minimize the risk.
In this new entrepreneurial ecosystem, success is redefined. While the traditional numbers of businesses launched, jobs created, and dollars invested still matter, they are tempered with a more holistic understanding.
Entrepreneurs, and those who support them, realize that it’s not just “bigger” and “more” that makes one successful. Those who strike a balance between managing their business and enjoying their life are poised to be more successful over the long-term.
Similarly, looking only at the initial investment going into the ecosystem and failing to see cycles of reinvestment that occur may miss what makes our communities special. When people who have been invested in—time, resources, connections—give back to others in the ecosystem, the gift keeps moving, providing ongoing benefit.
Moreover, we need to acknowledge that personal success will not look the same for each person in the ecosystem. Some will launch scalable business, while others will continue with a side hustle, and some may never start at all. If we help individuals develop an entrepreneurial mindset, knowing what to do next with a community of support, we are succeeding.
In the new paradigm of interdependence and collaboration, we also realize that when one succeeds, we all succeed. Credit is shared for both wins and losses.
While this vision is grand, the groups were excited to see how united we are as a whole. Even though we come from very different communities, the challenges we face and opportunities that exist are incredibly similar in each community. By working together, perhaps we’ll achieve this entrepreneurial ecosystem by 2025.