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A New Kind of Builder is Transforming Entrepreneurship
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A New Kind of Builder is Transforming the Landscape of Entrepreneurship

America needs a new economic model that infuses entrepreneurship into every corner of the economy and removes barriers to starting and growing businesses.

By Victor W. Hwang

An emerging role — that of “ecosystem builder” — is becoming key to spreading entrepreneurship in cities and towns across the nation.

This new kind of builder has a special role: shaping community culture and connections to make business creation thrive. The ecosystem builder holds extraordinary promise for our nation and can unleash the remarkable diversity of talents, resources and creative genius that America holds within.

Bringing Together the Builders

More than 400 diverse ecosystem builders recently gathered in Kansas City for an inaugural ESHIP Summit convened by the Kauffman Foundation. They came from 48 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and nine other countries. They came to learn from each other — and, in the process, elevate this newly recognized profession.

These builders are pioneering new principles, tools and metrics that communities need to clear the path for all types of makers, doers and dreamers to pursue their ambitions. They’re taking insights from the Summit back to their communities, testing them and affecting change.

So, who are these builders? About half of the Summit participants were women, and nearly a third were minorities. They came from some of America’s largest cities and smallest towns. That they were convening in Kansas City, equidistant from both coasts, in the heart of the heartland, underscored the relevance of this emerging role to all of America.

The participating ecosystem builders represent a broad array of organizations, including:

  • Business incubators and accelerators
  • Economic development agencies
  • Community nonprofits
  • Research universities and community colleges
  • Professionals who support entrepreneurs
  • Investors who finance entrepreneurs.

They bring diverse perspectives. Many of them are entrepreneurs. Some were appointed to their positions; others created their own organizations; others just decided to take leadership roles in their communities. Some have formal academic credentials; others have the practical experience of trial and error.

What unites them is that all are dedicated to creating a culture of entrepreneurship in their communities and across America. All are eager to share their learnings, their challenges and their optimism. They see the potential hidden in their communities and want to see it recognized and realized.

Building Up the Ecosystems

A critical challenge for our nation is to build thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems in every community that wants new business creation. To do that, we must understand the crucial role of ecosystems and facilitate the work of ecosystem builders in creatively connecting people, resources and ideas to unlock every community’s unique potential. To do that, we have to remove barriers that are in the way.

At the Kauffman Foundation, our vision is that there should be “Zero Barriers” to start and grow businesses. We are seeking to achieve this through four new programs. One is the growth of entrepreneurial ecosystems, so that entrepreneurs can thrive in supportive interconnected communities. A second is entrepreneurial education, particularly through interactive peer communities where entrepreneurs can learn from one another and better solve problems together.

A third is leveling the playing field, because the market is leaving huge voids in entrepreneurship, with certain segments of society facing bigger barriers than others. Those barriers may be socioeconomic, demographic, sectoral or geographic, but they must be overcome.

The fourth program involves big ideas and translating them into action through research and experimentation. That includes taking the concept of “Zero Barriers” directly to policymakers. Public policy should enhance business creation and innovation, not stand in the way. We seek to eliminate the million small cuts that stop the makers, the doers and the dreamers from achieving their ambitions.

What Ecosystem Builders Do

What is the culture that ecosystem builders seek to create? It’s one that sparks innovation. It fosters the free flow of ideas, talents, resources and diversity of backgrounds and experiences to produce creativity that would otherwise not emerge.

In describing a successful ecosystem and how it works, the analogy that I make is to a rainforest rather than a farm. On a farm, you plant seeds to produce a desired crop on a chosen scale.

But entrepreneurial ecosystems thrive on unpredictability to generate new, valuable products and services that can improve lives. Ecosystems must function more like a rainforest, where elements interact in surprising ways to create new species. Fostering a rainforest of innovation — through a culture that inspires it — is the goal of ecosystem builders.

At the ESHIP Summit, ecosystem builders collaborated to identify and tackle barriers, large and small, to new business creation. Their goal was to empower more entrepreneurs — and ultimately reverse the nation’s long-term decline in entrepreneurship.

The Kauffman Foundation has captured the insights offered by participants at the ESHIP Summit and is now compiling and synthesizing them. We will release them in the coming months so they’re practical and usable for interested communities.

Entrepreneurial ecosystems and the ecosystem builders who foster them are vital to U.S. job growth. They have the potential to positively affect every community in America.

It’s time for our nation to embrace the concept of ecosystem builders and give them the tools to make the American Dream a reality for all. Join us in the Zero Barriers movement today.

The author is vice president of entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @rainforestbook.


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