Founder of SourceLink. Maria builds entrepreneurial communities and measures their economic impact.
“[A]s critical as President Trump’s agenda and any subsequent federal policy is to overall economic prosperity, some of the most consequential programs and legislation to spur entrepreneurship — and the jobs that come with it — continue to happen at a more local level.”
Highlight, underline and double star. Entrepreneurship is local, but to be effective needs to leverage resources across cities, states, philanthropic foundations and federal policies to succeed and drive innovation and job growth.
We caught this quote in an opinion piece by Steve Case, co-founder and former CEO of America Online and ardent supporter of inclusive entrepreneurship through the Rise of the Rest road trips and the Case Foundation.
And this is a flag we proudly and energetically wave with Case: entrepreneurship matters, it happens locally and it happens everywhere, but often it needs seeds to survive and prosper.
Because here’s the deal: according to research by the Kauffman Foundation, new businesses account for nearly all net new job creation and almost 20 percent of gross job creation. And yet, as Case points out in his article, “while talent is evenly dispersed, opportunity is not. 78 percent of venture capital went to just three states last year: California, New York and Massachusetts.”
How can communities—city and state government, universities, corporations, economic developers and ecosystem builders—better fuel these job creation engines? How can we help support startups and their entrepreneurs when they’re still working out the concept and building their teams? How can we improve access to capital and create a pipeline of innovation so that the good ideas make it to market—and customers, revenues and jobs—faster?
And who’s already doing it?
Entrepreneurship is a contact sport.
Certainly, as Case points out, federal policy can create incentives for startup growth, but it is the entrepreneurial infrastructure on the ground (or lack of it) that determines whether startups will thrive.
For startup entrepreneurs, their immediate social capital—the depth and connectivity of their personal and entrepreneurial network—can be an indication of how quickly their companies will grow, and that makes early-stage entrepreneurship a true contact sport. Knowing how to plug in to a connected network of coaches, mentors, advisors, capital and talent gives entrepreneurs support and direction.
Local communities are closest to the entrepreneur: they make up that social capital and are the conduits to connections—again talent, capital, mentors, customers—outside of the region. Building a well-connected environment where entrepreneurs can thrive on a local level enriches the development of entrepreneurs and fuels their ability to create jobs for the region.
Albuquerque: Connecting Underserved and Immigrant Entrepreneurs to Resources
At the city level, it’s happening in Albuquerque in public-private partnerships with the Living Cities Integrated Initiative, McCune Foundation, Small Business Resource Collaborative, City of Albuquerque among many others.
The city of Albuquerque started by mapping its entrepreneurial assets to get a better sense of its strengths and gaps. From that baseline report, Albuquerque moved toward opportunities that connected its resources and made them visible to underserved entrepreneurs.
Then it sent “Navigators” out into the field to meet with startups and existing business owners and learn more about their challenges, build trust and empower those with entrepreneurial aspirations. That data is fed into the Biz-Trakker, a central entrepreneur ecosystem management and decision database, so the Navigators can track the needs of these businesses and share aggregate findings with stakeholders.
In addition, it delivered a tech platform, TrepConnect, that connects entrepreneurs to programs and service organizations that best meet their needs and launched a website, the Molino Project, to organize its entrepreneurial resource network and make it visible and accessible to entrepreneurs.
In addition to advice, support and local connections, they also offer capital through the Co-op Capital Program that Albuquerque Living Cities Initiative piloted last fall (and presented to Steve Case as part of his Rise of the Rest tour). Through these integrated layers of connections—outreach, metrics and technology—they’re improving knowledge, access and resources.
Kansas: Growing Entrepreneurial Ecosystems, Town by County
Established by the state’s Kansas Economic Growth Act of 2004, NetWork Kansas enables entrepreneurs and small business owners to connect with 500+ business-building resources throughout the state. Since its founding in 2006, NetWork Kansas has developed an entrepreneurial ecosystem through collaborative efforts as well as a series of programs focused on improving access to capital and developing the state’s entrepreneurial mindset and capacity.
One such entrepreneurship-building effort is NetWork Kansas’s Entrepreneurship Community Partnership, or E-Communities. Launched in 2007, the partnership builds entrepreneurial communities town by county, helping local communities raise seed money for local entrepreneurs through match financing raised by the community. The partnership has grown to 55 communities across the state. During the first eight years, more than $7.7 million has been loaned to more than 285 businesses, leveraging an additional $35.5 million of additional capital.
We don’t all have to be Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley is a special and awesome thing—that took a major research university, a little electronics company called Hewlett Packard and 70+ years to build. While both aspirational and a model for the power of network density, “this just doesn’t fully exist in other cities,” as Case correctly points out.
The lesson that every community can take from the Valley is the entrepreneurial empowerment that comes from connecting entrepreneurs to the right resources they need to grow their businesses. Identify, connect, empower and measure—understanding what assets already exist allows communities to capitalize on building the appropriate entrepreneurial infrastructure, fill gaps when services are missing, and maximize on and benchmark community’s successes.
Because entrepreneurship does matter for economic empowerment, opportunity and prosperity can work in tandem. It happens everywhere—from urban centers to our most rural communities. What entrepreneurship looks like in the middle and on the edges doesn’t have to be limited or depreciated by a Silicon Valley definition. Entrepreneurship should be based solely on the community’s strengths, assets and opportunities already in place.
Minnesota: Becoming a food hub for entrepreneurs
Not everyone needs to be the venture capital hub. Minnesota, for example, has a century’s-long reputation as a strong agricultural community. With Grow North, they leveraged their agricultural assets to develop food and agricultural entrepreneurship and provide entrepreneurs with access to statewide resources, education and corporate and peer mentorship.
A collaboration between the University of Minnesota and the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, Grow North MN drives connections by focusing on making resources, information and programs easier to find. They utilize The Resource Navigator®, an interactive directory of more than 130 service providers, that connects entrepreneurs to relevant farm training programs, local farms, food associations and other ecosystem builders such as incubators, coworking spaces and economic development organizations.
Put best by Lauren Mehler Pradhan herself in an interview about Grow North with the Star Tribune, “Grow North is about driving connections in the community. We narrowed down on three areas of focus. One was about making information easier to find. We also have a resource library where we’ve put a lot of the laws and regulations because you don’t want to hurt anyone with the products you make, so you want to make sure you are following all the rules. We also wanted to create really substantive programs and events.”
Kansas City: Accelerating entrepreneurship in the middle
Case mentions KCInvestED in his article, a new program that connects investors in the Kansas City area with resources, events and tools to learn more about investing in early-stage companies. One of KCInvestED’s goals is to increase investors’ knowledge of and participation in KC’s startup community, but it also informs the community about investment activity and the impact it has on the local Kansas City economy.
KCInvestED is just a part of a greater movement in Kansas City to improve access to capital for its early-stage entrepreneurs and position the bistate region (Kansas City straddles Kansas and Missouri) as a hub for financing in the Midwest.
That movement started with an honest assessment of the strengths, emerging areas and weaknesses of Kansas City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, which revealed networked capital as an area of opportunity. Founded by the Kauffman Foundation, the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, KCSourceLink is a network of 240+ business-building resources and KC’s portal into its entrepreneurship ecosystem. With further support from the U.S. Economic Development Administration as part of its University Center Grant program, KCSourceLink drafted an action plan (We Create Capital) and worked with its partners to focus community efforts on improving access to capital. That effort has resulted in $750+ million in identified private capital poised to help area entrepreneurs, a 290 percent increase in early-stage funds in just three years, an amazing and sustainable return for KC entrepreneurs on those initial investments from university, foundation and federal grants.
More and more communities, rural and urban, on the coasts and in the middle, are recognizing that the need for startups and the jobs they create isn’t the exclusive purview of Silicon Valley—and they’re finding ways to develop their own brand of entrepreneurship that reflects their communities’ strengths and needs. By mapping and categorizing strong resource networks for entrepreneurs, they can leverage those on-the-ground and local connections to fuel entrepreneurial growth and sustainability.
Maria Meyers is the founder of SourceLink and executive director of the University Missouri-Kansas City Innovation Center. Maria’s approach has always been to first identify gaps, then inspire networks to create new programs, improve existing offerings and recruit outside support to meet the changing needs of the ecosystem.