Maximizing Connections at Entrepreneur and Economic Development Conferences

Dara Macon Business Development of SourceLink

Dara Macan
Global director of SourceLink. Dara connects entrepreneurial communities with solutions to “grow their own” and drive economic impact.


Best practices for attending and speaking at entrepreneur and economic development Conferences

The landscape of entrepreneurship support is fast changing. If economic developers and ecosystem champions want to stay on top of entrepreneurial best practices, then it helps to start with those who are leading the charge in their home communities.

Enter the sessions and conferences on building entrepreneurial infrastructures and entrepreneurial ecosystems.

These conversations happen at entrepreneurship- and econdev-focused conferences and events held by such institutions as the California Association for Local Economic Development (CALED), National League of Cities, International Innovation Business Association (InBIA), and International Economic Development Council (IEDC), among many others. They are a key destination to understanding the entrepreneurial landscape and how other communities are growing entrepreneurship. (And are all happening in the first quarter.)

We know from research conducted by the Kauffman Foundation that while there’s been a recent uptick in startups created, long-term entrepreneurship is actually in decline. We also know that young, new firms are the primary source of job creation in the United States.

And so it’s vitally and economically important, now more than ever, to focus on sustaining and supporting entrepreneurial ecosystems locally and globally. Conferences are a great way to network with the best and learn, and perhaps replicate, their best practices.

Network with purpose

SourceLink Founder Maria Meyers is a regular speaker on the entrepreneurship conference circuit, helping communities figure out how to build entrepreneurial infrastructures and measure them.

Even as a thought leader, she still seeks out lessons in other communities. But she’s learned in 15 years of entrepreneurial ecosystem building and speaking to maximize her time and her connections. And so, she comes to conferences with an agenda:

“Beyond just listening to a conference session, do your homework.  Make a list of questions that you want to get answered, things you want to learn and people you want to meet before you go.”

While Maria spends a lot of time on the phone speaking with entrepreneurial thought leaders across the world, conferences give her the prime time to meet face-to-face with the people she’s met virtually, read about or followed.

But for her, it’s not just about passively listening to a panel. For conference participants and planners, Maria suggests activating the learning by seeking out conversations. Maria believes in ’unconferencing,” where the focus is on attendee interaction rather than passively listening to a panel or sponsors at a conventional conference. Unconferencing involves attendee engagement such as allowing participants to set the agenda or dividing up into multiple groups to discuss and solve problems together. This allows attendees to gain insight and find a different way of looking at a problem.

Maximize connections before, during and after a conference

Many conferences now offer apps attendees can download and use to further dive into the conference. These apps allow you to see who is attending the conference and which organization they represent.

As the SourceLink sales director, I leverage the attendee and sponsor list as a chance to develop possible strategic partnerships. By knowing exactly whom I need to meet with, I can strategize and truly maximize opportunities and make mutually beneficial introductions. I am intentional with my time and rely on deliberate collisions rather than random connections.

But connections don’t necessarily happen onsite. At SourceLink, I also take advantage of the conference’s geographic location to check in on affiliates, on possible partners and on entrepreneurial ecosystem builders who may not attend the conference proper. At conference or not, connections are what build relationships, build community and build business.

Optimize and amplify the conversation

Sarah Mote, SourceLink’s marketing director, believes in conversations that make connections. So whether she’s at conference (and/or following on its hashtag), she looks for opportunities to engage with attendees and learn from their communities.

Understanding why you’re at a conference, having that list of questions you want answered and the list of people you want to meet helps you make meaningful interactions, whether you’re physically at the conference or not. But understanding the questions that others will have helps you solve problems. Queue up content (blog posts, white papers, surveys) and likely questions to help connect others with best practices.

Sarah builds out SourceLink’s editorial calendar around the conferences SourceLink sponsors, speaks at and attends. Three to six months before the conference, she makes sure the supply closet and our best practices blog are well stocked and prepped with printed collateral and digital content. During the conference, she monitors conversations for opportunities to connect attendees with best practices in entrepreneurship, from our affiliates and from other attendees at the conference. Moreover, after the conference, she debriefs the team to see how we can connect the people they met with solutions and develop content to help others who may have the same challenges.

Entrepreneurial ecosystem builders join together

Many organizations want to know how to make entrepreneurship easier in their communities. These conferences bring together economic developers; accelerators and incubators; entrepreneurs and city leaders to discuss the issues of growing entrepreneurial ecosystems. Each group has a different view of the environment and will have new ideas based on their perspective.  Conferences are an essential conduit of assessing different perspectives on the business of growing the local economy through entrepreneurship.

But don’t ignore the lessons you can learn in your community, too. Perhaps as important are the local opportunities to connect directly with owners and service providers in mini-conferences (or Maria’s “unconferences”) like 1 Million Cups, pitch competitions, hackathons Startup Weekends or informal focus groups. Make connections, be deliberate in your collisions, take the opportunity to listen and then amplify those conversations to ecosystem builders in your community. It is only when we band together that we begin to build and grow true entrepreneurial communities.

Dara Macan Business Development of SourceLinkDara Macan is global director of business development for SourceLink. Having been an entrepreneur herself, Dara understands the difficulties associated with growing a business and how SourceLink can empower economic development agencies to “grow their own” for economic impact.