How Do You Build a Community of Ecosystem Builders? Highlights from 2018 #ESHIPSummit


How do you build a community that supports entrepreneurs? You build an entrepreneurial infrastructure.

But how do you build a community to support the community that supports entrepreneurs? You create a playbook for ecosystem builders.

That’s the mission behind the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s series of entrepreneurial ecosystem builder summits. This year, the foundation held their second #ESHIPSummit to empower the people who help empower the makers, doers and dreamers in our communities. (Yes, it’s a little meta.)

Kauffman Foundation ESHIP Summit for Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Builders

At the 2018 Summit, the foundation welcomed 620 ecosystem builders (last year clocked in around 300) from 50 states and 10 countries, including 121 U.S. mayors. Half the attendees identified as women and a third as individuals of color.

Our collective and collaborative goal? To work with entrepreneurial ecosystem builders across the country and the world to:

  • discover (year 1) the best practices, tools and methodologies that are being used to build entrepreneurial communities (see our highlights from the 2017 #ESHIPSummit)

  • design (this year’s summit) a playbook to share our common goals and support ecosystem builders in our work to advance entrepreneurship and economic opportunity in our communities

  • deliver (year 3 and beyond) those field-tested ideas and applied research to the entrepreneurship marketplace

It was (and will continue to be) a tall (and exhausting and exhilarating) order, to be sure, but for two-and-a-half days in July, we gathered with hundreds of the best and brightest minds in entrepreneurship ecosystem building to hash through, break down and co-create ideas, tools, wish lists around these seven common goals to further fortify the field and discipline of entrepreneurial ecosystem building.

(In fact, the Kauffman reports that attendees helped catalogue 633 ecosystem building tools and resources and dreamed up a wish list of 412 tools we’d like to see created in the future, listened to 74 presenters and perused 1 updated draft version of the Kauffman ecosystem building playbook. Yes, very busy.)

At the end of the summit, each ecosystem builder committed to furthering one of the goals. Our team (Rob, Dara, Maria, Pola and myself were at the summit) each grabbed a goal to lead and another to follow. Mine: to help build an inclusive field and a connected work of ecosystem builders. So we’d love to hear about—and share—how you’re championing entrepreneurship in your community.

Here are just a few people we met and with whom we can’t wait to work to build out this field. Know someone we need to meet? Let us know!

Who We Met: Peter Lundquist and Dustin Shay, Village Capital

Village Capital is a global venture capital firm that is building, testing and scaling out curriculum, methodologies, products and services, all based on our experience and results gained in supporting more than 1,000 entrepreneurs and investing in a diverse range of 90 portfolio companies (and counting). At the summit we met a broad array of talented ecosystem partners, who, when linked together, could back entrepreneurs across all stages, sectors and regions, as well as a number of U.S. mayors looking to catalyze entrepreneurship in their cities and needing help to do so.

#ESHIPSummit Takeaway:

We were impressed by the breadth and depth of organizations dedicated to building a future where entrepreneurs can create equity and long-term prosperity in the United States and beyond. By collaborating on the set of seven ESHIP Goals released during the Summit, we have the opportunity to not only achieve our individual organizations’ missions, but to align, network, partner, and operate as a unified field to reinvent a better system.

Who We Met: Mel Lambert, St. Louis County Library

St. Louis County Library works with entrepreneurs and small businesses from the beginning stages of a business plan to continued marketing success. We conduct one-on-one sessions to help entrepreneurs learn how to use our databases for market research, industry analysis and marketing lists. Moving forward, our focus is serving the communities of new U.S. resident populations, students, minorities and women in the St. Louis, Missouri, region.  

#ESHIPSummit Takeaway:

ESHIP offered the opportunity to trade ideas with others, not just in our community and region, but across the world. When shaping our entrepreneurial ecosystem, we need to listen to the needs of the entrepreneurs, ask them what’s important, and build from there. We may learn the entrepreneurs have different needs than we assume.

Libraries can play a vital part in the ecosystem by tailoring our programs and services to those with the greatest need. For small businesses and startups that don’t have the means to be part of a larger co-working space, or communities that don’t have natural access to greater connected networks, public libraries provide a critical bridge to success. We can bring the networks to them, giving them access to leaders and being sources of support in the business community. This expands the greater ecosystem to be more inclusive and helps entrepreneurs thrive.

At the summit, someone told me one of their indicators of whether a city will be a successful home for entrepreneurs is the number of resources given to a city’s library. Libraries are the home for information, access, public space, and community. We serve all walks of life, all regions, all communities. What better place could there be to cultivate inclusive and diverse entrepreneurial ecosystems than the library?

Who We Met: C’pher Gresham, SEED Spot 

SEED SPOT, a globally-ranked social incubator, educates, accelerates and invests in entrepreneurs of all ages and backgrounds committed to solving social problems. We support ecosystem builders in communities and in schools to create a robust pipeline of impact-driven entrepreneurs. Our programs surround entrepreneurs with the access to resources, mentors, business fundamentals, capital sources and community partners they need to succeed. 

#ESHIPSummit Takeaway:

In 2017, the Eship Summit blew in with a blast, supporting entrepreneurial ecosystem builders across the United States. This year the EShip summit built on the movement and demonstrated that the importance of having national resources available to local ecosystem builders with a strong focus on inclusion. As SEED SPOT was a National Resource Provider, we engaged in multiple conversations with mayors, city and state economic development groups and entrepreneur support organizations. We had two major observations: 

1)      Inclusion-focused organizations were at the forefront sharing knowledge and best practices on how to support EVERY entrepreneur in their community. This focus was woven into the firestarter talks to break out sessions, but most importantly made their way into happy hours and dinner groups talking about breaking down barriers. 

2)      Ecosystem builders are cut from the same cloth, but represent a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. An ecosystem builder centers entrepreneurs at the core and are spurred to help their community drive better entrepreneurial outcomes, yet represent a truly diverse set of roles in their ecosystem, from a mayor spurring entrepreneurship in their city to an individual entrepreneur turned community organizer. Each ecosystem builder is additive to their ecosystem by focusing on a part of the whole. 

Now is the time to equip builders and entrepreneur support organizations with the best in class tools to build their ecosystem quickly, efficiently, inclusively and with a focus on impact. 

Who We Met: Charles Ross, InBIA

InBIA is a global member-based network of more than 500 entrepreneurship centers across 43 countries serving more than 50,000 small and innovative businesses. Our mission is to help communities enable their entrepreneurs to transform their dreams into innovative businesses that make global prosperity a reality. 

#ESHIPSummit Takeaway:

A bold initiative to cultivate, identify and leverage synergies across entrepreneurial support models, communities and networks. The summit itself was a great example of “modeling the change” that is needed in our communities: more trust, more collaboration, more diversity and more inclusion. Over the past several years, InBIA has worked diligently to support business innovation and entrepreneurship, across a variety of service delivery/business models, and we are huge fans of the “big tent” philosophy espoused by our friends at the Kauffman foundation.

Who We Met: Kyle J Smith, Determination, Inc.

Kyle  is an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder in Kansas City, Missouri. He recently launched a new nonprofit, Determination, Incorporated, with the goal of building a “felony-friendly” path to entrepreneurship. He is also a community organizer with 1 Million Cups Kansas and a Startup Huddle ambassador with the Global Entrepreneurship Network.

#ESHIPSummit Takeaway:

I learned a ton from the experienced, diverse voices around the table from all over the nation. One question I’ll be considering a lot in the coming months: how can the KC entrepreneurial community better evolve our diversity efforts into meaningful inclusion initiatives? One novel idea I’ll be playing with is “sponsorship,” aka helping guide people from the community through the existing entrepreneurship network.
One other thing that I was reminded of at the Summit is the importance, and “weaknesses,” of a playbook. I’ll call out some of my fellow attendees who wanted the Kauffman playbook to tell them WHAT to do. No playbook can do that and be universally helpful. Visions come from the top down, approaches come from the bottom up. 
Kauffman can help shape a vision and tell you WHY building an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem is important. Other entrepreneurial ecosystem builders can share HOW they did it through case studies and best practices. And YOU and your community have to decide WHAT you’re going to do. You’re the only ones who know the people, climate and systems well enough in your neck of the woods to get the work done. 

Who We Are: SourceLink

SourceLink works with on-the-ground community leaders to identify and understand local assets for entrepreneurs, connect these resources into a visible and cohesive network, empower collaboration to meet gaps in services and measure efforts to advance entrepreneurship resulting in community development. We’ve been engaged in this work for 15 years and have impacted more than 100 regions.

#ESHIPSummit Takeaway:

We were struck by how many new faces we found in the ESHIP Summit crowd this year. It underscores the importance of a Summit like this to share best practices, train these new leaders in understanding entrepreneurship-led economic development and is the type of venue needed for mentorship and network building between veterans in this space and those just joining our field.

These new faces also highlight the single greatest threat to our field with burnout, sustainability and scale. There is a very real need to professionalize “entrepreneurship ecosystem building” and this is why Kauffman’s ESHIP Goals are so salient right now. As we look to expand our field this next year, we must remember to include professional and personal development and pioneer ways to design systems that do not rely solely on passionate volunteers—full-time entrepreneurs doing this on the side and/or part-time staff / working committees—to do all the heavy lifting. This same challenge faces our field itself. It cannot be Kauffman alone that carries this mantle; we must all become champions of entrepreneurship to make a difference in the success of our emerging industry.

We’d love to know you, too.

How are you supporting your entrepreneurs?

We’d love to hear from you and share you best practices. Email us at [email protected] and let us know what you’re up to and be sure to subscribe to the SourceLink newsletter for best practices, know-how and news on entrepreneurship-led economic development.