Who Makes Up an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem: Defining the Role of Ecosystem Builder


In our blog last month, we discussed what an entrepreneurial ecosystem is and outlined critical factors that enable success. This week, we’d like to take a closer look at the key players who build and sustain ecosystems across the country. As with any systems-level effort, projects like this take time—and a lot of help from people and organizations of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Below we break down who makes up an entrepreneurial ecosystem and how you can rally your local community around the idea of building a network dedicated to long-term economic success.

Who are the entrepreneurship ecosystem players?

In our network of affiliates and community leaders, we work with everyone from government leaders to small-business owners, to universities and everything and everyone in between. Simply put, players in the ecosystem are the people and groups dedicated to supporting, enabling, training and even funding entrepreneurs. Below is a list of the most common groups we see playing in this space:

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Who are entrepreneurial ecosystem players?

While there are dozens–or even hundreds–of entrepreneurship support players in a community, there is often a role that is not filled (or is informally filled by someone else). This role is increasingly being called to focus and labeled as “ecosystem builder.”

One defining characteristic of the ecosystem builder role that separates it from others is that this organization or person has the space, freedom and support to think about the entirety of the network itself. It’s their goal to understand who all the players are and to help guide the network to forge tighter connections. You see these builders thinking about the systematic gaps and barriers for entrepreneurs in the community and finding creative collaborations to make the infrastructure better. At SourceLink, we call this role the network navigator.

Breaking down the ecosystem

Beyond understanding who makes up an ecosystem, we must also understand the structure of an ecosystem itself. According to the Kauffman Foundation, “Entrepreneurial ecosystems drive local economic vibrancy and national economic growth by building fertile environments for new and growing companies to thrive.” Think of it as an interconnected network of support players—people who work to give entrepreneurs the access, tools and information they need to be successful.

If we look closer at this interconnected network of support players, we find that while it varies from one community to the next, some key similarities exist among all. We refer to the groups within this network as entrepreneurial support organizations, or ESOs. From our more than 17 years helping to build ecosystems across the United States, we’ve found the following common traits exist in the ESOs who’ve found success for their communities. It helps greatly when a community has an ecosystem builder/network navigator who can surface gaps and encourage collaboration among the network.


  • A commitment to long-term success with milestones and goals.

    Building a sustainable network of support takes a ton of time and energy, and change does not happen overnight. The best networks we have seen committed stakeholders willing to collaborate for at least a three-year period to make change. Additionally, shared success has been clearly articulated with appropriate measures and metrics in place. For a great example of how this can be done, check out the Ignite the Region strategic plan from our Northwest Indiana affiliate.

  • A willingness to listen, learn, and cooperate.

    When entrepreneurship support organizations are willing to make time to meet, connect and learn from one another, great things happen. This often starts with a monthly or quarterly meeting but can evolve into new shared offerings to reduce barriers for entrepreneurs and facilitate successful joint funding requests and entrepreneur referrals to the right resource at the right time.

  • A shared sense of removing barriers and embracing inclusion.

    One of my favorite sayings often stated by Andy Stoll, Don Macke and even a version by Steve Case goes, “Entrepreneurial talent is everywhere, opportunity is not.” Communities that remove barriers for all and embrace inclusion have higher rates of economic impact and improved sustainability with their efforts. We know that many underestimated populations have higher entrepreneurship rates than that of white men. African American women and immigrant communities are just two examples. If you are doing this work without a diversity and inclusion lens, you’re not going to be as impactful. Inclusion also means thinking about how your community is supporting your entire entrepreneurial stack–from the high schooler with a business idea–to your main street business owners and innovation-led startups.

  • Agreement that while entrepreneurs at the center of ecosystem efforts, they’re not the leaders.  

    It befalls on us all as community leaders who support entrepreneurs to take the lead. We must allow entrepreneurs to focus their time building and running their companies. In communities where entrepreneurs lead network building efforts, we frequently see burnout, frustration and plans that are not sustainable. Entrepreneurs can, and do, play pivotal roles serving in focus groups, sitting on advisory boards, etc. and often volunteer their professional service or time in support of the effort, but they shouldn’t be the ones forced to run successful companies while leading network-building efforts among the key players there to support their development.

  • A healthy dose of “coopetition”.

    Coopetition, a blending of the words, “cooperation” and “competition,” is a term we hear in more and more communities we engage with. Many of our most successful affiliate networks have embraced this concept by which community leaders and network players learn to accept that while they may share funding resources, that does not prevent them from capitalizing on opportunities to work together.

At SourceLink, we’re proud to partner with entrepreneurship support organizations all across the country and share their learnings and successes with our network of more than 60 affiliates. Read the success stories from some of our affiliates who have realized success forging collaborations among resource partners to define and achieve systems-level community impact, below:

To learn more about identifying your community’s resources and key stakeholders, view the Identify page on our site. If you have questions, you can always reach our team at [email protected]