Communities across the country are exploring ways to support their business owners and entrepreneurs as part of a long-term economic development strategy. However there are still distressed areas where barriers to entrepreneurship exist. How do we break down these barriers and make sure all of our aspiring business owners have the opportunity to reach their potential?
Back in 2003 when SourceLink was founded by Maria Meyers, no one wanted to be known as an entrepreneur. “Today entrepreneurial ecosystem is a buzzword. It doesn’t matter if the community is large or small. Now they wear that badge with honor,” Meyers said in her opening statements at the Growing Entrepreneurial Communities Summit. Ecosystem builders, civic leaders and economic developers are introducing ways to support their entrepreneurs and making sure our communities are better places to live and grow.
Yet, we still have a long way to go.
On the edge of opportunity
Instead of looking at these areas of distress in our communities, we should see them as on the cusp of opportunities that are commonly overlooked. Penny Lewandowski, senior consultant with the Edward Lowe Foundation, believes the places with the most potential are often on the edges. She says, “Every community, regardless of where you are and the resources you have in place, has the opportunity and potential to be successful.”
“The most interesting stories and the greatest risks happen on the edges where people take risks. We must believe in the power of starting and growing communities,” she says.
Andy Stoll of the Kauffman Foundation believes we have entered the Connected Age where entrepreneurship and innovation have been democratized. With the entrepreneurship movement, no one geography has the monopoly on great ideas. People no longer have to move out of their city to pursue their startup or business. “What can vary is the culture around how supportive any community may be for helping people generate those great ideas,” says Stoll.
That’s where our champions of entrepreneurship come in (that’s you). The communities that will thrive in this new era are those that best help people make new ideas happen. Our distressed communities in the connected age will thrive only when they focus on helping people to have the space and encouragement to make great ideas happen. Start by creating collisions and bringing your entrepreneurs together with events that foster collaboration, culture, congregation and community.
Collaboration across all levels
After Hurricane María devastated an already distraught Puerto Rico, Denisse Rodríguez of Colmena66 had to switch her organization’s focus from helping business owners grow their business to assisting the entire island. It started with entrepreneurial support organizations calling each other to determine the next steps. Without the access to telecommunications, Colmena66 expanded their hotline and physically visited business owners to hear and collect their challenges.
The immediate need for access to Internet was apparent so Colmena66 opened a temporary free coworking space with Internet access. This become a safe space, an oasis for entrepreneurs to come and get work done, even amidst the chaos. Colmena66 quickly became a hub for the entire island and served as a bridge between business owners and resources – everything from power generators to grants and small loans to keep their businesses running.
The Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust leveraged GIS tech providing the ability to complete a census of businesses to determine the exact needs to keep operations going. Shortly after, Colmena66 launched a Shop Local initiative to facilitate sustainable success focusing on selling goods and hiring freelancers to keep islanders on the island. There are five million Puerto Ricans outside the island and three million on the island. By connecting struggling entrepreneurs with business opportunities, Colmena66 was able to provide additional financial stability for companies all across Puerto Rico.
“Entrepreneurship is grit. Entrepreneurship is resilience. Puerto Ricans are strong, and the hurricane built stronger entrepreneurs.” - Denisse Rodríguez of Colmena66
After the devastation of Hurricane María, Puerto Rico is on the cutting edge of innovation and a shining example of collaboration across the entrepreneurial ecosystem. “Focus on what should be done and what your organization should do. You cannot accomplish everything—it is impossible,” advises Rodríguez.
Where are the edges in your community?
You can’t do entrepreneurship-led economic development without community-led development. Strengthening your ecosystem doesn’t happen after a couple of meetings. Read Maria Meyer’s latest book Beyond Collisions: How to Build your Entrepreneurial Infrastructure, a field guide to building and sustaining entrepreneurship in your community and marshal support for entrepreneurship in your hometown.