In my last blog post, I discussed how local policymakers can build entrepreneurial ecosystems. Specifically, I highlighted the policies and results they should consider as they develop and measure their ecosystem. Another important force in fostering such an ecosystem is the role of mayors as cultivators of the entrepreneurial spirit in their communities. And this cultivation can expand beyond simply policy implementation.
Mayors generally are the highest ranking government official in their city. Because of this, they often get both the majority of the credit and the blame for the successes and failures of the city. While perception of credit and blame can distort their true impact on cities, there are some benefits to this perception that allows mayors to positively affect local entrepreneurship.
One of the skills that many successful mayors possess is facilitating contact between different groups of people to come together to solve problems. Mayors do the hard work of cultivating relationships so that they progress towards achieving city goals. In building networks and connections between individuals, mayors employ a variety of techniques, including the power of the mayor’s office and the interpersonal skills that can catalyze progress. Relationship building, network connections, and the personal energy and influence that mayors already wield in other areas of the community, can also be aimed at the entrepreneurial community to see better entrepreneurial outcomes.
In creating an environment that accentuates their citizens’ entrepreneurial spirit, mayors can choose to not only employ the direct policy and legal actions that promote entrepreneurship, but also these softer, interpersonal skills. When a mayor uses his or her influence to connect entrepreneurs to existing networks or champion entrepreneurship within the city, it energizes the community. These sorts of informal actions, while not as measurable, can still act as a show of support for the entrepreneurial community.
One powerful thing a mayor can do to create a welcoming and positive environment for entrepreneurs in his or her city is to act as a convener. As a convener, the mayor has the power, sometimes solely due to the gravity of the office, to connect business leaders, budding entrepreneurs, academic leaders, and government. Often, the simple act of a phone call to connect individuals can have an impact. When mayors use their status to connect entrepreneurs with the established business community or other important government leaders, they are helping to create the networks and connections that are part of a healthy and growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. This behavior, connecting groups of people with others in order to best develop a solution or strategy, is a common task for policymakers.
These informal networks were one of the key ideas that drove Kauffman’s 2014 Mayors Conference on Entrepreneurship. While the theme of the conference was the Maker Movement, many of the speakers stressed the importance of inclusivity and connectedness between business, government and individuals. The presence of creative individuals like makers, who may soon be ready to take the leap into entrepreneurship, will not miraculously kick start growth. Mayors have the capacity to address the skill demands of their local economy by bringing together the talent and imagination that exists within their community. According to Doug Rand, assistant director for entrepreneurship at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy , when mayors can act as a “liaison for their community and bring stakeholders together”, they develop a more connected and better functioning population of entrepreneurial minds, minds who are better equipped to solve problems.
Along with the more traditional, visible actions such as specific regulations and policy changes that promote entrepreneurship, informal actions have the potential to make an impact in a local entrepreneurial ecosystem. When mayors catalyze interactions between up and coming talented entrepreneurs with the established business, government, and academic community, the results can produce more than a change in legislation. In my opinion, putting the interpersonal skills of mayors to work is an underutilized method of locally promoting entrepreneurship. It isn’t always a matter of spending more money on projects, or imitating a model that worked for a rival city. Sometimes, it can be as simple as working smarter, not harder.
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Chris Jackson is a research assistant in Research and Policy for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, assisting in the understanding of what policies and environments best promote entrepreneurship and education in the pursuit of economic growth.