Victor Hwang, vice president of Entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation, listens to Phillip Sangokoya speak during a small group discussion about historically underrepresented entrepreneurs, April 2018.
There are lessons about managing inventory that you learn best by standing in a warehouse of kitchen supplies as the business gears up for the holiday rush of online orders.
Lessons about complying with antiquated regulations that come from listening to a blue corn whiskey distiller.
And lessons about urgency shared by a couple who have put everything they have into inventing an autonomous lawn mower that’s sitting in their garage with only enough money in their saving to last for a six month as they seek funding needed to refine their prototype.
The real-life stories of the day-to-day issues entrepreneurs face are most vividly told in the offices, workshops and garages where they work, and the Kauffman Foundation is venturing out to hear them.
The practice of getting out of the office and into the field began in November 2016 when Victor Hwang, vice president of Entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation, hit the road with his friend Phil Wickham, a venture investor and startup entrepreneur who also serves as executive chairman of Kauffman Fellows. Along the way they meet with entrepreneurs who are driving innovation and renewal in the Midwest. They heard stories of pleasures and pitfalls by women and men on their entrepreneurial paths and the ecosystems that support them in their communities.
"We have so many layers between us and the person we affect," said Hwang. "We make grants that go to organizations, that then run programs to help people, and then we hope that those programs have ripple effects in a community. That's so many steps away from the change that we're seeking to make."
The whirlwind Eship City Tour covered 823 miles with stops in five Midwest cities over four days. The tour was captured in a series of daily video dispatches, but beyond sharing video, Hwang wanted to share the first-hand experience with Kauffman associates. The idea was to get close to the work by inviting associates to travel into the field on "Eship Learning Journeys."
"The heart of these learning journeys is to get out of the building and actually talk, listen, and learn from the people that we serve," Hwang said. "We're going out to understand what the person wants and needs; the emotions, psychology, and challenges they deal with. It's a starting point, because you can't design well until you understand what people need."
The first learning journeys have focused on communities in Missouri, the Kauffman Foundation’s home state, and have ranged from a media company telling stories using virtual reality technology to a miniature golf course.
"Few things are more motivating than standing in an entrepreneur’s garage that doubles as an office and learning about the challenges facing that business and by extension the entrepreneur and his family," said Jason Wiens, the Foundation’s director of policy in Entrepreneurship. "It makes you redouble your efforts to eliminate barriers for that entrepreneur and others like him."
Open to all Kauffman associates, the learning journeys have offered a glimpse of the entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial ecosystems in Garden City, Springfield, Bolivar, Columbia, St. Charles, New Florence and St. Louis. Kauffman associates have attended a regular Wednesday morning 1 Million Cups session in Springfield and heard from an entrepreneur who left Chicago to set up business in an abandoned medical facility in tiny Mansfield, Missouri.
Eric Levene is a member of the Investment team at the Foundation with little opportunity to deal directly with Kauffman grantees and the services they provide to entrepreneurs and educators. He’s signed on to join both learning journeys across Missouri. "We heard stories of resilience, determination, and grit, [and] each was more inspiring than the last. The learning journeys helped provide context for the work of the Foundation and showed me that innovation isn’t just happening in Silicon Valley or Boston, it’s happening in our own backyard."
The visits on entrepreneurs’ home turf have opened the door to candid conversations that can be difficult to surface between philanthropic foundations and the people they seek to support. Entrepreneurs have shared heartfelt stories of the emotional toll and financial stress that running a business has had on them. They have offered historic and personal perspectives on rural-urban divides, race, gender, and class divisions, and the lack of access to capital. In St. Louis, Kauffman associates heard from a frustrated entrepreneur who went through an elaborate application process for a support program only to not be selected for the program.
Hearing the experience has prompted a discussion to rethink how competitive support programs are structured and what happens to those who are left out of the programs they apply for. "I loved hearing that because suddenly we're dissatisfied," Hwang said. "What we're doing isn't really solving the problems that we thought we were solving. If we're trying to actually lift up the communities that we're working in, we can't ignore that."
The learning journeys have also influenced the Foundation’s efforts to build a better network to support rural entrepreneurship. "I'd like to think that the fact that we were in Garden City, talking to those folks, made our work 10 percent faster, and 10 percent more effective than it would have been otherwise," Hwang said. "That constant process of improvement that comes from focusing on the end person that we're affecting, is priceless."
Excursions to communities on the learning journeys will continue. There are plans to travel outside of Missouri to build understanding and awareness, and ultimately help the Foundation better design its work to support entrepreneurs.
"When you live in a place for a while you tend to look at things you already expect to see," Hwang said. "It helps when you break out of your convention and go to a place that you're not used to. We want people to go into a place and look at it through a different lens (to see) what's happening that gives rise to that phenomenon of entrepreneurship. Because those things give rise to ideas which give rise to businesses which give rise to jobs."
All photos courtesy of Matthew Pozel.