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ESHIP Communities
A graphic recording of Resilience in Action: ESHIP Communities Virtual Convening, by Erica Bota.

Resilience in action

In a time when it’s easy to feel isolated, four communities focus economic development on building strong entrepreneurial ecosystems – knowing that others are doing similar work, and are willing to share and support, makes a difference.

Uncommon
Voices

Faced with today’s challenges, some of us worry whether we’ll be equal to the task. I know I do. If the data on declining entrepreneurial activity was on the minds of many in communities across the country before these current crises, we’re more aware than ever before of the challenges of starting and growing businesses. In far too many places, we’re struggling to keep them alive.

Each of us knows our communities have the problem solvers and the variety of skills and talents necessary to start and grow more businesses. Attempts to replicate “Silicon Valley success” rarely create the kind of community-wide support that can change the destinies of cities and towns. For that, we need a systems approach. I’m convinced we need ecosystem building.

Ecosystem building to me is a catalytic mashup of more traditional economic development (with funding, policy and leadership) with the community building efforts of grassroots entrepreneurial champions. It draws from many sources and roles, from successful entrepreneurs who want to give back, to coworking space founders who want the best for their clients; from community organizers who want those in their neighborhood to have a better life, to the teachers, city planners, and economic developers who want to contribute, work together and build the best, most authentic community they possibly can.

I joined the team at Forward Cities because it’s one of a handful of organizations that’s not only convinced that ecosystem building is the right approach to developing healthier cities, but also puts equity and inclusion at the heart of those efforts. With the ESHIP Communities initiative, funded by the Kauffman Foundation, we’re working in a handful of regions across the United States to support ecosystem building, prove this approach works, and share the learnings that emerge with others seeking to grow and improve their own local ecosystems.

Four communities: Learning for the long term

I think we’re helping tackle some of the most important challenges that entrepreneurs face across the U.S. – challenges that are particularly pressing in times of hardship. The current economic downturn has further revealed how challenging it is to start and sustain a business, and that more than ever, we need to help entrepreneurs overcome the obstacles they face.

The ESHIP Communities Cross-City Covening

The ESHIP Communities Cross-City Convening, “Resilience in Action,” (held virtually May 15) was the first opportunity to connect ESHIP Communities ecosystem builders working on local projects with their peers in other communities. We heard about the genesis and vision for ESHIP Communities and ecosystem building work from Phillip Gaskin, Kauffman Vice President of Entrepreneurship, and Andy Stoll, Kauffman Senior Program Officer. Forward Cities president Fay Horwitt discussed the ESHIP Communities’ areas of focus and projects before opening the conversation to the entrepreneurship champions across the country on how “ESHIP” is applied in their respective worlds.

For some we work with, the idea of ecosystem building as a field of study has seemed a few steps removed. The people they serve are in crisis, their focus is often addressing immediate and near-term needs. The Cross-City Convening demonstrated the value of being part of a larger network of peer practitioners, as well as having a set of principles that inform and guide this work in general.

In a time when it’s easy to feel isolated, knowing other ecosystem builders are doing similar work and are willing to share and support, makes a difference.

One challenge is that too many entrepreneurs are left on the sidelines, not accessing  the support systems for entrepreneurs. When they see organizations whose representatives don’t look like them, understand their needs or speak the same language, it can make them even more hesitant to get the support they need. In Kansas City, our local director Gabe Muñoz has been working with local providers to build collaborations that address the needs of Spanish-language and immigrant entrepreneurs first.

Some groups and communities have an identity and voice that isn’t yet being seen or heard. In Baltimore we’re working with a local council to amplify the voice of black entrepreneurs and promote it among the leading efforts for Baltimore to claim and make the most of its entrepreneurial roots. The Baltimore Truth Telling Project, produced by ESHIP Baltimore council and COHADO Inc., is sparking much-needed courageous conversations about the past, present, and future of black entrepreneurship. Their ultimate goal is the ongoing cultivation of the creativity, innovation, and leadership of black Baltimore as a model for thriving equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems of the future.

In north central New Mexico we’ve focused on food and agricultural entrepreneurship but working with organizations to reinforce and develop the systems required for regional food and agricultural businesses to grow in an equitable fashion. We’re very aware of the gaps that exist, which make it difficult for entrepreneurs, especially those in the more rural reaches of the region, to access the resources and potential markets of New Mexico’s north central food supply chain. Developing a framework for the various pieces of the food value chain is already a critical part of the work to provide better food security for families in need, while helping keep growers and other food businesses in operation.

Local government isn’t always leading these efforts, but in the City of Long Beach, California, they’re working with us and local service organizations to increase connections and access for their less industrial and developed neighborhoods as well. Work there is concentrating on helping local entrepreneurs assess their needs and navigate the city and other resources available. As more cities adopt and share knowledge on best practices around ecosystem building, many more communities stand to benefit.

These might seem like small steps, but the principles of ecosystem building include the knowledge that it’s a long-term effort, and that the conversations and collaborations we start and develop can have positive effects in the future we might only dream of now. Hearing local champions hone in on addressing their most pressing community needs, glimpsing some of the benefits already, is making the case that ecosystem building works.

Most importantly, ecosystem builders are doing it together. As they take these small but deliberate steps toward a better future, they are doing it alongside their fellow community members and alongside other communities, with the understanding that our interdependence is our greatest strength.


Uncommon Voices columns bring outside perspectives into the the Kauffman Foundation’s coverage of the future of learning, work, and place. If you have an idea for a column, please read the guidelines for contributors.


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