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Why and How do we Scale the Impact of Ecosystem Builders?

Momentum is growing around entrepreneurial ecosystem building.

Around the world, there is a growing number of leaders working at a systems level to remove barriers to entrepreneurship, connect disconnected resources, and cultivate a more supportive environment for the makers, doers, and dreamers. Over more than two decades, these innovators and early adopters of ecosystem building approaches have developed promising ideas, programs, and pathways to foster more innovative, inclusive economies. As a result, there is a growing body of work and an emerging science regarding effective ecosystem building.

But entrepreneurs continue to face significant barriers…

Despite this momentum, data shows entrepreneurship is still on the decline, the wealth gap in our country is widening, and more people are feeling left behind. Ecosystem builders are working to reverse these trends by removing barriers to new and growing ventures, but the most significant challenges to entrepreneurial success are deeply entrenched, especially for entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities. These barriers cannot be completely removed by individuals or even small teams of ecosystem builders. They will require much broader stakeholder engagement and collaboration to unearth completely.

Significant barriers for entrepreneurs:

  • Exclusive and inaccessible networks of fellow entrepreneurs, partners, capital, customers, resources, and mentors to help them grow their ventures.
  • Insufficient entrepreneurial education and support to help with the technical aspects of setting up and growing businesses.
  • An unsupportive culture that discourages risk and creates a difficult environment for new ideas and companies at all stages.
  • Weak talent pipelines for growing businesses and lack of access to adequate talent pools, team building training, and succession planning support.
  • Little voice in policy decisions to help create more conducive environments for entrepreneurial success.

…and ecosystem builders themselves face substantial challenges.

Removing barriers to entrepreneurship often requires ecosystem builders to work long hours on overwhelming to-do lists and engage in proverbial hand-to-hand combat with the status quo in their communities. However, these are not the only challenges they face.

Because ecosystem building is still an emerging approach to economic development, many practitioners are operating without data-driven practices or a support system of peers, resources, and institutional backing. With little public support or understanding, many practitioners are grappling with professional burnout as they work with small budgets and face skepticism of their work.

The most common barrier to ecosystem building identified by both practitioners and national resource providers (NRPs) across the field was the lack of collaboration between emerging ecosystem building approaches and longstanding economic development strategies. In fact, this divide was identified as the biggest threat to the ecosystem building field.

Conversations with ecosystem builders have also yielded a long list of professional supports they need to continue their work and achieve greater success:

  • A roadmap and toolkit (or “app store”) of validated methods and metrics for building thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems and measuring community impact.
  • A strong network of peers and resource providers around the world to share knowledge and support.
  • Training programs to strengthen skills and expertise in supporting entrepreneurs at all stages of business.
  • Support for leading culture change, especially around the transformational work of building more inclusive economies.
  • Resources and strategic partners to scale and expand ecosystem building initiatives to reach more entrepreneurs.

Now is a pivotal moment for ecosystem building.

A professional field for entrepreneurial ecosystem builders has emerged over the past two decades. Now, we are approaching an important window of opportunity – and a chasm. This chasm is well-known in the entrepreneurial world: It is the leap all new ideas must make to reach mainstream adoption and broad impact.36

We believe ecosystem building has reached its adoption chasm because of three dynamics currently at play in the field.

First, more practitioners are adopting ecosystem building across the country. They see entrepreneurial ecosystem building as a road to a more inclusive and resilient local economy.

Second, as adoption of ecosystem building grows, concern among practitioners and other community leaders is mounting. Field-wide consensus has not yet emerged around core aspects of ecosystem building work, including the desired outcomes, key vocabulary definitions, and effective methodologies. The field needs intentional support.

Third, many seasoned ecosystem builders are grappling with high levels of burnout as they work to remove entrenched barriers to entrepreneurship without local support or connections to national resources, peers, and data-driven knowledge bases.

With these dynamics at play, the field is at a pivotal moment: Ecosystem building is poised to become a mainstream approach to economic development, or perhaps fizzle and fade away.

The chasm between early market and mainstream market

The Chasm: The leap all new ideas must make to reach mainstream adoption and broad impact.

Mainstream adoption is mission critical.

Our mission is zero barriers for entrepreneurs everywhere. To realize this mission, we must achieve scale.

We believe ecosystem building is one of the most effective approaches to removing barriers for entrepreneurs because of its focus on inclusion and collaboration. If more practitioners and communities adopt ecosystem building as a key economic development strategy, we can help more entrepreneurs thrive.

Together, we can cross the chasm.

No single individual or organization – including the Kauffman Foundation – can bridge this chasm on its own.

However, as a field, we can. Together, we can answer the most important questions ecosystem building faces, and we can make the core aspects of ecosystem building easier to understand, adopt, support, and execute effectively.

Building the bridge to mainstream adoption.

We need a framework to structure our drive toward mainstream adoption of ecosystem building – a checklist to help us prioritize, organize, and collaborate as we create infrastructure and consensus.

Our community of more than 1,000 entrepreneurial ecosystem builders and the people who support them has contributed to the development of seven ESHIP Goals.

Modeled on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the ESHIP Goals are a set of objectives that we will work together to achieve in order to strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem building field. These goals will guide us to improve the effectiveness of this emerging field as a whole. And our efforts to achieve these goals will strengthen the effectiveness of individual ecosystem builders everywhere.

This work will not be easy…

Achieving the ESHIP Goals, strengthening the field, and positioning ecosystem building for wider adoption is no small task. To accomplish each goal fully, we will need to continue to develop these initiatives and others to ensure that they are sustainable, scalable, customizable, and ultimately, widely adopted across the field.

A mass collaboration around the ESHIP Goals is needed to find solutions to the field’s complex needs. Success will require everyone to contribute, and collaboration is rarely straightforward or easy. Even at this early stage of our field’s development, silos are emerging. Coming together to build consensus and position ecosystem building for mainstream adoption will require personal and professional soul-searching. To achieve our goals, we’ll need to connect our early work and reconcile our distinct understandings of ecosystem building and how to do it well.

Ultimately, it is this collaborative effort toward achieving the ESHIP Goals that will allow us to build the necessary networks and culture we need to accelerate our collective work.

In short, none of us is as powerful individually as all of us are collectively.

But our success could change the world.

If we can come together to connect our ideas and work, we will establish the core aspects of our profession and fortify our field. We will build a bridge for ecosystem building to cross its adoption chasm, and prepare the approach to be an accessible path of transformational change for communities of all sizes, demographics, and geographies.

Our work to strengthen the ecosystem building field can change the lives of entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders everywhere, enhancing their communities, and collectively making the world a more inclusive place.