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Building a Cross-Sector Regional Coalition to Strengthen Ecosystem Collaboration

Ecosystems in Action: Practices from the Field

Key Practice

Woman in the middle of a conversation with a group
Photo credit: Forge North | Flickr

This brief outlines an example of the practice of building a cross-sector regional coalition to strengthen entrepreneurial ecosystem collaboration. Coalition building is defined as bringing together “a group of individuals and/or organizations with a common interest who agree to work together toward a common goal,” and has emerged as a key practice within the diverse toolkit of entrepreneurial ecosystem building. When focused in a specific region, coalition building can help bring together disconnected and diverse stakeholders who are committed to the economic vibrancy of a common place to find a common purpose.

About This Brief

This brief focuses on the Forge North story, which traces the first six years of a grassroots effort to create and sustain a regional cross-sector coalition. Forge North grew from a humble start as a group of individuals who wanted to address barriers to entrepreneurship in Minneapolis-Saint Paul and eventually became Forge North, an entrepreneurial ecosystem-building coalition and a key player in regional economic development in the Twin Cities region. This brief tells the story of how this coalition with the common goal of supporting the entrepreneurial community worked together to build trust, increase collaboration between public and private sector institutions, and focus on equity and inclusion to help accelerate equitable economic development in the Twin Cities.

Some noteworthy aspects of Forge North’s approach to coalition building:

  • Using a community-driven approach and committing to shared leadership helped Forge North understand the needs of entrepreneurs and other stakeholders in the ecosystem and modeled the values of community vision and participation that lie at the heart of ecosystem building.
  • Cultivating the ability to move from an overly competitive environment to a collaborative climate by setting shared goals and addressing shared challenges. This created a foundation for longer-term collaboration and trust building – an important cultural driver of a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem.
  • Taking a data-driven approach by conducting a regional study to understand the gaps in the ecosystem, and then using those insights to build accountability by establishing measurable and impactful goals for the community to work toward.
  • Leveraging existing resources and creating a partnership with the Greater Minneapolis-Saint Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership (GREATER MSP), which is a primary economic development driver for the region. This alliance allowed Forge North to develop an influential position for entrepreneurial ecosystem building within the broader economic development efforts of the region and set itself up for long-term influence.
WATCH: “Forge North | Working Together” 1:50

We didn’t design Forge North to be a new organization or new program. We created it to get things done together.

— Maria Ploessl
Forge North Coalition Member and Minnestar Executive Director

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Assembling the Network

The Greater Minneapolis-Saint Paul region (MSP) boasts a long history of starting and scaling large companies, including 50 corporations that have made the Fortune 500 list. Today, the region is home to 16 Fortune 500 headquarters and dozens of other large public and private companies, including Best Buy, Target, 3M, and UnitedHealth Group.

What are our on-ramps? How do we get connected? If we don’t have a thriving startup community, how do we support entrepreneurs and attract and retain them? How can we show up in the community in a more cohesive, sustained fashion?

— Meg Steuer
Director of Platform, Forge North

However, in recent years the region found itself lagging in the creation of new businesses. By many measures, startup activity and venture investment had declined. Yet, following the Great Recession there were new signs of a re-emerging entrepreneurial swell in MSP. The introduction of Twin Cities Startup Week, a free weeklong celebration featuring hundreds of events and meetups, helped reveal how many new firms, organizations, and community groups had begun to emerge across MSP.

“Entrepreneurs and community builders often have their heads down in their own work,” says Meg Steuer, who moved to MSP after receiving her MBA while working at a Small Business Development Center at Minnesota State University, Mankato. “Twin Cities Startup Week provided people with an opportunity to peek their head out and collaborate with others. Eventually, people started to ask why we weren’t collaborating during the other 51 weeks of the year.”

That started to change in 2016, when a group of community leaders and entrepreneurs set out to collaborate more intentionally for the benefit of the broader ecosystem. The region’s startup activity was starting to experience an uptick, and it made more people wonder what the best version of the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem might look like.

“We started asking things like, ‘What are our on-ramps? How do we get connected? If we don’t have a thriving startup community, how do we support entrepreneurs and attract and retain them? How can we show up in the community in a more cohesive, sustained fashion?’” Steuer says. “And that’s really where the wheels started to turn.”

Commissioning a Study and Securing Funding

To understand where the ecosystem was presently and how it could improve, the network turned to entrepreneurs for their perspectives. With support from economic development organization GREATER MSP, local startup accelerator BETA commissioned an “Entrepreneurial Temperature Check.” The survey included more than 250 company founders and a variety of partners in the Twin Cities Startup Week network, which is also organized by BETA.

We weren’t looking to just build a better fund or another accelerator. We were examining data for opportunities to address unique systemic gaps that no single organization could solve alone.

— Meg Steuer
Director of Platform, Forge North

The data helped the partners understand the perceptions of people who were starting and leading early-stage ventures across a variety of industries – including their views on the region’s strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for growth.

“That survey provided a foundation for what became Forge North,” says Steuer. “Each individual organization was able to draw insight for its own programming, but as a group we weren’t looking to just build a better fund or another accelerator. We were examining the data for opportunities to address unique systemic gaps that no single organization could solve alone.”

Next, based on insights from the study, the network formed a small team to better understand and address the challenges and barriers identified in the study. They mapped the broader ecosystem and began to recruit other entrepreneurs, investors, corporate innovators, and leaders of entrepreneurial support organizations into the fold. All told, about 30 individuals joined to guide the work forward.

The team then set out to obtain a key element for any initiative, funding. The survey results were key in this effort – they not only gave insight into the community’s entrepreneurial situation, but also legitimized the coalition and provided the catalyst for this unlikely alliance to form and focus. This alliance drew the interest and support of the Saint Paul-based Bush Foundation, which had experience researching and funding ecosystem-building efforts, including entrepreneurial ecosystems. They awarded the team $100,000 to begin addressing the survey insights with the growing coalition and to explore the potential of ecosystem building in the region.

Building a Brand and Focus Areas

With a growing network of partners, direction from local entrepreneurs, and an initial set of resources, the fledgling coalition was starting to move. The group was struggling, however, to define itself amidst so many opportunities for the region to grow. It needed to communicate its higher purpose and provide clarity to other potential partners.

Team members worked with a local agency to help them effectively capture the unique identity of Minneapolis-Saint Paul’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and this coalition’s hopes for the future of that ecosystem. Together, they created the brand of “Forge North” as a rallying cry and unifying platform that could unite thousands of people and firms across the region.

The newly branded coalition then created the “Compass Team” (a leadership team consisting of a dozen coalition partners) that examined a dozen potential areas of focus, from the creation of a physical hub in the region, to ways to increase corporate engagement in the local community. The Compass Team trimmed that list to four key areas and got started with specific projects in 2019 that would help partners better promote the region, connect its existing assets, measure entrepreneurial outcomes, and establish shared community goals.

Integrating with GREATER MSP

As Forge North coalition partners continued their work, they also met a stark realization. For the effort to achieve its potential, it would need more than a single foundation grant. Compass Team members began to explore the potential of either creating a new standalone organization that could power the coalition or aligning with an existing entity.

Team members investigated several options, from establishment of a 501(c)(3) non-profit to potential partnerships with local chambers of commerce, trade associations, or community foundations. However, one option rose to the top – longer-term alignment with the GREATER MSP Partnership, already acting as the coalition’s near-term fiscal agent.

GREATER MSP had been created just a few years prior by local business leaders, elected officials, and executives in higher education and philanthropy in order to provide the MSP region with an Accredited Economic Development Organization that could unite the broader metropolitan area. Entrepreneurship was intentionally not in scope for GREATER MSP during its first five years, but the creation of a new regional economic development strategy provided an opportunity to include entrepreneurship in its new strategic plan.

While founders had some reservations about embedding this entrepreneurial effort within an entity led by institutional leaders, Compass Team members were more concerned about spending considerable time and resources standing up yet another new organization. Instead, GREATER MSP could provide backbone operational support that would enable the coalition to simply focus on advancing the entrepreneurial ecosystem. GREATER MSP was also introducing a new model wherein groups aligned with the region’s economic development strategy could retain their independence through the leadership of a distinct executive council.

In summer 2019, Forge North launched as an official initiative of the GREATER MSP Partnership.

Forming the Leadership Council

Forge North Leadership Council
Forge North Leadership Council

Forge North Leadership Council
Forge North Leadership Council

With the transition to GREATER MSP, the Forge North coalition would receive new backbone operations, research, marketing, and finance support from the economic development organization. But in order to maintain its community-led approach, a new 13-member Leadership Council was formed to steer the effort.

Key Roles

The follow are key roles that make up the core structure of Forge North:

  • Leadership Council: The 13-member volunteer council provides strategic guidance, leadership on specific projects, and hosts peer learning groups.
  • Paid staff: Two full-time and one part-time staff run the day-to-day programs and operations. These positions include a managing director, a program manager, and a director of strategic initiatives.
  • Greater MSP: The parent organization provides in-kind support, as needed, for marketing, accounting, research, and operations.

The council was charged with establishing Forge North’s goals and direction, growing its coalition, and making key decisions with support from dedicated staff members at GREATER MSP. The council was built to include representation from key stakeholder groups across the entrepreneurial ecosystem, including founders, investors, corporate executives, and leaders of entrepreneurial support organizations. The council was assembled with multiple variables in mind, including the diversity of the region’s people as well as the diversity of its industry sectors.

Council members make annual commitments to the effort, with up to three years served on the council, while simultaneously working to engage other coalition members – and in some cases lead groups of peers. They convene every other month to chart the coalition’s direction and make decisions that will help the coalition meet its three-year goals, set strategic priorities, and develop annual action plans. Formal votes are also taken to amend the Council charter or add new members. Council members regularly step back and allow other coalition members to tag into new leadership roles.

Steuer says she felt it was crucial that this group represent the broader community and not just founding participants in the coalition. “We made that process open – anyone could apply to join the Leadership Council. We were very intentional and strategic in how we built out that group, and I think that’s one of the things I’m proudest of,” she says.

Setting Goals and Tracking Progress

Upon the launch of Forge North as an initiative of GREATER MSP, the partners announced a 10-year ambition – or, using the local business community’s terminology, its Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG): “By 2030, Minneapolis-Saint Paul will be the best place for people from all backgrounds to start and scale ventures that build wealth by solving global challenges.”

With this north star, the newly formed Leadership Council set about establishing the coalition’s first set of multi-year goals. Council members hosted several community engagement and input sessions, commissioned a regional survey, and worked with researchers to establish three primary goals that could focus the coalition over its first three years:

➔ Early-Stage Capital: By 2023, we will double the number of local ventures that report raising an early-stage round of capital each year.

Access to capital is a barrier for entrepreneurs in almost any community. However, rather than setting a goal for the total amount of capital raised, coalition partners chose to focus on how they might get more first checks in the hands of more entrepreneurs, knowing that many will go on to grow later.

➔ Enterprise Participation: By 2023, 100% of the $1 billion-plus businesses headquartered in MSP will be making significant contributions to the local startup community.

This goal plays on a major regional asset – the 50+ billion-dollar companies already headquartered in Forge North’s backyard. This enormously high concentration of companies could serve as more intentional investors, customers, and champions of local startup ventures. Audits reveal how these firms are engaging today and where else they are motivated to lean in.

“We are currently benchmarking to determine what is ‘meaningful and significant’ – is it a monetary figure we set? Is it something else?” Steuer says. “We’re using a student team from the University of Minnesota to help us audit all of the $1 billion-plus companies to learn more.”

➔ Racial Equity: By 2023, we will see leaders with an equity stake in local ventures reflect the region’s populations of people of color and Black and Indigenous people.

This goal reflects the region’s pronounced racial disparities in all areas, including business ownership. While disaggregated data for racial diversity within the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has been lacking, Forge North partners are working intentionally to track who entrepreneurial programs are serving in order to better support and grow new ventures led by communities of color, while also supporting the programs that are best equipped to engage with entrepreneurs in these communities.

In addition to these goals, Forge North partners continue to track additional metrics from a variety of sources. Examples include:

  • Perceptions of the region among key actors including entrepreneurs and investors.
  • Diversity of startup ventures raising venture capital.
  • Number of active resources in the “MSP Startup Compass,” a digital tool that helps people navigate the region’s 500+ entrepreneurial support resources.

Designing for Equity and Inclusion

The explicit focus on racial equity deserves greater attention. The coalition’s long-term ambition is to be the best place for people from every background to start and scale ventures. However, when the council examined economic outcomes in the MSP region, the disparities within and across specific communities of Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous people stood out. The council made the decision to prioritize a racial equity lens in its work, meaning all aspects of their work would need to prioritize impact in communities of color.

“Our goal is that ownership rates mirror our populations. We are no longer setting the goal to pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘Oh, good for us – we doubled the number of people of color who are in accelerator programs from 4% to 8%!’” Steuer says. “When in reality, people of color represent 30% of our population. So the Leadership Council stepped up and led hard conversations and set out to establish big, ambitious goals, not incremental goals. The key component of this for us has been intentionality and a commitment to not moving forward or making decisions without a diverse group of people to do so.”

While Forge North coalition members started by shaping a racial equity pledge for the entrepreneurial ecosystem and investing in training and resources to help smaller organizations take action, the key test will be how partners can leverage the Forge North platform in the coming months and years to direct more investors, customers, strategic partners, and additional support to firms led by people of color.

Nurturing Peer Learning and Support

In addition to powering action-oriented teams of partners that design and execute projects, Forge North serves as a regional platform for peer groups to form and grow. For example:

  • The Minnesota Investors network enables the region’s growing network of venture capital groups to regularly convene, share deal flow, and design projects to engage the broader community. Two of the group’s three chairs and roughly half of its 25+ participants represent firms that are new to the region in the past 10 years.
  • The Entrepreneurial Support network includes a group of more than two dozen incubator and accelerator leaders that meet weekly to build trust across their communities, share best practices, and explore emerging opportunities to better serve entrepreneurs. The strength of the network proved critical during a tumultuous 2020.
  • The Minnesota FinTech Collective includes leaders at many of the region’s leading financial services institutions such as U.S. Bank and Allianz Life, all working together to grow the local FinTech sector. It is one among many subcommunities in a broader network of corporate innovation practitioners.
  • The Launch Minnesota network is a statewide network coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development through its “Launch Minnesota” startup initiative. Forge North serves as a metro regional hub in the statewide network, connecting a specific group of Launch Minnesota grantees in the MSP region.

Strengthening Collaboration

As Steuer looks back on the work of the Forge North coalition, she notes the initiative’s impact in creating greater trust, collaboration and connectivity across the region.

“We’re doing things today that would have been impossible three years ago,” Steuer said. “Beyond the actions we’re taking together, we’re seeing the culture change. People are more likely to ask, ‘How might we do this together?’ or ‘How do we grow the overall pie so we all benefit?’ That was not a conversation before, and I think it’s a sign of the progress we’re making.”

Steuer cites multiple projects that Forge North partners are spearheading, like a venture capital firm campaigning for more investors to check out other local funds, or a local accelerator advocating for sponsors to also support its peers. Increasingly, more unlikely alliances are forming through relationships built at the tables powered by Forge North.

What’s Next?

At the end of the day, we’re not just looking to grow our coalition. We are building community to make greater impact. That’s what this is really all about.

— Meg Steuer
Director of Platform, Forge North

Forge North has made major strides from informal conversations over beer and chicken wings to a formal coalition with more than 100 members, many of whom have already launched new funds, programs, and events directly inspired by the initiative’s stated goals.

Forge North’s grassroots origin story gives its leaders energy and enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the tougher work is still ahead. Now, partners need to make use of this platform to accomplish major outcomes. For example, a group of partners are launching a statewide campaign to more than double the number of Minnesotans who are actively participating as angel investors.

In her new role as Director of Platform, Steuer is focused on realizing how Forge North can most effectively empower partners to contribute ideas and bring them to life together.

“At the end of the day, we’re not just looking to grow our coalition. We are building community to make greater impact. That’s what this is really all about.”


Forge North offers these recommendations for establishing a regional coalition:

  • Include entrepreneurs of all types and at all stages in the process to ensure their needs are kept front and center and are represented in – or at the heart of – your efforts.
  • If you are leading a coalition, understand your role is not to dictate the direction but to help ensure partners can find that direction together.
  • Remember that trust building takes time. Establishing a shared vision and purpose can help. Along the way, set realistic expectations of progress and structure your work based on meeting people where they are at.
  • Understand the culture of your community and ensure that different people have opportunities to contribute in different ways. For example, a decision-making body is necessary, but there should be mechanisms to help others plug in and feel welcome.
  • Clear goals can help you find direction amidst unlimited ideas and opportunities. Start with your “why” before you jump into the “what”.
  • It’s important to build a team with a range of expertise in specific domains, such as: investment and capital, racial equity, entrepreneurial/startup development, economic policy, and corporate innovation and management.
  • Certain skills may be known as “soft,” – such as the ability to navigate ambiguity, build trust, and create a culture of openness, humility, and curiosity – but are critically important.


Other resources on building effective and inclusive ecosystems:

Ecosystems in Action: Practices from the Field

Ecosystems in Action: Practices from the Field

The Ecosystem in Action briefs share practical and instructional examples of entrepreneurial ecosystem building. The series is designed for and informed by practitioners, to help one another build skills and add ideas and tools to their ecosystem building repertoire.