Ecosystem builders

A science is starting to form around the concept of ecosystem building

I recently experienced an important revelation: I am an ecosystem builder. Many people have been performing this unique role for years, although these professionals have had no cohesive identity.

This gap in identity is starting to change. A new multidisciplinary profession is emerging for individuals dedicated to creating networks and fostering entrepreneurial activity within communities.

Entrepreneurial ecosystem builders spend their days strengthening relationships, connecting resources, sharing news, solving problems, seeing possibilities, forecasting the future, removing impediments and paving the way for entrepreneurial success.

There is no degree program or set career path that primes an individual for this challenging role. Rather, ecosystem builders wear many hats and draw upon a wide array of talents, skillsets and experiences. The key to ecosystem builder success is being relentless and resilient.

Creating the playbook

Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City, Missouri, is a leading entrepreneurship funder and research generator. Kauffman firmly believes that ecosystem building is a field on the rise and asserts that its practitioners “focus on building consistent, collaborative human engagement.” They “are creating an invisible infrastructure in their communities to support entrepreneurs.”

Kauffman Foundation is determined to provide fertile ground for exploring the important questions related to ecosystem building and is creating a playbook that will guide change makers. In June 2017, Kauffman hosted the first-ever Entrepreneurship Summit uniting more than 400 ecosystem builders from 48 states and 10 countries for three days in Kansas City to develop deeper understanding of what it means to be an ecosystem builder.

The outcomes from this dynamic gathering include the kernels of a community of practice among ecosystem builders aimed at codifying the work, collecting case studies and developing a science around the craft of ecosystem building.

In it for the long haul

Northeast Ohio was well represented at the Summit including Cathy Belk, president of JumpStart Inc., who reflected on the experience with these observations: “Embracing the term ‘ecosystem builder’ helps give shape to work that can be very nebulous. However, any time you accept a label, it can also be overly restrictive. Thankfully, I came away from the Summit feeling very much the opposite. The way the Kauffman Foundation led the Summit — avoiding typical panels in favor of PechaKucha style talks, active work sessions and creative ways to connect to each other — really helped unleash a spirit of creativity and innovative thinking. It has already helped me think more deeply and broadly about the work I do every day.”

One message that resonated throughout the Summit was the fundamental truth that successful ecosystems are wildly inclusive and nurture “a culture of invitation,” encouraging all to join and contribute. To achieve these lofty goals, ecosystem builders must commit for the long haul —experimenting, failing, regrouping, and persisting until culture shifts and the ecosystem is fully energized to grow and morph over time.

Northeast Ohio’s ecosystem builders are working all around us and we should applaud them as they forge relationships, convene partners and elevate their communities to take on the bold challenges that will shape the future of our region.

Deborah D. Hoover is committed to building the capacity of Northeast Ohio’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.