Becoming a Startup Champion

In January, I received an email invite to join the first Startup Champions Network Summit in Santa Barbara, California. Totally unprompted. I visited their website and my excitement rose with every line I read! A national network of innovation ecosystem builders. And related support organizations. Working with startups. Connect and collaborate. Had I just stumbled upon a tribe of people — or the tribe upon me — that are driven by the same desire to build a network to enable and empower startup entrepreneurs?

I took off four weeks later for a five-day summit on the West Coast with my friend Larkin (who had secretly nominated me so that mystery was resolved). When we joined the group for dinner on the first night, I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited to meet these 50 people from over 20 different states to talk shop and, for once, not be the weirdo at the table. The program was packed and promising: From 9 am to 10 pm we met the network’s founding members, learned about its vision, shared our insights on impact assessment, building mentor relations and working with angel investors, and so on. We took startup and impact tours, met local social and tech entrepreneurs, we visited Patagonia headquarters and local coworking spaces. Larkin and I couldn’t stop talking about what was possible, about what we envisioned, and who to engage for what — while brushing our teeth, over morning coffee, while laying in bed at night talking across the hall. For five days, we dreamed big and soaked up ideas to bring back to Richmond.

Building Innovation Ecosystems

Over the course of the five days I learned that Startup Champions is a group of professionals who wear more than one hat: The hat of someone who runs an accelerator program, entrepreneurship center, incubator, a coworking space, someone who works as an advocate for startup entrepreneurship on Capitol Hill (yes such marvelous people exist!); the hat of someone who works in economic development, are investors or serial entrepreneurs. Their common denominator: the active pursuit of building ecosystems for innovation and entrepreneurship. What’s that all about you ask? It means that instead of being focused on running their program only, ecosystem builders look at the bigger picture of what it takes to spur innovation and startup entrepreneurship in their communities: networks, resources and collaboration. What I enjoyed the most was being in a room with people who had embraced the idea that none of this was about themselves, that we were working towards a greater good. More than once while I worked on Social Venturers I had to overcome the misconception that I wanted to steal good ideas and practices for my personal benefit. Some support organizations compete for funding, applicants, visibility — non- and for-profit alike. But instead of each fighting for their piece of the pie, I am in favor of sharing our knowledge and insights to make the pie bigger as a whole. Startup Champions are all about that. I had found my tribe!

Larkin Garbee and Andy Stoll introducing Startup Champions Network

Being Good at Building Ecosystems

The idea of building startup ecosystems is abstract and elusive at times. I found that everybody at the summit shared the attitude that we can’t go far by going alone. The idea of building ecosystems — and being good at it — is to stand back from your day-time role and look at the bigger picture. It’s all about inviting other people in rather than being territorial. This is not to say that we all should start collaborating with anyone around us — we would probably run out of steam and debilitate our efforts — but we need to find people who share the same vision and are willing to bring their resources to the table, without expecting some tangible return. The value of an ecosystem is defined by the mutual benefit that all members derive from participating. Making the pie bigger. Easier said than done. It takes emotional intelligence to build meaningful and trusting relationships with other actors in your ecosystem. You need to be “out there” and hustle, meet with relevant stakeholders and engage them to come on board of your efforts. Most importantly, hold yourself accountable. If it’s best for your ecosystem, would you fire yourself?

Don’t apologize for not being Silicon Valley

My greatest take-away from these five days was the size and origin of the ecosystems people represented. I was absolutely amazed to see what Enoch had created in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Amanda and Andy in Iowa City, Iowa, or Trey in Dallas, Texas. With Social Venturers I have visited and researched support organizations in some of Europe’s, Australia’s and the US’s largest and supposedly most progressive cities. Over the course of my research, I realized that London, Amsterdam, Melbourne, New York don’t need another support organization for social entrepreneurs. The market is saturated. But I developed an inkling that mid-tier cities like Baltimore (US), Manchester (UK) or Magdeburg (Germany) in particular can leverage (social) entrepreneurship to revitalize communities and drive their economic development. These startup champions showed some impressive examples of what that may look like, and they are good at it! The more I thought about it, the more I realized that mid-tier cities are better suited to build effective ecosystems thanks to their size and heightened sense for community. In Richmond, the ecosystem is diverse and anchored in different institutions but no one is ever more than a phone call or coffee away. What’s more, the effects of healthy communities and ecosystem building are directly visible in a city that is not anonymous. In that sense, and any other sense, building ecosystems that are not Silicon Valley is a competitive advantage.

Late night panel on ecosystem building

Entrepreneurship ecosystems in mid-tier cities

Let’s take Richmond as an example because I live here and love this city. My assumptions are equally applicable to places like Charlottesville, Raleigh or Roanoke; and that’s for Virginia alone. I learned that we will do our best if we build upon our unique advantage. As Meryl Streep put it “What makes you different or weird, that’s your strength”. Yes, I just quoted Meryl Streep to get my ecosystem-builder-argument across. You’re welcome. I have a hunch that for Richmond, that weirdness-factor lies in inequality, the creatives and our maker-attitude. We have a lot of ground to make up in terms of inclusion, addressing racial discrimination and lifting low-income communities out of poverty. At the same time, we have a strong industry of creatives and locally made and craft goods. Just think of RVA Makerfest, our craft breweries, Eastern Land Collective; we even have a local craft chocolate brand! Open GRID Magazine on any given page to understand what’s unique about Richmond.

While other mid-tier cities are trying to become the next Palo Alto, or Austin, or Nashville, how about we just concentrate on becoming us? Let’s build on our strengths and leverage what we are really good at. We have some incredible long-established and newly evolving actors and networks full of people who care about one thing: Making Richmond an amazing place to live.