Building Innovation Ecosystems — Highlights from the Startup Champions Spring Summit
In mid-February I spent a week in Tampa, Florida, to meet with close to 40 ecosystem builders from around the US. As part of the Startup Champions Network, we join forces twice a year to meet up and discuss best practices, every day struggles and approaches to doing a better job of building innovation ecosystems.
What is an Innovation Ecosystem Builder?
The defining characteristic of innovation ecosystem builders is their long-term and system-wide approach to fostering entrepreneurship and innovation in their region or community.
They typically work in a recognized or professional capacity to build the innovation ecosystem in their communities including:
- Leading recognized startup ecosystem building initiatives
- Running entrepreneurial centers and coworking spaces
- Managing accelerators, incubators or startup school programs
- Serving in professional economic development or government roles
- Are investors and serial entrepreneurs investing in building their local ecosystem
This Summit is by far my favorite conference of any type. Every attendee clears their schedule for anywhere from three to five days to learn from one another and — to be honest- perform a little sanity check. Not all of our 80 members attend each Summit — they run companies and accelerators and launch coworking spaces — but everyone who IS at the Summit is deeply invested in the program, the members and in sharing their experiences, networks and resources. Champions arrive from all over the country not to stay in swanky hotels or enjoy fancy meals on their company’s dime. We share AirBnB sofas, we arrive a day early to be able to catch up with our working groups, stay a day longer to plan the next six months ahead. We talk strategy and ecosystem building over breakfast, lunch and dinner. It gets to the point where I have to actively remind myself to have some personal conversations; make an effort to get to know the person next to me instead of just grilling them on their approaches to fundraising, storytelling and working with local governments (sorry Dwayne!). As opposed to many conferences I have been to, we self-organize everything from workshop sessions and content to accommodation and transport.
Working within a network of such committed, self-driven change makers who are able to look at the big picture of ecosystem building is the most valuable and energizing experience I could ask for.
Women as Innovation Ecosystem Builders
I wouldn’t call myself a feminist; I go through life expecting to be treated equal to anyone else and that’s that. During a women-only breakfast, however, I found myself questioning my carefree assumptions. I was baffled to learn how little some of us earned, I couldn’t believe some of the stories I heard about open and subtle discrimination, about fighting for a seat at the table. How is that even still a thing? In the world of otherwise forward-thinking innovation? I have always admired every single one of these women from a distance assuming they were ruling the world around them. Naturally! They are confident, they know what they’re doing and they do it well; and yet, they fight battles to get paid equally to their male counterparts? I can’t think of a single instance in which I felt discriminated against for being female. Is it possible that these biases are so implicit and subtle that it has made me oblivious? I have a lot more homework to do on this.
One working group within the network is our diligent task force collecting ecosystem health metrics from each ecosystem. We launched our first round of data collection in September 2016 and let me tell you, it’s not much fun. Seeing the results of our hard work, on the other hand, was exciting! The team had compiled metrics that cover most of the ecosystems represented by Startup Champions and I realized how well organized some cities and regions are in terms of knowing who is raising capital, who has successfully raised how much over the last twelve months, and so on… So, if you are a Richmond-based founder, investor, mentor, incubator or accelerator, you will hear from me in the fall to start compiling our data!
Good thing Richmonders are generous about coffee time!
Working with Local and Regional Governments
One thing that has stood out since my first is the level of collaboration between ecosystem builders and their Economic Development Authorities (EDA). Some members have contracts with their EDAs to use startup entrepreneurship to revitalize communities and spur economic development. I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t even know what our EDA’s priorities are for this year and how we as startup supporters can help drive their agenda. Other ecosystem builders work with their local Chamber of Commerce and the Mayor’s Office to solve public issues through innovation. None of these public actors ever occurred to me as playing a role in the work we do. But even Tampa’s mayor, Bob Buckhorn, seemed to embrace startups as a key resource to build an innovative city fit for the future. Even the mayor of neighboring St Petersburg, Rick Kriseman, chimed in: “We are working as a city to catch up with the 21st century! That means promoting what local entrepreneurs are doing so that talent and investors from other states see what is possible in Florida!” The fact that both mayors took the time to talk to us impressed me. I am excited to see how Richmond’s new mayor Levar Stoney and his administration leverage our startup scene to innovate community well-being!
We spent three days working on issues of diversity and inclusion, marketing ecosystems, engaging corporate partners, building volunteer armies, funding ecosystem development and and and… When I returned from Tampa, I put all of my notes and great ideas aside for a week and ignored them. I was nothing short of overwhelmed with all the opportunities I saw for our city. I am slowly pulling them out again one by one.
Two things I took away from the Summit overall are the need to stay critical with ourselves and the importance of relationship-building. We can be quick to judge our ecosystem based on the shortcomings we see and struggles we encounter on a daily basis. Stepping out of my daily grind for a week gave me a fresh perspective of our local landscape. It reminded me to stay self-critical and question my assumptions. I had begun to take certain people for granted, thought I knew who the players were and what agendas they are pursuing. Turns out pulling your head out of the sand every now and then allows you to view your ecosystem with a fresh set of eyes. I am re-evaluating people and organizations in an effort to expand my view and explore new paths.
While I was overwhelmed with all we could do, I have also come to see that this is not my job alone. In fact, that would be presumptuous. Nobody knows better what our ecosystem looks like than our founders themselves, their mentors, investors and peers.
More and more I believe that our role as ecosystem builders is to facilitate dialogue, stay self-critical and find ways to support other actors in the space to do their job well.
That means reaching out to all the relevant players and starting to build relationships with them based on a genuine interest in what they are trying to achieve. I have a hunch that the different missions are more aligned than we assume right now. I see our role as one that constantly reassesses what local founders, investors, mentors and other support organizations need to build a thriving and healthy innovation ecosystem.