The secret sauce in building thriving ecosystems.
I was utterly and absolutely unprepared when fellow Startup Champion Bill Kenney asked me how Toronto was.
You see, these guys have known me for four years. They knew me back when I was a giddy first-time Summit attendee in Santa Barbara; they knew me as Anika who launches early-stage startup programs, hosts conferences, burns for ecosystem building and happily exhausts herself in the process.
The Anika that showed up in Portland scrambled for an answer to what her new hometown was like. “Erm… huh… it’s… you know… it’s… growing on me?”
If you have followed my journey over the last year, you know that my husband took a job at York University and while I wasn’t necessarily thrilled to be leaving my beloved hometown of four years — Richmond, VA — I was willing to embrace this adventure and give it a shot. After all, I had moved country 13 times, surely this was going to work out just fine.
We’re ten months in. And I’m not sure I’m in the right place. But I also know that it’s a matter of perception and the only person who can make it the right place is myself.
Let me fill you in:
I moved to Richmond, VA, in the summer of 2015 with very little expectation about what I would find in terms of people and career prospects. What I did find — or what found me — were two exceptional, we’re talking one-of-a-kind-never-seen-before ecosystem builders who welcomed me with open arms and a clear message.
Welcome to Richmond! We’re so glad you’re here! We have a lot of work to do, better roll up your sleeves!
Why Larkin Garbee and Todd Nuckols did this, I will never fully understand. I was the new kid in town and a total stranger to them. Yet, they gave me an advance in trust; and that put me on a track that allowed me strive far and wide. To find my place in Richmond’s startup community.
Fast forward to March 2019: I am sitting in the back room of Wacom Experience Center in Portland, OR, for the 2019 Spring Summit of Startup Champions Network. In a group of 15, we are discussing the importance of people and their well-being in ecosystem building.
And it finally hits me.
I wasn’t only accepted in Richmond’s startup community. Todd and Larkin helped me get connected. I received some of the most generous and kind introductions to universities, VC funds and other support organizations during that time. Todd invited me to join him as his sidekick at the Global Accelerator Network meeting in New York City a few weeks later. Not only did they help me get connected, but they helped me engage. And by inviting me to jump in and help out with whatever they were working on, they made me feel like I belonged.
It made all the difference.
With that advance in trust, we launched programs together (Unreasonable Lab VA, Co.Starters RVA), hosted countless events, mentored and accelerated high-growth startups, ran circles around each other and burned for the same passion: to help entrepreneurs in our community succeed. And at the end of the month, we would collapse breathless on the sofa of ecosystem building with a high-five and exclaim “That was awesome! What are we doing next?”
Moving to Toronto, my experience has been different. From the first time my husband and I discussed such a move, I knew it would mean stepping onto a much larger and busier stage. What I wasn’t prepared for was what it would take to belong once again. I scheduled coffee meetings with over 30 professionals in Toronto’s social impact space. Some of them helped me get connected (thank you Alex Kjorven, Andrew Simpson, Marjorie Brans, Yassaman Nouri & Halyna Zalucky); a few of them even invited me to get engaged (thank you again Halyna, and Shelley Mayer) and I blame no-one but myself for not jumping at these opportunities. They simply didn’t feel right at the time and if I show up for something you invite me to, you better believe I want to be 100% in!
What took me by surprise was that a number of people — who I had considered ecosystem builders — from the same high-profile organization here in Toronto turned me down for meetings. What sets ecosystem builders apart from other actors in the startup community is their willingness to guide and provide on-ramps for people who are new and willing to roll up their sleeves. And the network of those people that I found is a lot less dense than I thought it would be.
It feels lonely to not belong. I constantly wonder whether this last move was one too many; whether at 33 I have exhausted my ability to adapt and fit in, re-orient and start over. It used to come easy to me. Whether I was starting a new job in a new city, moving countries for an internship, volunteering gig or traveling — belonging always seemed to be a fantastic by-product that didn’t require much thought. I thought I naturally ended up surrounded by inspiring people who love to think outside the box, who love to DO, who are naive and courageous enough to want to change the world together. From Thailand to France to Australia to Richmond — I always assumed that was just what everyone did. Moving to Toronto, naturally, I expected to trip over them at every street corner. I was prepared to be the least interesting and least smart person in the room, and I was excited about it.
And this is where I need a critical self-check:
Maybe I wasn’t looking in quite the right places. I will expand my conversations to startups, co-working spaces and other actors in the general startup community.
It’s absolutely possible that I am simply spoiled by my previous experiences (thanks Richmond!). Ecosystem builders are busy and I will continue to reach out and show up at events.
If I want people to do stuff with me, maybe I have to be the initiator.
Lastly, my perceived lack of enthusiasm is certainly impacted by my frequent travel and schedule as a working parent. The week only has so many hours
I am not going to sit in my mopy corner complaining that things here aren’t going as expected. I am committed to pick the thread back up once my US/Europe ecosystem tour wraps up in late May. And I look forward to taking another deep dive into the Toronto ecosystem for social change, and to cultivating a community of unreasonable people.
*The idea of Connect. Engage. Belong was put forward by Cecilia Wessinger; I want to give credit and thanks for the insight!