Set the Table: Why Ecosystem Building, and Why Now?

[Dispatches from the ESHIP Summit Community Team]

Amanda West
Feb 14, 2018 · 5 min read

In June 2017, 450 entrepreneurial ecosystem builders gathered in Kansas City for the first ESHIP Summit, a three-day conference convened by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and 54 national partners.

The goal: Advance the work of community leaders who focus on a collaborative and systematic approach to fostering more entrepreneurial starts and success in their area (or industry).

On the last day of the Summit, the event participants formed small groups around 12 common challenges in entrepreneurial ecosystem building and developed initial concepts for new tools, trainings, and shared understanding to help each other be more effective in their work. A summary of their collective work is available here.

The following post summarizes the specific group discussions about how to best explain why entrepreneurial ecosystem building has emerged as an important approach to economic development.

Entrepreneurial ecosystem building is an emerging field at the convergence of two complex activities: economic development and cultural transformation.

In many ways, it may feel like a sharp departure from the conventional
wisdom, cultural norms, and strategies for success of the Industrial Era.

For some this is an exciting new way forward, and for others, a daunting shift away from the system they know and count on. One of our jobs as ecosystem builders is to clearly explain why ecosystem building is an important approach to economic development in a way that calms the natural fears of change and invites everyone to join in.

At the ESHIP Summit in June 2017 we challenged a small group of entrepreneurial ecosystem builders to:

Explain why ecosystem building has emerged as a new approach to economic development.

And asked them to consider these questions as conversation starters:

  • How is an ecosystem building approach similar, different, and in conflict with commonly held approaches to economic development? Are these differences subtle, dramatic, or both?
  • How do we define entrepreneurial ecosystem building using accessible and inclusive language?
  • How important is the cultural transformation that many believe comes with entrepreneurial ecosystem building?
  • What are the advantages of being part of a entrepreneurial ecosystem?

The following outlines the ideas the small groups surfaced as they wrestled with the questions above:

A New Narrative

A definition for “entrepreneurial ecosystem building”:

An inclusive framework creating agile thriving communities.

Emerging Insight:

As we at the ESHIP Summit Community Team reflect on this common ecosystem challenge and the notes from the teams’ work, the following thoughts surface:

While we still see value in many traditional models of economic development, we agree with the group’s insight:

To create thriving communities, move from a hierarchical system to a networked one using an inclusive framework and agile approach.

Why has this ecosystem building approach emerged?

In short, to reinvent our economy for the current age. Communities, like entrepreneurs, need to be agile and adaptable to cope with and thrive in today’s environment. Our society is facing an accelerating pace of change in technological advances and economic inequality. As the middle class shrinks and the number of large companies offering hundreds of well-paying jobs dwindle, individuals and communities need more sustainable ways to take control of their own economic destinies. Ecosystem building is an agile and inclusive approach communities can use to build stronger and more prosperous local economies in the modern world.

What is new about this approach to economic development?

Certainly, a number of pioneers in the field have been developing this practice and acting with an ecosystem building mindset for many years. However, most U.S. communities have not fully integrated this collaborative approach into their economic development strategy.

Many communities do have well-established resources, leaders, and support organizations in place to support local entrepreneurs and business growth. However, many of these organizations act in competition with each other and/or (unconsciously or intentionally) make their resources and networks fully accessible only to a small portion of the population. This competitive and exclusive environment significantly diminishes the potential prosperity of a local economy.

How do we help our communities start integrating this new approach?

The next step for many entrepreneur support leaders and their broader communities is to create a more agile and inclusive entrepreneur support system by fostering:

  • A more supportive culture for risk-takers, makers, dreamers, and doers across the entire communty
  • More collaboration among their entrepreneur support organizations
  • Greater access to the established capital networks (including all forms of capital — financial, social, natural, etc) for all entrepreneurs

In addition, we as a community of ecosystem practitioners, need to:

  1. Further codify our message about why ecosystem building and why now, and
  2. Develop a common language to explain the vision, values, outcomes, science, and tactics of building inclusive, agile, and thriving economies in today’s context.

Next Steps:

Looking at ways to build on this work, we recommend the development of a set of “explainer tools” to layout the importance and key distinctions of entrepreneurial ecosystem building such as:

  • An infographic illustrating the economic shifts that have led to ecosystem
    building as an effective approach to future economic development.
  • A ‘Top 10 List for Why Ecosystem Building is the Way to the Future’ that will help entrepreneurial community leaders effectively communicate the value and opportunity of ecosystem building in an inclusive and approachable way.
  • A pocket guide for entrepreneurs and community leaders to be great collaborators and help/inspire others to be as well.
  • A case study portfolio showing how communities have raised awareness of the importance of entrepreneurship and celebrated their own risk-takers, dreamers, and doers.
  • Sharable graphics and posters that provide easy-to-remember definitions for common terms in ecosystem building such as entrepreneur, innovation, customer discovery, small business vs. startup, etc.
  • A roadmap and toolkit for creating accessible capital networks in a community’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

How do you explain the rise of ecosystem building as an effective approach to economic development?

We hope to co-architect this community of ecosystem building practice together with you, learn from your work, and help others do the same.

Please tell us about the context setting “explainer tools” you use such as to explain why entrepreneurial ecosystem building is important for your community. Leave a comment here or email us at

Thanks to Andy Stoll

Amanda West

Written by

ESHIP Summit Community Team

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