Cooking up a Plan to Move Ecosystem Building Forward

Jeff Bennett
Jan 10 · 6 min read

The large AirBnB, outfitted with a professional grade kitchen, was a chaotic scene as a group of 21 entrepreneurial ecosystem builders attempted to cook up a series of four menus from scratch. The smells of onions and spices and the sounds of chopping, clanging pans, and noisy chatter filled the room. The diverse group of ecosystem builders creating their dinner came to Denver for a collaborative deep dive to further refine a set of goals, initiatives, and activities, supported by the Kauffman Foundation, that would move the field of ecosystem building forward.

Reflecting on that collaborative dinner, it’s tempting to draw an analogy between cooking and entrepreneurial ecosystem building. But startup ecosystems are complex systems as Ian Hathaway points out, “Meaning they have many ‘agents’ (people and things), interdependencies, and are in a constant state of evolution, which makes fully wrapping your arms around them a challenging task.”

Perhaps if the ingredients had the ability to interact on their own and self-assemble into new systems, with no chefs in control, it might approach the complexity of startup ecosystems. But in both cooking and in complex systems like ecosystem building, sometimes a spark or catalyst can kick things off, get the ingredients (people and things) working together, and set up the right conditions for greater impact.

For the meta ecosystem of ecosystem builders, that spark was the Kauffman Foundation’s ESHIP Summit. In June 2017, the Kauffman Foundation convened 450 ecosystem builders from across the United States in Kansas City for the inaugural ESHIP Summit. That summit would become the first of a series, beginning a discovery process to better understand the state of entrepreneurial ecosystem building.

In July of 2018, ecosystem builders once again gathered in Kansas City, this time totaling over 600 participants.

The Kauffman Foundation’s Victor Hwang addresses the 2018 ESHIP Summit

Based on the collective work of hundreds of ecosystem builders in the ESHIP community, seven ecosystem building goals were identified and shared that would move the field of ecosystem building forward.

The ESHIP Goals

Whereas the theme at the 2017 ESHIP Summit had been “Discovery,” in 2018 it shifted to “Design” — designing initiatives to meet the goals and expand the leadership for the field. The achievement of these seven goals is seen as critical to growing ecosystem building into an accepted mainstream approach to economic development that can reduce barriers to entrepreneurship and grow more thriving economies and sustainable communities. Throughout three days of mass collaboration, hundreds of ecosystem builders brainstormed dozens of ideas to move the goals forward, beginning the design work of the activities that will accomplish the goals.

But the work didn’t end at the summit in July. During and following the 2018 Summit, Kauffman challenged and empowered the ESHIP community to continue the work of defining initiatives for each goal and supporting that commitment with their resources. From August to November, volunteers wrote project briefs and collaborated virtually via online video calls. Through this process, a small group of 14 dedicated ESHIP ecosystem builders emerged, and last month an ESHIP Champions Convening was held in Denver to cook up a plan to move the initiatives forward.

Back in the noisy kitchen the cooking experience of the ESHIP Champions varied. For some, cutting onions, tomatoes, and other ingredients for the various salsas was a challenge. Others quipped about their cooking experience being limited to a microwave oven. Though the collective cooking experience of the group may not have been impressive, their ecosystem building experience was. This was reflected in what was accomplished as the team worked together to advance the field of ecosystem building.

The objectives for the convening were straightforward:

  1. Further refine the ESHIP Goals definitions
  2. Select the top 2–3 initiatives per goal with clear calls to action that are funding-ready
  3. Create content for ESHIP Goals website to inform both the ESHIP Community and those new to ecosystem building

Over the course of a day and a half the team split into seven breakout teams, each team picking a goal to work on and further refine.

Discussing the Goal 1 initiatives

We analyzed and assessed top initiatives, mapping backwards from each goal to identify necessary preconditions, and we outlined causal linkages for each initiative. Some examples include:

  • Creating a diversity and inclusion speaker’s bureau and workshop generator
  • Creating shared mission, vision, outcomes and value statement for the field
  • Creating central online communication channels to connect ecosystem builders across networks
  • Creating a common set of crowdsourced metrics
  • Creating and maintaining a playbook of policy best practices to support entrepreneurial communities at the local, state and federal level
  • Developing a certification/professional development course for those interested in entrepreneurship-led economic development

The group then reassembled to analyze the big picture together in order to identify gaps and overlaps. By the end of the day, 25 initiatives had been selected.

Analyzing the gaps and overlaps of the identified initiatives

The team continues to refine and define the initiatives and activities and these will be shared with the broader community on the official ESHIP website in the coming months leading up to the 2019 ESHIP Summit.

By the end of the convening, midday on Friday, in addition to selecting and refining the top 25 initiatives, the team had:

  • Created an action plan for the ESHIP website
  • Refined language of the goals
  • Mapped out a timeline of activities leading up to the 2019 ESHIP Summit
  • Defined a draft (because everything’s a draft!) sequence of steps for each identified initiative — identifying steps that could be done; 1) before ESHIP 2019, 2) during ESHIP 2019, 3) post-ESHIP 2019 but in 2019, 4) 2020 and beyond.

I’m proud of the work that the team of ESHIP Champions accomplished and it was an honor to work with a great group of ecosystem builders who are committed to defining, catalyzing, and growing the ecosystem building field. The opportunity to work with this group of ESHIP Champions is exciting, rewarding, and at times exhausting.

The ESHIP Champions Team Dinner

The chance to make an impact in creating the field of ecosystem building is one of my core priorities for 2019. It’s energizing to be a part of a team that’s connecting, empowering, informing, and organizing the Ecosystem Building community and collectively make an impact on economies and society. I look forward to continue working with the ESHIP Champions, as well as other ecosystem builders, to collectively and collaboratively strengthen the ecosystem building field.

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