An ESHIP Summit Primer: Creating an Ecosystem Building Movement

Jeff Bennett
Sep 14 · 10 min read

“Startups are the key vehicle by which regions and their citizens can take advantage of technological change, and startups depend on strong ecosystems… Those places that fail to boldly and immediately invest in startup ecosystems, and thus fail to produce startups, will experience economic stagnation.” —Startup Genome

Recognizing the need for a better way to grow dynamic, inclusive economies in communities, a movement of sorts has begun, as a growing number of people turn to entrepreneurial ecosystem building as an economic development focus. But, if the work of ecosystem building is to grow, evolve, and expand, the emerging discipline of ecosystem building needs to organize into a recognized field.

A leading standard bearer in this nascent movement has emerged over the past three years is the Kauffman Foundation’s ESHIP Summit (ESHIP is short for entrepreneurship), an annual conference with the mission to “advance ecosystem building as a new approach to economic development to help more people and communities achieve economic independence through entrepreneurial success.”

It’s hard to overstate the impact the ESHIP Summits have had over the past three years. The summits have raised awareness and convened hundreds of passionate and committed community builders, economic developers, and business development professionals in an ambitious attempt to professionalize and advance the emerging field of entrepreneurial ecosystem building.

The Economic Imperative of Ecosystem Building

The startup rate in the United States has continuously fallen since the late 1970s. The Great Recession exacerbated the trend, damaging business dynamism and, as a result, economies. Economic inequality among individual workers has grown.

Yet, research shows that entrepreneurs and young companies are the key drivers of economic growth, and that entrepreneurship is vital to job creation and economic progress. It has become evident to a growing number that the best way to revitalize economies is through entrepreneurship and startup ecosystem building.

The logic is simple — communities need to grow their economies. To grow dynamic, vibrant economies, they need entrepreneurs. But entrepreneurs need ecosystems of support to be successful. Successful ecosystems need ecosystem builders — the people who think about the systems that support entrepreneurs in their communities and who take a systems-wide approach to build, grow, support, and nurture an entrepreneurial ecosystem and make it thrive.

But ecosystem builders need help. In order to be sustainable and successful, the people behind the building need to be recognized and the field needs to be legitimized. As an emerging field, there is little consensus on the core tenets of ecosystem building (what’s the process, how to measure it, how one learns how to do it, etc.). A more robust field will help create these foundational elements of the practice.

The ESHIP Summit: Creating an Ecosystem Building Movement

To address this economic imperative, 450 leaders in entrepreneurial ecosystem building convened in Kansas City in June 2017 for the inaugural Kauffman ESHIP Summit, in what would become the first of a series of summits to collaboratively advance the emerging discipline of entrepreneurial ecosystem building.

The idea for the summit began with the Kauffman Foundation. Phil Gaskin, Senior Director of Entrepreneurship, and Victor Hwang, Vice President of Entrepreneurship, realized there are hundreds of people building ecosystems in different ways and saw an opportunity to bring them together to connect and collaborate.

Gaskin and Hwang tapped some instrumental ecosystem builders to design and organize that first summit in 2017. Andy Stoll, Amanda West, and Enoch Elwell were early ESHIP Summit team members tasked to design a multi-year initiative to accelerate the field of ecosystem building. In collaboration with The Value Web, an expert network of facilitators who specialize in emergent group processes, ultimately the group designed a three-stage, multi-year effort centered around a series of summits that would aim to catalyze a movement to professionalize the field.

“The task was (and still is) daunting — and exhilarating,” said Stoll. “How do we collectively build a new professional field? And in that, involve all the necessary players that a robust field would require to be successful?

“The good thing is that our original team had 10+ years of experience building grassroots ecosystems (in Iowa, Chattanooga, Cincinnati and points in between), so we started by thinking about what we wish we’d had when we got started. Secondly, building the field is really just building an ecosystem for ecosystem builders — so we unknowingly knew more than we initially realized. We used these two ideas to root our thinking as we decided on how to approach the work.

“When we got started, I thought we were going to have to invent a science to explain everything in this emerging field — also, I didn’t really know what I meant by that. So we went around asking people ‘how do you invent a science?’ The thing we learned in that process is, in fact, there’s already a science that explains many of the key phenomena of an entrepreneurial ecosystem. It’s called complexity science, the study of complex adaptive systems. Complexity (and in that the science of ‘living systems’) turns out to explain a lot of how we could approach building the field and, I believe, eventually how entrepreneurial ecosystems building will become a more precise art and science.”

With that belief in mind, the ESHIP Summits were designed to create a unified, national movement of entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders who work to infuse entrepreneurship into economic development. The movement had begun.

ESHIP Summit 2017: Discovering What Ecosystem Builders Need

Months of preparation and planning culminated in June 2017 as hundreds of ecosystem builders from across the United States convened in Kansas City to launch the first phase of the multi-year project.

The intent of the first Summit in 2017 was to listen and discover the specific needs of entrepreneurial ecosystem builders. “We came together in 2017 and we launched a process that we hope over multiple years will help us build and accelerate the field of entrepreneurial ecosystem building. The first year was discovery. We really wanted to understand what were the needs of the ecosystem builders out there,” said Stoll.

Unlike most conferences where attendees passively sit and listen to speakers, ESHIP Summits are designed to engage attendees and tap into their expertise. This pattern of activity was established in the first year as participants worked in small groups to tackle the most pressing challenges facing entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders.

An example of this was the last day of the summit as participants formed small groups around 12 challenge topics, called Missions, and developed initial concepts for new tools, trainings, and shared understanding to help each other be more effective in their work. The groups came up with 38 tools, trainings, and other solutions for more effective ecosystem building.

The information collected from the community that first year is impressive — more than 1,000 sticky notes from group discussions and 350 responses to surveys regarding the most pressing issues in the field were sorted, categorized, and analyzed by the Kauffman organizing team. In the following year, the team processed the information, using it to design the 2018 ESHIP Summit.

A lot more took place at the 2017 ESHIP Summit than can be summarized in this primer. Check out these links for more in-depth summaries of the 2017 Summit:

ESHIP Summit 2018: Designing Goals and Initiatives to Build a Robust Field for Ecosystem Builders

The 2018 ESHIP Summit shifted into the design phase — designing initiatives to meet the goals and expand the leadership for the field. In July 2018, ecosystem builders once again gathered in Kansas City, this time totaling over 600 participants. Upon entering the huge event space at the Kansas City Convention Center, attendees were introduced for the first time to the newly revealed “ESHIP Goals,” posted on large displays at the front of the convention hall.

The seven ESHIP Goals “serve as the foundation for our collective action and build the tenets of the ecosystem building field,” explains Kauffman’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building Playbook. The achievement of these seven goals is seen as critical to the growth of ecosystem building into an accepted mainstream approach to economic development that can reduce barriers to entrepreneurship and grow more thriving economies and sustainable communities.

The 2018 Summit resumed the collaborative and engaging components established at the 2017 Summit, utilizing “fire-starter” speakers to ignite the audience before breaking out into groups. In two and a half days of packed activities, attendees worked in regional “campfires,” designed to help people to connect with and build relationships with folks from their region, and conversations and “round tables” — the small groups where attendees created Goal definitions and brainstormed possible initiatives.

Check out this link for more in-depth summaries of the 2018 Summit.

The ESHIP Goals

With the seven ESHIP goals identified at the 2018 summit, the team at Kauffman tapped into the collective power of the emerging “ESHIP Community,” establishing a series of “Goal Calls,” empowering the ESHIP Community to continue the work of defining initiatives for each goal and recruiting participants to the calls to collectively design and write project briefs for initiatives for each goal. Between the 2018 and 2019 Summits, over 100 people participated in working groups to identify and refine specific initiatives into tangible projects. Volunteers wrote project briefs and collaborated via online video calls. Through this process, a small group of 14 dedicated “ESHIP Champions” were nominated by the community and took on additional tasks, collectively working hundreds of hours to refine the goals and initiatives. Through the work of the ESHIP Champions and others, 30 initiatives were prioritized in preparation for the 2019 ESHIP Summit.

Read more about the work of the “ESHIP Champions.

2019 ESHIP Summit: Building on the Work and Pushing Towards Solutions

In May 2019, 450 ecosystem builders and 80 mayors converged on Kansas City for the third ESHIP Summit. Attendees were welcomed on the opening night to a celebratory reception at Union Station where installations reminded people of what has been accomplished so far and encouraged further collaboration.

The format at the 2019 Summit shifted somewhat as the ESHIP organizers provided the opportunity for other organizations to step up and lead portions of the programming. From the onset of the ESHIP Summit in 2017, the Kauffman Foundation has intentionally included dozens of National Resource Providers (NRPs), “organizations that provide training, support programs, and funding to entrepreneurial ecosystem builders.” NRPs played a significant role at the 2019 Summit, organizing workshops, panel discussions, and even a life-size Game of Life for ecosystem builders, organized by Startup Champions Network.

A breakout discussion on the final day introduced the 30 prioritized initiatives using hackathon-style discussions, where dozens of groups collaboratively defined and refined projects to solve for the seven ESHIP Goals.

Check out these links for more in-depth summaries of the 2019 ESHIP Summit.

Time to Deliver: Transitioning to the 2020 Summit and Beyond

With three ESHIP Summits now complete, the project is now in a transition, between the design and the delivery phase. “We’re shifting into this third stage, which will be multi-year and probably go for a long time,” said Andy Stoll. “We’re moving into this deliver phase where we’re going to try to turn some of the ideas that we collected, co-created, and collaboratively designed into reality.”

With this shift comes the opportunity for more ecosystem builders to engage and get involved in the delivery of the goals and initiatives. The community team at Kauffman has organized monthly “Goal Meetup Calls” to engage the ESHIP Community.

“These are virtual gatherings intended to create space around each of the seven ESHIP Goals to foster relationships, learning, sharing and collaboration. Led by members of the community, these monthly gatherings will feature speakers, panels, and facilitated group discussions exploring topics around the ESHIP Goals, at both a ‘field’ and ‘local’ level. Everyone is welcome!” said Stoll.

In addition to the monthly goal calls, project teams are encouraged to self-organize into independent teams working on new activities that address the ESHIP Goals and Initiatives — to align, coordinate, and collaborate across the ESHIP community to further develop the professional field.

For those new to ESHIP, it sometimes takes a bit of a mind shift to realize what ESHIP is about. It’s about advancing the field of ecosystem building. It’s about focusing on ourselves as ecosystem builders and advancing our abilities so we then have greater impact on the entrepreneurs that we serve. It requires that we look up from our local-level work occasionally and focus on our fellow ecosystem builders, connect with them, learn from each other, and collaborate to amplify our impact. Does that sound like something you’re interested in? Would you like to get involved?

Check out the links below to learn more and find opportunities to plug into the ESHIP ecosystem builder movement:


A connecting point for ecosystem builders, founders, and partners building stronger networks for entrepreneurs. | Powered by CO.STARTERS

Jeff Bennett

Written by

Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Builder | Cofounder & President of @SacStartup | Writer & Digital Media Content Creator


A connecting point for ecosystem builders, founders, and partners building stronger networks for entrepreneurs. | Powered by CO.STARTERS

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