Ecosystem Building and Ecosystem Builders: What is it? Who are they?
Exploring the various definitions and roles in this new form of entrepreneurship-focused community and economic development.
“Each person here change LinkedIn job title to entrepreneurial ecosystem builder,” the card on the wall said. This was one of hundreds of cards with ideas to advance the field of ecosystem building that were posted at the 2018 ESHIP Summit. Thinking that was a good, simple way to help grow awareness for this field that I’ve become obsessed with, I, along with many others, acted on that idea and updated our LinkedIn profiles.
But beyond more of us self-identifying as ecosystem builders, the challenge of defining what ecosystem building is and what ecosystem builders do remains. Given the imprecision and vagueness of the term, it’s difficult to delineate its boundaries. It’s an open source, evolving term being collaboratively defined. If you ask 100 self-described ecosystem builders, what ecosystem building is, you’ll likely get 100 or more answers. But there is value in sharing these definitions, not necessarily to hone in on an agreed upon definition. Instead, I think there’s value in it to spread awareness to others who may be doing the work of ecosystem building. They may not even be aware that it’s a thing. We’re a movement, and we can gain strength with more in our ranks.
At a recent Startup Champions Network summit in Denver, my fellow ecosystem builder, Yuval Yarden, and I interviewed dozens of attendees, asking them for their definition of what an ecosystem builder is, among other questions. As we suspected, the responses varied. For some, ecosystem builders are those that take a system-wide approach, monitoring and tending the health of the forest. These are people that are the stewards of the resources, the shepherds running around keeping things moving and stitched together, the relationship-builders, the curators.
Larkin Garbee, the Interim Executive Director for the Startup Champions Network, characterized an ecosystem builder as someone who takes a systems-wide approach and thinks about the impact on the whole network of people, programs, and resources in the community — looking at the gaps and creating new resources to fill those gaps.
For Mark Lawrence, Managing Partner at Incuvate in the Washington D.C. area, an ecosystem builder is the catalyst in the community, the one that connects all the dots between the elements in the ecosystem.
While these and others defined ecosystem builders as people that take a broad, systems-wide shepherding role in the startup community, others define ecosystem builders as anyone working to support and help the entrepreneurs and innovators in the community succeed. These can be people “working in the weeds” for just their own organization like an accelerator. Some examples might include:
- Entrepreneurial support organizations including nonprofits, incubators, accelerators, coworking space, and innovation hubs
- Community development organizations
- Government and public officials
- Traditional economic development departments
- Chamber of commerce
- Philanthropies and foundations
- Large corporations that support startups
- Small businesses & startups
- Media / News
These are people that fill a variety of roles and job descriptions in the community and they may not even self-identify as ecosystem builders. They may not even have heard the term.
Perhaps at its simplest, an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder can be defined as someone who works to build, grow, support, and nurture an entrepreneurial ecosystem and make it thrive. What is an entrepreneurial ecosystem? Once again you’ll get a wide variety of answers to that question. But most definitions seem to gravitate around the idea that it’s the network of people, organizations, and resources that support entrepreneurs.
As the Senior Program Officer of Economic Development for The Kauffman Foundation, Andy Stoll has probably spent more time than most contemplating entrepreneurial ecosystems and ecosystem building. To him, an entrepreneurial ecosystem is “the system of people and relationships that surround entrepreneurs that help them succeed. Or fail.”
According to Andy, the role of the entrepreneurial ecosystem builder is a nascent job that has emerged because of the changing nature of our economy, shifting from the industrial age hierarchical structure to a more networked, hyper-connected technology-driven economy. He sees ecosystem builders typically as entrepreneurs who recognize the system could be better and set out to make it better to support themselves and then realize that the solution isn’t a single program like an accelerator, or a venture capital fund, or a mentoring program, but in fact the system itself. The interdependent parts of that system have to work together, to be aligned and nudged into collaboration in order to allow the system to better support entrepreneurs like them.
Though there are differences in how people define ecosystem builders there are a lot commonalities that emerge when you talk to ecosystem builders about what ecosystem builders do. Common terms and threads emerge like:
- Orchestrating connections
- Connecting the dots
- Bringing together resources
- Bringing the different components of the environment together
- Bringing people together
- Putting together sparks, connections, events, programs
- Pulling together
- Connecting, connections, connector
One of my favorite characterizations of ecosystem building I’ve heard came from Chris Cain, Director of the Staunton Innovation Hub in Virginia:
“I think, the distinction between a community mover & shaker vs an ecosystem builder is, there’s a part of your soul in it. A lot of us can’t see doing any other work. So regardless what organization we work for, we’re doing that connecting and bringing people together.”
What about you? In your soul are you an ecosystem builder? Do any of the descriptions above match what you do — or wish you could do? What’s YOUR definition of ecosystem building?