Five Years of Transformation

Reflections and Learnings from an Ecosystem Building Pioneer

Enoch Elwell
May 22 · 6 min read

As a leader of an organization that works with grassroots leaders in supporting entrepreneurs, I have been both a participant and observer of fundamental changes that have reshaped the way communities work with entrepreneurs.

CO.STARTERS recently passed the five-year mark as a company, representing more than a decade of learnings in what is now known as “ecosystem building” support. To mark this milestone I wanted to share some reflections on our journey and the journey of the communities we serve.

Chattanooga, Tennessee—the backdrop of CO.STARTERS beginnings—underwent a transformation from being called the “dirtiest city in America” to becoming a noted example of post-industrial economic revitalization.

What we now call CO.STARTERS began in 2008 as a grassroots effort supporting local creative entrepreneurs in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Since then, we have become a world-wide support network for entrepreneurial ecosystem builders with a strong community and a growing list of offerings. The roots of what we do now go all the way back to our beginnings, but our formation as a social impact for-profit company in 2013 began a period of rapid growth for us.

As we have undergone this organizational transformation, our surrounding landscape has also transformed — seeing massive changes in the way communities work with entrepreneurs and nurture ecosystems. CO.STARTERS has been extraordinarily privileged to play a role in these changes, though we are certainly not alone. This simultaneous evolution — of our organization and of the field of ecosystem building — reveals how the context in which we live has played a significant role in shaping what CO.STARTERS is today.


A Major Shift Is Happening

The biggest thing that’s become clear over the past five years is that a significant transformation is happening in our culture. The idea that we are shifting out of the industrial age into whatever the future model of society is — the “connected age” or the “networked age” — has been on the agenda of thought leaders and futurists for a long time. For the grassroots community leaders we work with, it has become a day-to-day fact of life.

It may not be fully understood. It may be unclear whether we are closer to the beginning, the middle, or the end of this transition time. But it is very clear, in every community where we work, that we are entering a new unknown. That’s the context of everything now: the idea that we are at a hinge point entering a new age of our society, with new rules and norms. The question is not just how entrepreneurs start new businesses, but how entrepreneurs and their businesses exist in society at large.


People Are Hungry for Change

In every community we support, there is a significant undertone I’ve been hearing, sometimes directly from individuals and sometimes from local leaders. A growing number of regular people care deeply about sharing their passion, knowledge, and expertise with the world through business, but they feel disconnected from existing institutional economic development resources and business support.

People are frustrated with the current system. They feel like they are not represented in that system. They have a lot of energy, excitement, talent, passion — resources, even — but they do not feel valued. They don’t have a way to build on what they have to offer.

Everywhere we go there’s a suppressed energy just waiting for an outlet to be expressed. At first, it was surprising. Now we expect it. When we engage with a new community, we feel this demand for change, for expression, for validation — just waiting to be unlocked. When we provide our CO.STARTERS tools to help local leaders rally the community around supporting entrepreneurs, this huge amount of pent-up energy, passion, and value begins to flow.


More Programs Are Not the Biggest Need

In the past, a pervasive assumption among local leaders and national program developers has been that finding the right program will solve every problem. People trying to address a need often think they need more or newer programs. But in the current reality — characterized by shifting cultural norms and complex adaptive systems — it seems clear that the problem is not a lack of tools. Lots of good information, content, and resources are available now and being developed everywhere.

The challenge is not to develop more solutions. It’s about curation: sifting through all the possible solutions to find the right one for the given context, to strategically address system-wide issues.

The emerging need of ecosystem builders is to find the right resource — or better yet, the right set of resources — in the right context, at the right time.


The Core is Caring Connection

But even well-curated resources are not the whole answer. Connecting people to resources and to each other in an environment built on trust is essential. This intuitively makes sense to us, as caring relationships are the glue that holds any community together, but it’s not an obvious or intuitive truth in a world that has been overly focused on increased economic output as success.

Organizations are often designed to share information, but not necessarily to build trust. As CO.STARTERS’ work has evolved in cooperation with the communities we serve, we have come to understand that both are essential and non-negotiable. For entrepreneurs and communities to thrive, information sharing and deeper personal connection must increase at the same time. Together, connection and trust result in not just a list of resources and contacts, which are vital for any entrepreneur, but a living community of unified people.

This has become the heart of CO.STARTERS’ work. I believe that in the future economy and society we are moving toward, the most valuable currencies will be connection and trust.


CO.STARTERS Itself is Changing

Over the past five years, CO.STARTERS has been living within these changes, while at the same time learning to navigate and to guide others.

From a single program to help local leaders and creative starters flourish, CO.STARTERS has now grown to serve more than 10,000 starters pursuing all kinds of businesses and thousands of ecosystem builders in more than 170 communities with 15 proven resources and tools.

Take a closer look at the impact of the growing CO.STARTERS network in the CO.STARTERS 2018 Annual Impact Summary >

While we are continuing to support our existing grassroots network, we are now significantly expanding that support by building a meta-network to serve a wider array of starters and ecosystem builders. Through collaboration with other networks, we are focusing on developing deeper support strategies that draw equally from our CO.STARTERS-produced programs and the growing number of excellent proven resources available nationwide.

Equally important, we’re helping lead and shape the national conversation about how to nurture entrepreneurs in a way that builds up a healthier ecosystem with a thriving entrepreneurial culture. We’re working with the Kauffman Foundation to accelerate the creation and adoption of an ecosystem building model for economic development. We are facilitating the formation of collaborative national networks like RuralRISE, and are designing models and tools for leading national ecosystem building organizations, like the Startup Champions Network. One organization and one partnership at a time, we are strengthening connections between nodes in a network that is bigger than us all, making up the fabric of our emerging economy and society.


This Work has Just Begun!

From my perspective, the radical transformation of our communities out of the Industrial Age is only accelerating. While these change can often produced stress or divisiveness, the positive transformation of our communities through entrepreneurship is exhilarating! There is a lot more to be done, but the opportunities for starters to improve their lives and communities — through thriving businesses within a supportive ecosystem — are greater than ever and increasing all the time.

It’s a great time for starters… to be one or to support one!


MAKING INTERSECTIONS

Read on for more insights on this ecosystem building topic:

Missed Connections: Know other voices that connect to this story? Let us know in the comments.

Intersections

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

Enoch Elwell

Written by

Founder and Visionary at CO.STARTERS | Connecting and helping starters and ecosystem builders everywhere.

Intersections

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

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