I remember staring out the window of Lamplighter on a sunny afternoon in November of 2017. Lamplighter is a local coffee shop in Richmond, VA, that became my office away from the office when I needed to think. I was devouring my one Americano a day and Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs were playing on vinyl. That afternoon, I remember looking over at Amy and Patricia — the baristas — and thinking to myself, “Why didn’t I become a barista? They always seem to have a good time. They work for a great local business, get to play their favorite music, and smell freshly roasted coffee all day. And when they’re done cleaning up right around 4:30, they go join the living.”
During that time, I found myself running a business model validation program for fledgling entrepreneurs, launching a three-day conference for entrepreneurial women, working part-time as a community builder for local B Corps, helping accelerate high-growth startups, and mentoring alumni from a previous cohort of startups. I was also eight months pregnant. I was working like a madwoman because I wanted to lower barriers and create opportunity for entrepreneurs in Richmond, VA.
And that, my friends, is what’s called ecosystem building. While a fancy title on your business card, it is neither lucrative nor is it going to get you any awards for accomplishment. And if you’re in it for the right reasons, it will break your heart at some point (don’t worry, you will recuperate). But it matters. A great deal. I didn’t always know what impact we were having (it’s a team sport), and I still struggle with assessing it, but what I do know is that ecosystem building matters.
In June 2018, I started to slowly dip my toes back into work. I was at home with a five-month old in a new country, and I found myself in the luxurious situation of pondering what I wanted to do next (nursing and nap time give you ample opportunity for pondering). If you’re anything like me, this is also somewhat stressful. With all this freedom I could completely reinvent myself, turn the page with a blank slate, start a completely new chapter.
I was taking meetings with professionals in the social impact ecosystem all across town and found that there already was ample opportunity for entrepreneurs. If I was going to add to the ecosystem, it was not going to be through starting yet another program. It felt like I was zooming out of my own career for weeks and weeks to get a clearer image of what I enjoyed doing most. And the answer had been there all along (so much for reinventing myself):
How do you address social and environmental issues through the lens of building and nurturing entrepreneurial ecosystems?
If it takes a village to start a purpose-driven business, I wanted to talk to the villagers: the mentors and advisors, policy makers, impact investors, the fellow entrepreneurs and B Corps, the coworking spaces, consultants, and programs that cater to social innovators.
Most people glazed over when I dropped the term “ecosystem building” into our conversation. Not that I blame them. And without being surrounded by people who thought like me and asked the same questions around the issue, I was starting to feel lost. Did anyone even care about ecosystem building? If we celebrate social entrepreneurs and their companies (as we should!), but no-one is shedding a light on the community that helps them succeed, maybe there was a reason for that? Surely I wasn’t the only person thinking about what an ecosystem needs to look like to help purpose-driven entrepreneurs thrive. I couldn’t imagine that in a field of passionate world-changers, no one had started looking at how we can actively nurture and support that system. The more questions I had, the more my confidence in what I was doing shrank. Was I wasting my time?
I needed a sanity check, so I called my friend Andy. Andy is one of the first ecosystem builders I ever met, and he shares my passion for social change. On a September night in 2018, he was sitting in his car in a parking lot in Kansas City in the middle of a summer downpour. All the built-up confusion, the highs and lows of the previous weeks spilled out of me. Andy listened patiently and through his phone, he grabbed me by the shoulders to make sure I was hearing him:
What you do matters. Ecosystem building is in its infancy. We have walked two inches of a long long road ahead of us. But it matters. Keep at it.
All I needed to hear Andy. Thanks.
Since that conversation in September 2018, my quest has become more focused. I am investigating what makes an ecosystem builder for social change tick. I am researching the traits, skills, and mindset that make them great at what they do. I want to understand what keeps them up at night and what makes them jump out of bed in the morning. I am trying to figure out how we can best train and support them to become excellent. I created a plan of attack and on days that my plan and I get into a staring contest about which mountain to climb next, I silently chant Andy’s words.
If your profession is built around serving others, you must know that our currency is a different one. I’m afraid that neither salaries nor recognition are what drive us. Over the last months, I have realized that as ecosystem builders, we have to dig deep inside ourselves to figure out what and who we are doing this for. We have to be clear on our “Why” in order to keep going when that going gets tough, when we feel like we are the only ones asking hard questions about how to best serve our communities, when we wonder whether anyone at all cares about what we care so deeply about.
To my fellow ecosystem builders who want to make this world more equitable, fair, and just: know that you are not alone. If you operate in an ecosystem that supports social entrepreneurs — be it as a mentor, investor, accelerator, incubator, work space, advisor, government representative, or in any function that helps reduce barriers and create opportunity for social entrepreneurs — let this be a reminder to you that your work matters.
If you work to help purpose-driven entrepreneurs in your community thrive, I hope you make a decent income, are showered in thank you notes (because you deserve it), and your community recognizes how much value you are creating by offering your time, an open door, introductions, mentoring, and referrals. And if that’s not the case, don’t be discouraged. Keep at it. There is a reason you didn’t stop at barista (like I didn’t stop at waiting tables). Remember that reason. Deploy your skills and know that you’re not alone. Most importantly, know that what you do matters.
Learn more about my research at www.socialventurers.com.
Read on for more insights on this ecosystem building topic:
- Connect. Engage. Belong.
- Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunity in RVA Part 1: Time to Rebelle
- Community Builders: A Long View of Change
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