#3 Enlist collaborators. Everyone’s invited.

This article is the third installment of the 7-part series Ecosystem Building 101. The entire series is developed in Fireside Chats with entrepreneurial ecosystem builders around the world.

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Human behavior that is conducive to innovation (…) requires us to push against fundamental characteristics of human nature and reason. Deep emotional impulses, remnants of our primitive past, make human beings wary of one another. [[I]nnovative behavior is generally so risky and unrewarding that it does not make rational sense in most cases. As a result, (…) the forces that push people apart are far stronger than the forces that pull them together.

Hwang & Horowitt, 2012, p. 87, 89

Silos and fragmentation within communities are a common frustration among ecosystem builders. Due to our evolutionary programming, diversity of thought makes us uncomfortable, most people are not automatically keen on collaborating with anyone. Leaving our comfort zone and actively engaging with others who bring different perspectives and might even disagree with our view of the world is deeply uncomfortable. We tend to avoid it. The ecosystem stagnates. 

Our job as ecosystem builders is to invite and engage a wide variety of people by including each individual or organization who has a genuine interest in seeing (social) entrepreneurs thrive. They don’t need to hold a degree in business or—necessarily—have entrepreneurial experience. A thriving ecosystem welcomes everyone who wants to help and bring their skills to bear to see entrepreneurs excel at what they do. 

Everyone’s invited

In 2014, I moved from Hamburg, Germany, to Richmond, Virginia, USA. A total newcomer to the country, I was met with an enthusiastic invitation to roll up my sleeves and jump right into the deep end of the pool of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Todd Nuckols and Larkin Garbee were running a startup accelerator for high-growth startups and a myriad of other entrepreneurial events and initiatives. After a first meeting on a Thursday, introductions to others in the ecosystem started flooding my inbox that Sunday, and I was invited to join Todd at a conference with the Who’s who of the acceleration space the week after. Without knowing my skillset or personality, I felt like I had received an advance in trust and I was not going to waste it. 

Inviting, connecting and engaging people in the ecosystem—irrespective of their background, education, or experience—is a central characteristic of some of the best ecosystem builders I have met. As long as the individual is genuinely interested in lending their expertise to the emerging entrepreneurial stack, it is our job as ecosystem builders to invite them in and find a job for them to test out their level of engagement and ability to connect with founders. 

Meet the ecosystem builders

Hear from Mara Hardy (Grand Junction, CO), Rick Turoczy (Portland, OR) and Larkin Garbee (West Point, VA) how they build on-ramps in their ecosystems and recruit new co-conspirators:

Mara Hardy: “Since moving to Grand Junction, CO, two years ago and taking this role with the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, I have adopted a YES! mentality. If someone approaches me with an idea for supporting entrepreneurs, my first response is YES! Then we figure out the what and the how. It opens doors to possibilities. When inviting new people to join your efforts, you need to be mindful of the language you use. Talking about ‘ecosystem building’ and ‘startups’ might sound a little outlandish whereas ‘community’ and ‘small business’ are perfectly understood terms. Keep in mind that people come from different walks of lives which has equipped them with different gifts and talents. Our job as ecosystem builders is to recognize these unique attributes and put them to work.” 

Rick Turoczy: “I especially enjoy involving new mentors. Because it’s an opportunity to remind them how intelligent, creative and knowledgeable they are. What seems obvious and second nature to them is often rocket science to someone who is not in their field.”

Larkin Garbee: “Inviting others to join efforts that benefit the community is my natural instinct. It started with me running a co-working space, 804RVA. I met so many incredible people through running the space and soon realized that this was not going to work if it all depended solely on me. Not only is it really exhausting, but a model that relied on me at the core didn’t allow for community to take root. I wanted to establish a culture of helping and trusting each other. Offering a space for co-working was not about me serving you, it was about we serving us.”

The invitation

In Community. The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block outlines how we might think about inviting others to join a community in which we feel like they belong. Depending on your role in your ecosystem and other players, your invitation will look differently. Block explains: 

“The invitation is to those who have an interest in the future you are imagining – all who have that interest, whether like-minded people, strangers, stakeholders, adversaries, or someone who is not known yet(…) An invitation is more than just a request to attend; it is a call to create an alternative future, to join in the possibility we have declared. The question is, ‘What is the invitation we can make for people to participate in creating a community of connectedness and purpose, regardless of their story and past actions?’”

A bias toward action

As ecosystem builders, much time is spent taking meetings. Coffee meeting after coffee meeting—whether in person or Zoom—we meet with people who are interested in joining the entrepreneurial ecosystem and we are often one of the first touchpoints for “newcomers”. 

Make no mistake, it is not our job to “allow” them in. We are not gatekeepers. It is our job to understand their motivations, the skills, and talents they bring so that we might be able to plug them in accordingly. Some of these potential supporters will realize that this is not where they want to spend their time, others will find a role to play in supporting local entrepreneurs. But unless we take the meeting, we’ll never know who the person on the other side is and how they might contribute when invited.

That’s why I believe extending the invitation from getting to know each other to immediately finding a job for her/him. Small, manageable and a valid test of their seriousness and commitment. If the other person is serious about completing one small task, they are likely serious about contributing to the entrepreneurial ecosystem. This task could be following up on a connection, sharing a resource, showing up to a relevant upcoming event, helping out in whatever small way. 

Not only will this demonstrate how serious they are about investing their time and energy in the ecosystem, but you are already setting an example of what it means to contribute to an ecosystem: A bias towards action. 

If these get-to-know you meetings run risk of taking over your week, pool them. When I worked as a B Corp community liaison, I got many requests from people who wanted to learn more about B Corp certification, had a few questions or simply wanted to better understand the local landscape of purpose-driven business. I hosted a B Corp Coffee the last Wednesday of the month with an open invitation for anyone. I set up at a local coffee shop and waited to see who came. 

The upside? Whoever came didn’t just get to ask me any questions but immediately met other like-minded people who shared their interest and probably had similar questions. I typically followed up with an email to everyone sharing whatever resources had come up and invited them to join the community by attending our next social event, signing up for our newsletter, and becoming more familiar with the assessment. 

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