Unlocking ecosystem building

Why we need a holistic approach to ecosystem building.

What they don’t tell you in ecosystem building school

When one of my earliest mentors changed cities and careers, I was befuddled that he could step back from his work. He had co-founded the region’s first accelerator for high-growth startups and advocated for the needs of entrepreneurs every chance he got. For more than five years, he poured his personal sweat, blood and tears into supporting entrepreneurs every step of the way. 

When I visited his new hometown a year later, I asked him over lunch whether he missed it, the ecosystem building. He looked me straight in the eye and said “My work is not who I am. It doesn’t define me as a person.” My fork hung mid-air while my insides screamed “Yes! Yes it absolutely is! If I’m not supporting entrepreneurs and building a supportive community around them, then I’m not sure what I’m in this world to do!” On the outside, I nodded and continued chewing my salad in contemplation. 

I have since done some work to step away from my martyr complex but still, I’m convinced that ecosystem building is a deeply personal desire to change our communities for the better. Some might even call it a calling.

If you read “Unlocking Entrepreneurship“, you know that in thriving ecosystems, entrepreneurs of ALL backgrounds start, manage and grow viable and sustainable businesses leading to higher levels of self actualization, employment, innovation and investment in public services (education, infrastructure etc.), thereby creating economic growth, prosperity and quality of life in communities! You also know that in order to actually build and nurture entrepreneurial ecosystems, we need so-called ecosystem builders.

In this second part, we’ll dive deeper into a topic that has mostly been discussed in hushed tones behind closed doors: Our personal resilience, mastery and wellbeing as servant leaders.

It’s so damn personal

Building and nurturing ecosystems for social change requires a certain mindset and skills (which we explored in part 1) and a robust mental and emotional foundation (which I refer to as personal mastery, explored here). I have interviewed more than a hundred ecosystem builders for social change (meet them here and here). What I took away from these conversations is that effective ecosystem builder are:

  • Champions, cheerleaders and resource connectors, who identify
  • Systemic gaps, solutions and stakeholders 
  • Serving their local community selflessly with the goal of creating
  • Long-term and systemic change.

In other words, they are a dedicated bunch of people who believe in the power of entrepreneurship as a force for social change in their communities. And they take this work very personally.

I can say with a hand on my heart and the most sincere look into your eyes: The best, most effective ecosystem builders share a way of thinking that goes beyond what you can teach or train someone to do. It’s personal. These change makers:

  • Have a deep love for their community and want to see it thrive
  • Put the needs of entrepreneurs ahead of their own and those of other stakeholders
  • Do everything in their power to support founders of ALL backgrounds, ethnicities, race, genders, orientations, ages, etc.
  • Take a systems view of their community, and
  • Are servant leaders for the greater good of their community.

Ecosystem builders are passionate champions, conveners and systems architects who serve their communities because they want to leave them better than they found them by taking a systems approach to entrepreneurship. 

This passion is a two-edged sword: When used occasionally, it is a deep well of motivation to do this work after hours, on weekends, and at little to no remuneration. In case of excessive use, however, we turn into martyrs for the cause and run into burnout at full speed.

Put on your oxygen mask before assisting others 

In early 2020, I needed to get a better understanding of what these systemic thinkers and doers were struggling with. In a survey (that you can still take!) I asked over 30 changemakers what their #1 challenges as ecosystem builders are. Here’s what I heard:

Because we’re always short on resources, we have NO work-life balance. I love what we do for entrepreneurs in our community, but it takes a toll when you give so much and have nothing left at the end of the day.

I’m so tired. I’m forever trying to put out fires and catch up, but this work is never done. Why is this so hard? Shouldn’t I feel happy and fulfilled serving my community?

How come I’m working my ass off while my friends with real jobs buy their first houses and pay for hobbies (and have hobbies!) and family vacations? Meanwhile I’m barely making ends meet, justifying the value of my work to my Board (or some other decision maker) and I can’t sleep at night because I wonder whether we’re doing enough. Maybe I should just get a real job.

In the summer of 2020, a lively debate – though mostly behind closed doors – jumped off among entrepreneurial ecosystem builders about the value and personal toll of this work. Rick Turoczy put it best when he said “Not a day goes by that another passionate community builder or manager doesn’t bemoan the unsustainable nature of the work. Or the misunderstanding of what the work is. Or the absolutely debilitating mental and emotional anguish of feeling like your work isn’t valued.”

I, too, brushed shoulders with burnout and had to realize that we must stop taking the motto Give before you get to the extreme. 

While it may look like fun to meet dozens of people for coffee and attending several after-work events per month, the personal nature of our work takes a toll:

  • It has no “power off” button: Building relationships with other people, organizing, hosting and fundraising for events and always being on the lookout for opportunities and connections, is exhausting.
  • This do-gooder space is often severely underpaid, if it’s paid at all, and it’s not free from societal issues such as sexism, racism, and ego-driven sabotage.
  • Our efforts of shifting culture and norms take a loooooong time to bear fruit. You might build and nurture your ecosystem for years without seeing a difference, until one day, the values you’ve been modeling catch on. (And that, my friend, is the beauty of complex, adaptive systems!)

If we’re not careful, ecosystem builders burn out. And if they burn out, they won’t be here tomorrow, or next year to support their communities. What’s worse, because this work is so personal, they tend to see their burnout as a personal failure, as a reflection on their quality as a human. 

The holistic ecosystem builder

Having witnessed first hand the devastating cost of burnout, I’m calling for a more holistic approach to ecosystem building. In “The Infinite Game“, Simon Sinek argues that players with an infinite mindset will drop out when they run out of either the resources or the will to play. While we rarely have influence over the resources, we can mostly certainly affect the will and motivation to nurture and build ecosystems for social change.

If we viewed our calling not as a martyr’s destiny but our dream profession, ecosystem builders would

  • Draw and uphold boundaries, 
  • Know how to take care of themselves before taking care of their constituents and communities (Re-fill your cup so you can pour into everyone else’s)
  • Draw strength and motivation from their deep sense of purpose (but manage to keep that flame alive rather than burning it from both ends)
  • Invest in their personal & professional development,
  • Know their value and make enough income to not only make a living, but save, invest and live a good life,
  • Advocate for themselves,
  • Be productive but not at the cost of their mental health. 

As a consequence, they would 

  • Feel fulfilled and productive, hopeful, valued and appreciated, supported, seen and understood.
  • Stop constantly questioning their worth and value to society but work from that place of purpose and abundance. 
  • Build a good life doing what they love while also making a difference for other people along the way.

This level of support and personal wellbeing wouldn’t just benefit the very people doing the work; the effects of this personal mastery would ripple through their communities. Fulfilled and energized ecosystem builders who are supported by their network, funders and an enthusiastic community have so much more to give in return. 

And the good news is: I don’t think it’s out of reach. I think that by relying on learning from each other, we can shape this field into one of unlimited opportunity for entrepreneurs and the communities they operate in. 

But I think it’s going to take work, honest conversations about what’s working, what isn’t and why, and a generous amount of care and consideration for each other. I invite you to join me for these conversations, to take off your everything-is-ok mask and let us in on what you’re experiencing as a change maker in your community. I hope that you will share your journey, that you find understanding and a sense of belonging in what your peers are experiencing, and that you’ll spread the word to your friends and colleagues.

For now, make sure you’ll be the first to hear about what’s happening behind the scenes of Ecosystems for Change and get notified as soon as the podcast goes live in January:

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash