Dr. Kasie Whitener
Entrepreneurship is the latest trend in economic development. Studies show that cities that support entrepreneurship boast lower unemployment, retain younger workers, and have the resources on-hand to solve local challenges. And Columbia is building its entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Over the last twenty years, cities of all sizes have invested in entrepreneurship infrastructure with the aim of being “Startup Friendly.” Traits of startup-friendly cities include an affordable high quality of life and a deep pool of customers and talent. Columbia’s investments in entrepreneurship have followed the prescriptions written by such startup-friendly places as Kansas City, Austin, and Seattle.
One critical component of the startup-friendly ecosystem is community. Without a supportive, diverse, and inclusive community, entrepreneurs are often overcome by the common and plentiful pitfalls of business ownership. Much like a delicate ecosystem, startups are at constant risk of ruin. A drought of revenue. A plague of naïve mistakes. A monsoon of unknowns. Community provides collaborative effort, shared ownership of a single entity. The entrepreneur ecosystem relies on communities for several reasons.
Communities support us through mistakes and failures. The Great Recession leveled so many personal financial resources that fewer entrepreneurs have stepped out into the risk of business start-up. As of last year, we were adding businesses at the slowest rate in history. When even the entrepreneurial-minded are risk-averse, they need a little encouragement.
Communities provide the confidence we need to take risks. In many of our conversations at 1 Million Cups, our entrepreneurs are honest about the fear of failure. Everyone talks about what’s at stake if the business doesn’t work. For true entrepreneurs, there is no Plan B.
When you feel welcomed in a community, you find the gumption to carry on. You may even find the courage to risk it all to pursue your dream. Communities are dream farms.
Communities foster seedling enterprises. From concept to first hire, through financial milestones and impact recognition, community members encourage and promote one another. When startup ideas take root, they need encouragement and guidance. Seedlings must be cultivated with care and expertise. Communities provide experienced mentorship from senior members as well as fresh perspectives from newcomers.
In a brand-new venture, every process and design element is open for revision. Communities can help seedling enterprises recognize hazards and avoid traps. They can pair struggling entrepreneurs with successful ones if only to deliver the one, right piece of advice at the right time.
Much like a newly hatched turtle running for its life to the water’s edge, startups require a community as guide, possibly even an umbrella to shield them from what the gulls may attempt. Communities encourage exploration and experimentation. In a safe and supportive environment, a startup owner can try ideas and think about possibilities.
Communities encourage creative thought. The more diverse the community, the richer its base of experience and knowledge. As a community grows, it adds to its ranks persons with different vantage points, skills, connections, and ideas. Open forums, like the Q&A period we have at 1 Million Cups Columbia each week, encourage the kind of idea sharing and collective masterminding that grows businesses.
A phrase often heard at 1 Million Cups is “Just to piggyback off what she said,” which is the speaker’s way of adding to the previous discussion, enhancing the group’s overall experience, and building our collective knowledge each and every week. When we supplement and complement one another’s ideas, we create new knowledge, which strengthens the entrepreneurial ecosystem and its ability to survive.
To grow an entrepreneurial ecosystem, Columbia needs communities. Whether they exist as industry-specific like Tech After Five, skills-based like Toastmasters, shared-space like SOCO, or service-oriented like COR, communities are the roots of our ecosystem. When we foster entrepreneurship in them and through them, we all grow.