Attendees at the Kauffman Foundation's ESHIP Summit in Kansas City, Mo., used hands-on modeling to facilitate discussion around developing entrepreneurial communities.

Photo by Don Delphia

10 Ways to Break Down Barriers for Entrepreneurs in Your Community

Every neighborhood is different, but supporting new businesses comes with some common challenges.

How do you build a thriving community of entrepreneurs? At a time when the doors of economic opportunity seem to be shutting out so many people, entrepreneurship is crucial to local neighborhoods. The Kauffman Foundation’s inaugural ESHIP Summit brought together more than 400 diverse entrepreneurial community leaders from all over the country to answer this question.

Below, these entrepreneurial ecosystem builders — people who build communities to support entrepreneurs — share their top tips for energizing entrepreneurship in their communities, no matter where in the world that is.

1. Find Common Ground . . .

Participants came to the ESHIP Summit from 48 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 10 countries, each facing their own challenges. But as attendee Alistair Brett of Rainforest Strategies in Washington, D.C., says, “What works in one place may not work in another, but the core of this kind of work is the same for everyone.”

2. . . . But Don’t Copy Silicon Valley 

Despite its huge concentration of high-tech startups and venture capitalists,the Silicon Valley model has its weaknesses, particularly when it comes to diversity and inclusion, says Kate Stewart, the executive director of JAXCoE, a network of entrepreneurs and supporters in Jacksonville, Fla. “The more inclusive a company or an ecosystem is, the more robust it is,” she adds. Philip Gaskin, the director of entrepreneurial communities for the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo., agrees: “As the demographics in the nation are changing, you need equal representation in your businesses, in your leadership and on your boards to reach your customers and understand their needs.”

3. Unearth Potential 

“The capital of economic development is no longer businesses moving from place to place; it’s talent moving from place to place,” Sly James, the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., told the Summit. Many communities also have massive untapped potential in populations that haven’t previously had access to the resources needed to start new businesses. “Women in our state are just now beginning to find their footing” and connect to the support they need, as are minority entrepreneurs, says Shannon Roberts, program manager at the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center.

4. Get Ideas Out of the Lab

Professors and students are conducting cutting-edge research and generating innovative ideas. But the town-gown gap can be hard to bridge. The key is understanding how the motivations of academics differ from those of traditional entrepreneurs, says Lydia McClure, vice president of scientific partnerships at the Translational Research Institute in D.C. Researchers tend to be driven by the impact they can have and aren’t necessarily as interested in creating the next big startup. Everyone involved should be asking themselves, “What do I have to offer?” McClure says.

5. Challenge Stereotypes 

What does the typical entrepreneur look like? Accion, an organization that provides microloans to small business owners, often works with low-income minorities who are opening businesses to provide for their families. But no matter the scale of a business, “entrepreneurship is a source of income, job creation, asset generation, and products and services that create value for the community,” says Anne Haines Yatskowitz, Accion New Mexico’s CEO. And with their tenacity, resourcefulness and perseverance, she says, “entrepreneurs can be incredible role models.”

6. Reach More People 

Preston James, the CEO of DivInc, a startup pre-accelerator that supports entrepreneurship among people of color and women, is trying to solve a problem he sees in the otherwise thriving startup ecosystem in Austin, Texas. “What we’re doing in Austin is expanding the ecosystem by being more inclusive of a broader audience,” James says. DivInc connects underrepresented entrepreneurs with mentors, educational opportunities, domain experts and other resources that help lay the foundation for successful new companies. “Some of the other hubs that are up and coming, the sooner they can do that, the more successful they will be — faster.”

7. Consider Your Impact 

“I have a fundamental belief that business’s role on the planet is to make life better for people,’’ says Kim Coupounas, the director of B Lab, an organization with offices around the country that supports businesses aiming to be a force for good. Coupounas believes companies should think about their social impact from the beginning. “A huge source of innovation is when companies really consider how they impact their stakeholders,” she says. Ecosystem builders should be thinking about how they’re affecting the world around them too, she says. “It’s not just about creating jobs; it’s about creating good jobs.”

8. Keep It Simple

One successful company can jump-start an entire entrepreneurial ecosystem, and just one connection can help information flow more freely through it. “If one tiny connection fails in your computer, it won’t work,” says Alistair Brett. “But if you make that one tiny connection, it’s back to working.” Adds Wayne Sutton, cofounder of Change Catalyst in the Bay Area, “It’s not rocket science. We’re not talking about going to Mars; we’re basically talking about working with people. You just have to put in the work.

9. Forge Connections — and Friendships

“Entrepreneurship is a lonely experience without community,” says Scott Phillips of Civic Ninjas in Tulsa, Okla., a nonprofit whose network of coders strives to solve societal ills through technology. So is trying to support entrepreneurs, particularly underrepresented ones who are up against real economic, political and cultural barriers in their attempts to access to opportunities. “It’s very isolating sometimes to fight something that seems as big as this is,” adds Geraud Staton, founder of the Helius Foundation, which mentors and coaches entrepreneurs in Durham, N.C. The power of connecting with other people doing similar work can’t be underestimated.

10. Focus on the Future 

“Entrepreneurship, to me, signals taking responsibility for how the future develops,” says David Witzel of RASA, an organization in Oakland, Calif., devoted to regenerative agriculture. Keeping an eye on the future makes this work meaningful. “I have two young grandchildren,” says John Bost, the president of the Clemmons Community Foundation in Clemmons, N.C. “They need a future they can grow into, and it won’t be the past I’ve lived out of.”

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This content was produced in partnership with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which works in entrepreneurship and education to create opportunities and connect people to the tools they need to achieve success, change their futures and give back to their communities. In June 2017, the foundation hosted its inaugural ESHIP Summit, convening 435 leaders fighting to break down barriers for entrepreneurs across the country.