Growing Entrepreneurs, 1 Million Cups at a Time

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In my twelve-year tenure as the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, only a handful of topics on mayors and cities captured the national attention in the same way as last year’s discussion on Amazon and their decision to open a competition among cities for a second headquarters.

The best part of being mayor is the opportunity to advocate on behalf of your city, to promote its strengths and set your community up for success. In that sense, Amazon was a lightning rod, prompting cities to research and evaluate their resources and assets with the goal of making themselves more attractive for economic development opportunities, like Amazon. I believe this extra focus also helped cities home in on the important realization that there is no substitute for investing in the unique assets that they already possess: the people, passion, talent and creativity that make up your entrepreneurial community.

As the mayor of Little Rock, and in my role as a former president of the National League of Cities, I championed investing in entrepreneurship as the most sustainable path to cities’ long-term economic success. Mayors are in a unique position to support entrepreneurs because entrepreneurs and mayors share a lot in common. They are, first and foremost, problem-solvers who understand how to best maximize their limited resources. That is why the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the National League of Cities work together to invest in and support both mayors and entrepreneurs.

Supporting entrepreneurship can start by looking inward to “grow your own.” This means investing in economic development models that look to grow businesses organically from within communities rather than looking to the outside. One of the first model programs I implemented in Little Rock, 1 Million Cups, was grounded in the “grow your own” framework. Through community organizing and volunteer support, 1 Million Cups is based on the notion that entrepreneurs discover solutions and engage with their communities “over a million cups of coffee.” At 1 Million Cups’ monthly gatherings, a startup is invited to present on their business, and connect and engage with their community by discussing their business model, their successes and the challenges they’ve faced.

1 Million Cups is a low-cost, high-reward model that mayors and cities can implement just by connecting their talent, city staff, and other entrepreneurial ecosystem builders like angel investors, incubators and startup program staff.

Investing in entrepreneurship can be that easy: connecting people, resources and talent. Next month, mayors across the country have the opportunity to learn more about the 1 Million Cups model, as well as other programs and initiatives that are focused on the “grow your own” philosophy, at the Kauffman Foundation’s annual Mayors Conference on Entrepreneurship. The conference brings together mayors, their staffs, entrepreneurs and policy experts to help strengthen entrepreneurship in local communities using a hands-on approach, allowing small groups to engage with material in a deeper and more intensive format.

This year, the conference is taking that approach a step further by asking mayors to pick a program, policy or practice to invest in, work on the initiative while at the conference and implement it throughout the year. The Kauffman Foundation has provided a grant to the National League of Cities City Innovation Ecosystems program to provide technical support at the conference and throughout the year to help cities successfully implement their initiative. The goal is to help cities and mayors achieve meaningful, demonstrable success. NLC will help mayors measure outcomes and track progress on their initiatives, as well as communicate theirimpacts.

The Mayors Conference on Entrepreneurship is a unique opportunity to help mayors harness the same kind of energy we saw in the Amazon competition and focus it on creating healthy entrepreneurial ecosystems. I hope you’ll join me and our colleagues from around the country on May 20-22 in Kansas City.

To learn more about the Kauffman Foundation’s 2019 Mayors Conference on Entrepreneurship visit the websiteor contact staff.

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About the Author: Mark Stodola is a former president of the National League of Cities and former mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas.