Cities Support Local Entrepreneurship through Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Ambassadors

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You’ve probably heard it before: “Personnel is policy.”

It’s the idea that, through their personnel appointments, city leaders transform policy proposals and campaign rhetoric into real programs that succeed or fail on the backs of the people they hire. For mayors who prioritize entrepreneurship, the “personnel as policy” creed is increasingly reflected in who fills out their administrations and how their economic development teams define success.

In Ohio, Akron mayor Dan Horrigan appointed an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Advocate to the city’s Office of Economic Development. In Tulsa, one of Mayor Bynum’s senior policy advisors was recently appointed to focus specifically on entrepreneurship, small businesses, and economic innovation. In September of 2019, Providence’s Office of Economic Opportunity petitioned their city council to enhance the city’s small business development position with entrepreneurial ecosystem building responsibilities.

This is what many Offices of Economic Development look like in 2020: less smokestack chasing, more ambassadorship of homegrown entrepreneurs.

At the National League of Cities, we call these public servants “Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Ambassadors.” They’re tasked with creating connectivity between entrepreneurs, entrepreneur support organizations, civic organizations, philanthropy, educational institutions, private companies, and non-profits. They occupy a space that, in previous decades, was frequently left to the private and nonprofit sector but, more often, to no one at all. In an era when new businesses account for nearly all net new job creation, it makes sense to have a dedicated person in city hall to listen to and respond to the needs of startups and entrepreneurs.

We spoke with the three ecosystem ambassadors from Akron, Tulsa, and Providence to better understand their work and the role they play in supporting entrepreneurship.

They build a local culture of entrepreneurship.

“One of the most important things I can do is occupy the role of storyteller,” says Heather Roszczyk, Akron’s ecosystem ambassador.  When it comes to economic growth, success breeds more success. Publicizing the achievements of local startups, particularly if one has made a successful exit (meaning it’s gone public or been acquired) is likely to attract new investors and new businesses. Creating opportunities for students to engage with and learn from experienced entrepreneurs has also been demonstrated to positively impact would-be entrepreneurs’ intentions of starting a business.

They help convene stakeholders and direct resources.

Clay Holk, Tulsa’s ecosystem ambassador, notes the traditionally unstructured nature of the city’s role in shaping the local economy. “For a long time, everybody was just doing their own thing. We realized the city has a really important role to play in long-term strategy formation among different organizations and resources.”  As the people at the nexus of city hall, local entrepreneurship scenes, civic organizations, philanthropy and beyond, ecosystem ambassadors are perfectly positioned to help formulate sustained and strategic cross-sector partnerships, and to re-position local government as an accelerant for entrepreneurship and innovation instead of a barrier to it.

They identify financial, legal, and policy barriers to business entry.

Through local ordinances, regulations, and procurement policies, city governments help create an environment for entrepreneurs that can be friendly or downright antagonistic. Jenn Steinfeld, an ecosystem ambassador in Providence, has focused her sights on the city’s legacy procurement policies which, through repeated listening sessions with entrepreneurs, she learned often disadvantage small, minority, and women-owned businesses from obtaining government contracts. Other cities are working to streamline regulatory processes which, they learned, impose excessive costs to and delays in business formation.

There is a cliché that “what gets measured is what gets done.” However, whereas traditional measures of economic development are easy to quantify – ribbon cuttings, net new jobs, economic output – measuring an “ecosystem” can be a nebulous undertaking and one that each of the ecosystem ambassadors we interviewed acknowledged was a challenge. How do you measure a city’s entrepreneurial culture or the degree of cross-sector connectivity? New patents, amount of R&D spending, and self-employment rate are all measures being considered in these cities. But these may not capture the harder-to-quantify benefits of listening, advocacy, and relationship-building that ecosystem ambassadors deploy in their role daily.

While these activities may result in fewer short-term “wins”, they’re what creates strong entrepreneurial ecosystems and prosperous cities in the long run. Left to chance, this critical work is unlikely to happen. Cities must invest in staff members who can steward the necessary partnerships to fruition.

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Since the writing of this piece, Jenn Steinfeld has left the City of Providence and joined NLC as the Director of Entrepreneurship and Economic Development.

 

About the Author: Phil Berkaw is a program manager on NLC’s Innovation Ecosystems team.