Kristin Leutz is the Executive Director at Startup Champions Network and past CEO of Valley Venture Mentors. She is passionate about connecting and supporting entrepreneurship ecosystems to build a stronger, equitable economy for all. As a consultant, Kristin has worked in organizational development, fundraising, and communications for clients such as Women Moving Millions, Forward Cities, and MassMutual Financial Group. She has over 15 years of fundraising expertise and served as the Director of Development of RefugePoint, Vice President of Philanthropic Services for the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, and in higher education at Amherst and Smith Colleges. She has a BA in English and Spanish from Colgate University and an MS in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Springfield College. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her family and a menagerie of pets and plants.
As the second installment of our thought leadership series, I am excited to introduce you to Kristin Leutz! Kristin is the current Executive Director of Startup Champions Network (SCN), a national network of professional ecosystem builders. Like her predecessor – Larkin Garbee – Kristin is in a truly unique position to talk about the current state of entrepreneurial ecosystem building in the United States and talked openly about challenges and shortcomings in the field. Read on for a fascinating conversation about
- How #ecosystemsrecover from crisis
- Where to find on-ramps and resources for emerging ecosystem builders
- Some real-life examples of extraordinary ecosystem builders
- Central challenges for US-based ecosystem builders
- Taking care of yourself and your team, and
- The Importance of professional development for sustained impact-driven work.
How do you see yourself in this world of ecosystem building?
“I came to the world of entrepreneurship from a background as a community builder in philanthropy.
I believe that strong communities change our world, and I identify with those individuals who are dedicated to building and nurturing the growth of impact communities.
Startup Champions Network (SCN) is a group of people whose profession, practice and art it is to build community around entrepreneurs. We view these communities as ecosystems, and at SCN we’re constantly thinking about individual ecosystem builders, and what they need to be supported, advanced, lifted up and amplified in their work. For a lot of us that is about building strong relationships with each other. We have been a tight knit group that’s grown over time to 155 members in 40 states around the nation. But in the early days many of us were – and still are – one of a few in our communities who do the work called ecosystem building, and it can be lonely. SCN was founded on the idea that as an ecosystem builder, it helps to have a group of people around the country that you know, you can call and count upon. We are building more than just relationships. We create traditional professional field building activities to make sure that we have a foundation of knowledge and skill building underneath us, in addition to our strong personal networks.
Even though I am now working on the national level, I also still see myself as an ecosystem builder in my local community. Prior to SCN, I ran a local coworking space, accelerators, and mentorship programs at Valley Venture Mentors. Here in Western Massachusetts where I live, our entrepreneurial community has become more collaborative over time and we have built creative ways to continue working with students and local people to support a healthy small business and startup culture. This is how we help ensure healthy growth for our local small towns and cities that struggle with poverty and in our rural areas that lack some basic resources like high speed internet.”
#EcosystemsRecover: The impact of COVID-19 on entrepreneurial ecosystems in the U.S.
“We host two Summits per year, they are three-day in-person events that serve as a live living case study of a certain city or region. Our members themselves highlight and host us in their city and showcase everything that they’re doing around ecosystem building.
In early March, about 30 of us gathered in San Antonio, Texas, and flew home right before the world closed down. We were very, very lucky to have an intimate and amazing experience in San Antonio. But I do think that even on the plane home, it was clear that we were going to have to navigate a new reality. At that conference, some of our members created a Facebook group called Ecosystems Unite that has been a place where folks can share the challenges they are facing due to the pandemic, and the solutions they are building.
As we began to see these stories emerge in the early days of quarantine, I reflected with some of our board members on the fact that other tragedies and disasters have happened before in the US. We knew there would be communities and ecosystem builders who already had done some of the work of rebuilding and recovering. So we wanted to highlight those recovery stories as a way of building hope in our work. That into a storytelling series with the hashtag #EcosystemsRecover.
We’ve shared stories from places like Puerto Rico, the Midwest, Virgina, and Georgia, where we have seen both a history or ecosystem builders creating recovery or new efforts to create COVID-19-related solutions like building PPE for their communities, or helping small businesses survive during the time of shutdown.
Each community and every SCN member has a very different challenge. Some of our members, for instance, run physical coworking spaces or incubators, and those have been closed. Immediately, they had to face the challenge of how to migrate their physical space into a virtual one. So we’ve been trying to connect folks around that. Ecosystem builders have been busier than ever; they were called upon by their communities thanks to their connectivity and the systems level work that we do.
As innovative new economy-type of thinkers, we were born for this moment.
We are interested in building a future that is even better than the normal we saw before this crisis. One where everyone has access to starting and growing a business, where our local economies are fair and equitable for all.”
Where can ecosystem builders learn more?
“Head over to our website (startupchampions.co) to learn more about our community and benefits like training courses on our new online learning platform, virtual and, hopefully soon again, our amazing in-person events. I have also gotten a lot out of participating in the Kauffman Foundation’s ESHIP initiative. I think that’s a great place to start if you’re new to ecosystem building and want to identify ways to build the field. A great place to start is to read the books and posts on Ecosystem Builder Hub, curated by Jeff Bennett. It’s open to all and free.
If you prefer to learn through listening, there are some great podcasts. The Keystone podcast by Charlton Cunningham and Yuval Yarden is a great explainer. Our friends in Madison, Wisconsin at The Doyenne Group also host a podcast called Lady Business; they talk about ecosystem building, but also entrepreneurship. The bottom line is ecosystem builders are lifelong learners who will always share interesting things to read and learn. And hopefully that will be a healthy and happy addiction as you get more immersed in our world!”
Who are your go-to examples for ecosystem building?
“There are so many that I could mention!
First off, I would say Larkin Garbee – the previous executive director of SCN. I had the chance to work with her for a few months when I came on board. When COVID-19 broke out, she immediately shifted gears and launched the Good Work Society. It felt like she had the whole thing figured out within days – making face shields, moving her coworking space online and supporting her local community wherever she could (she is based in central Virginia). I love seeing her style of action – it is a stunning combination and amount of skill, flexibility, patience, caring, and moving very quickly.
Another great example of an ecosystem builder is Chris Cain in Ithaca, New York, where she is helping build the ecosystem through her role at Alternative Federal Credit Union. Chris and I have talked a lot about diversifying access to capital and her bank is creating inclusive ways to access capital. The recently created life-changing resources for the LGBTQ community. This week, Alternatives just announced the launch of its TransAction Financial Empowerment Program, a program to provide financial loans to transgender and non-binary community members. They also created a $1.4 million dollar recovery fund to help small businesses and others in distress from COVID-19. To me she’s another example of being in an unconventional seat for an ecosystem builder but having a huge kind of lever to change in her community.
I already mentioned the Doyenne Group. Amy Gannon who tragically passed away last year, and her co-founder Heather Wentler created Doyenne after attending an entrepreneurship event in Wisconsin at which they were the only females at the table. They asked themselves “How do we create an ecosystem for female entrepreneurs? And now they have built that locally and are scaling it around the state.”
Many of us ecosystem builders have that entrepreneurial mindset. We’re always building and creating the next thing. It inspires me to keep myself going and always be thinking about building and creating, not just connecting.
What are some of the key challenges for ecosystem builders in the US?
“Getting this work supported, especially at scale, is difficult. If you’re lucky you might get seed money to launch something, but the follow-up funding to continue to do this work – and it is long-tail-work, is incredibly hard. It’s often the case that people do the ecosystem building part of their job in addition to their regular work.
This is unpaid work for many, and it’s often unrecognized.
As in our larger society, ecosystem builders also face the longer term work of creating inclusive economies that are open and accessible for everyone who wants to start a business.
Right now, the rates of new businesses are highest among women of color and immigrant populations, but many face disproportionate barriers to accessing key resources like capital and programs to help them grow.
We will be challenged to improve this situation in the coming years.
There is an effort through the ESHIP initiative to build the professional field of ecosystem building, helping to build fundamental resources like defined job descriptions for ecosystem builders, and identifying the essential knowledge, skills and abilities to do the work. SCN is launching a learning platform to create a framework for the knowledge, skills and abilities that ecosystem builders need. By putting ecosystem builders and those who aspire to become one on a learning path to acquire those, our goal is to make the profession visible and more tangible.”
I believe that once communities see the value of ecosystem building, along with specific job descriptions and compensation, they are more likely to recognize the work for what it is and start supporting these roles within their communities.
Organizational psychology meets ecosystem building
As a mother of two teenagers, ecosystem builder and executive director of a national network of professional ecosystem builders – how do you fit everything in?
“I’m an organizational psychologist. In my master’s study, I focused on helping people create what I refer to as work-life-blend. Safe to say I learned a few tricks of the trade. The biggest insight from my academic work was that you need two things to be able to feel balanced in your work, flexibility and control. I have worked in alternative work environments for many years, working remotely, even job sharing. Even before COVID-19, I felt well prepared to lead remote teams, and I hope that SCN can share some of our experience as a remote organization with others who are new to this way of working.
I am strict with myself about physical wellness and fitness. I move every day, and I have a mindfulness practice every evening. It also helps to have hobbies that allow me to work with my hands, not just my brain. I am an obsessive plant person. Spending time with plants helps me balance things out and not be talking.
When you do impact-driven work, the to-do list will never get finished, and that’s okay. It’s truly okay.
You gotta just let it go. Shut it down, get on your bike, go out in the garden, take a walk – whatever you need to do to get out of your head.”
“I will give another plug to a great ecosystem builder and SCN member Felecia Hatcher. I just took her amazing two-weekend boot camp course. It was perfect because I wanted to learn how to become a better public speaker. I loved how she designed it. I can carve out two hours on a Saturday and then do some homework at night throughout the week. To me, that was the perfect way to handle some professional development while balancing parenting and home life.
When I was at an earlier stage in my career, I wanted very much to get a professional certification, it’s called a Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy. I had to study for tests – alone and in study groups – then take them. It was very hard, it cost a lot and it took several years to get the certification. Not to mention that I had to actually go out and raise the money first from donors to fund the fees for the course. The whole journey of getting that took me four years.
That’s why we have to develop supportive networks. I couldn’t have done any of this personal development without my family and friends. It took a village to get my kids watched, my dinners cooked and laundry folded.
For impact-driven professionals, professional development is often not funded and there’s rarely any spare time. You have to invent pockets of support to push yourself through the eye of the needle on that stuff.
As a manager, I ask everyone on my team to set four goals – three goals only for their performance and a fourth personal goal around their own development; it could be as simple as starting to meditate or taking walks at lunch. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy.
Taking care of yourself and ensuring you’re continuously growing – to me – is part of professional development.
If I don’t know how I’m showing up and if I’m not regularly checking in with myself, then I’m not going to be as good as a leader.”
Executive Director. Organizational psychologist. Mother.