This article is a 3-piece exploration of Ecosystem Building principle #2 Foster Inclusive Conversations and belongs to the 7-part series Ecosystem Building 101. The entire series is developed in Fireside Chats with entrepreneurial ecosystem builders around the world. Read #1 Put entrepreneurs front and center.
Fostering inclusive conversations with and across your entrepreneurial ecosystem is all good and well. But what are they for if no-one turns these ideas into reality?
Denisse: “Some people like to hear themselves talk. Especially when we host meetups for entrepreneurial support organizations, we are very intentional about how we design the event. First of all, we try to set expectations about the event content at the beginning and internally, we discuss up-front how to reel in speakers who get lost on a tangent. Secondly, we consider in the design how to shift focus on lessons learned and key take-aways; depending on the format that might be the role of the moderator or be part of a networking exercise. Thirdly, we lead by example. If any of an event’s follow-up activities land on our plate, I take it upon myself to deliver the next day and make the introduction or share whatever resource I suggested. By living these values, we try to establish a mutual understanding that we follow through on our commitments. It’s our moral code. I believe that delivering on your promises builds trust in the community and I hope that makes us a community that people want to be part of.”
Larkin Garbee: “I’m very, very blunt. The first thing I tell l entrepreneurs is that I’m not going to spend more time on their business than they are. I’ll give them a first pass: If we come back a month from now to have a conversation and the founder didn’t follow up on the connections I made or the resources I recommended, then we’ll have a conversation about why it didn’t happen. But if it happens again, there will not be future opportunities to work with me. Because here’s the thing: I personally thrive when people take their business very seriously.”
West Point, Virginia, US
“I’m a change maker dedicated to building inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems & thriving communities.”
San Juan, Puerto Rico, US
“My increasing commitment to social innovation led me to my work in entrepreneurial ecosystem building. “
Whether an entrepreneurial community finds itself in a rural environment, is slowly emerging, trying to find a way forward in the midst of a global pandemic or generally shifts its interactions online, inclusive conversations are key to ensure we move the information, talent and resources from those who have them to those who need them in a timely manner.
Create serendipity online and in-person
Whether you are hosting a podcast or covening people in person, in a crowded world, it can be hard to be heard among the noise. The more important it is to create space and opportunities for the entrepreneurs in your ecosystem to come together and talk about what THEY need. From intimate Fireside Chats to large scale festivals, the needs and concerns of founders should always be at the center of these interactions (learn more in #1 Put entrepreneurs front and center). Invite and re-invite founders – they are busy and often juggle too many responsibilities.
Be a super connector with clear expectations
Most ecosystem builders can’t help themselves. In the back of their minds, their operating system is constantly churning and helping connect the dots between those who are looking for information, connections, resources and talent, and those who have said information, connections, resources and talent. Don’t connect people just because they have something in common. Instead, make meaningful connections by mentioning why these two should get together – what does one have that the other seeks?
Secondly, set clear expectations about what everyone is bringing to the table. Start with yourself: What values do you live and work by? What do you expect from a meeting? Are you ok just chatting for an hour? Do you want them to send you questions up-front? There is no right or wrong, but be sure you set the right expectations so that the people who come to you know what to expect.
When I make introductions, I like to ask permission and ensure I brief the seeker (of knowledge, referrals, introductions) on who they’re talking to, how they might want to show up and what a good follow-up looks like. When two founders meet, that might not be necessary. But if a fledgling entrepreneur meets with an investor for the first time, you might want to coach him or her through that conversation and some of the etiquette ahead of time. In the end of the day, your reputation is on the line, too, in case the seeker shows up late, doesn’t show up at all, or shows up unprepared. All three have happened more than once; I took for granted that everyone knew to respect these introductions and the time other people volunteered as a favor, and I quickly learned how to set clear expectations.
Who is not in the room? Radical Inclusion
Innovation happens at the fringes of comfort and the known. Be sure to always invite new voices that you haven’t heard from (learn more in our upcoming Insights piece on #3 Enlist Collaborators. Everyone is invited.). To foster inclusive conversations, be mindful of the language you use (avoid startup talk and language that is overused and too on the nose) and have honest conversations with leaders in your ecosystem what inclusivity looks like, how much everyone is willing to invest in terms of financial resources, time and leaving-their-comfort-zones.
Just starting out on your journey of becoming an ally for ALL entrepreneurs? Be sure to read our 3-part Foundations Series on Allyship!
Shifting the conversation toward hope
You may know from personal experience that watching the news for an hour can ruin your day while hearing an inspirational story re-energizes tired spirits! Whatever conversation you initiate, be sure that you start and end with a story that ignites hope and positivity. That does not mean sweeping negativity under the rug, on the contrary! As we heard from Eric and Melanie, making space to be vulnerable and share our struggles is one of the greatest values we can offer our communities. But be mindful not to remain stuck there. Look for silver-linings, find examples of others and how they may have overcome similar situations, offer to help, even if you don’t know what that looks like in detail. As Mildred suggested, invite entrepreneurs to share their stories of overcoming adversity.
A little less conversation, a little more action
The world is not short of good ideas. We are short of people who can execute on them. When you design interactions online or in-person, think about how to add an action-oriented character from the beginning. What do you want people to do once the conversation is over? Reverse-engineer from there. It might take your community a while to get used to this but once they experience the energy that travels from idea to execution, they might just get hooked. Until then, lead by example and follow up with whatever it is you committed to. Larkin Garbee likes to close out events by asking everyone to commit publicly to one thing they will do in the next 24 hours as a result of the conversation they just participated in. Give it a try!