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The Job-Creating Infrastructure Every Community Needs

Startups are where most jobs come from. There's a lot that can be done to connect, support and empower entrepreneurs.

Aerial shot of Kansas City
(Flickr/Coulton Thomas)
It's time to dispel the myth that most entrepreneurial growth is organic, growing spontaneously from random collisions between people with creative ideas. Startups -- those new and emerging businesses that create nearly all net new jobs -- rarely are the simple product of spontaneous creative collisions. Communities that want to see accelerated entrepreneurial growth need an intentional strategy: an infrastructure that surfaces entrepreneurs, supports startups and sustains job generation.

The good news is that any community can create such an infrastructure. You don't have to be a major metropolitan area. But lessons implemented in Kansas City can illuminate the process for all. In Kansas City, startups now generate an average of 16,376 new jobs annually. From 2012 to 2016, the total was 84,011.

An entrepreneurial infrastructure provides the foundation to connect, support and empower entrepreneurs and to grow a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem. It facilitates the flow of resources, capital and talent among those who want to start businesses and the communities around them.

Local strengths or assets are fundamental to entrepreneurial ecosystems and the infrastructures that support them. Every community has local assets and can mix them in ways that are both unique and catalytic. The first step is to identify and catalogue those assets, including the community's location and heritage; its top industry sectors and existing businesses; its institutions and expertise; and its local leaders, talent and gathering spots. It's also important to consider neighboring communities, as there may be value in regional collaboration.

The next step is to reach out to the people associated with those assets and connect them with each other and with entrepreneurs. The goal is to build a coalition of committed people and then grow that network to expand its strengths and activities. One way to start building long-term collaborations is with regular collisions: 1 Million Cups, launched five years ago in Kansas City by the Kauffman Foundation, is a free resource that more than 150 communities in 40 states utilize to host weekly meetups of entrepreneurs and those who serve them.

The third step is to identify gaps in assets. What's missing from the community, and how can the gaps be filled? Who's missing from the conversation and who should be part of it? It's important to recognize the strategic advantage of diversity of backgrounds, experiences and skills. The more diverse the inputs, the more creative the results.

In Kansas City, we conducted a study to better understand the gap in entrepreneurs' access to capital. Did we lack promising investments or savvy investors? We found that we didn't lack either one. They just weren't connected. Creating an organized network of entrepreneurs and investors produced $1 billion in identified capital pools.

As communities understand and look to fill their own gaps, new collaborations may emerge: a co-working alliance; a multicultural business coalition; a microloan program. Sometimes new programs will need to be recruited to a community.

All along the way, progress must be measured, so you can tell what's working and what you should do differently. Valuable early measures include the number of networked partners and public events spotlighting entrepreneurs. As resources coalesce into a central hub for entrepreneurial services, you can begin to track requests for assistance, directory searches and web visits to get a better understanding of who your entrepreneurs are and what help they seek. Later, satisfaction surveys become relevant, along with demographics of web traffic, numbers of event participants, evidence of collaboration and movement on closing asset gaps.

In Kansas City, we've created a suite of tools to identify, connect, empower and measure: KCSourceLink serves as the portal for local entrepreneurship, helping entrepreneurs get to the right people -- such as coaches, mentors and investors -- at the right time. We Create KC is a digital dashboard that measures such key indicators as jobs, capital and the state of the innovation pipeline. Whiteboard2Boardroom connects entrepreneurs and established businesses to technologies available for licensing at nearby higher-education institutions, hospitals and corporate research groups. Digital Sandbox KC provides proof-of-concept resources to support early-stage commercialization processes.

Nationally, there is an array of tools on which communities can draw and an evolving environment of ecosystem building within which they can thrive. Last summer, the Kauffman Foundation convened its first-ever ESHIP Summit of more than 400 ecosystem builders from 48 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and nine countries. The ideas, insights and solutions that emerged are available in a free digital playbook.

There has never been a better time to build an infrastructure to support entrepreneurship. The ground has already been broken, and tools are available for communities to use in building their own jobs, businesses and dreams.

Executive director of KCSourceLink in Kansas City
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