By Enoch Elwell, CO.STARTERS Founder & Visionary
With CO.STARTERS recently passing the five-year mark as a company, after over a decade of learnings in what is now known as “ecosystem building” support, I felt it would be helpful to share some reflections on our journey and the journey of the communities we serve.
What we now call CO.STARTERS began in 2008 as a grassroots effort supporting local creative entrepreneurs in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Since then, we have become a world-wide support network for entrepreneurial ecosystem builders with a strong community and a growing list of offerings. The roots of what we do now go all the way back to our beginnings, but our formation as a social impact for-profit company in 2013 began a period of rapid growth for us.
As we have undergone this organizational transformation, the context surrounding us has also been transforming, in the way communities work with entrepreneurs and nurture ecosystems. CO.STARTERS has been extraordinarily privileged to play a role in these changes, though we are certainly not alone. In fact, reflecting on this dual transformation—of CO.STARTERS and of ecosystem building—the context in which we live has played a significant role in shaping who we are today.
A Major Shift Is Happening
The biggest thing that’s become clear over the past five years is that a significant transformation is happening in our culture. The idea that we are shifting out of the industrial age into whatever the future model of society is—call it the connected age or the networked age—has been on the agenda of thought leaders and futurists for a long time. For the grassroots community leaders we work with, it has become a day-to-day fact of life.
It may not be fully understood. It may be unclear whether we are closer to the beginning, the middle, or the end of this transition time. But it is now very clear, in every community where we work, that we are entering a new unknown. That’s the context of everything now: the idea that we are at a hinge point entering a new age of our society, with new rules and norms. The question is not just how entrepreneurs start new businesses, but how entrepreneurs and their businesses exist in society at large.
People Are Hungry for Change
In every community we support, there is a significant undertone I’ve been hearing, sometimes directly from individuals and sometimes from local leaders. A growing number of regular people care deeply about sharing their passion, knowledge, and expertise with the world through business, but they feel disconnected from existing institutional economic development resources and business support.
People are frustrated with the current system. They feel like they are not represented in that system. They have a lot of energy, excitement, talent, passion—resources, even—but they do not feel valued. They don’t have a way to build on what they have to offer.
Everywhere we go there’s a suppressed energy just waiting for an outlet to be expressed. At first, it was surprising. Now we expect it. When we engage with a new community, we feel this demand for change, for expression, for validation–just waiting to be unlocked. When we provide our CO.STARTERS tools to help local leaders rally the community around supporting entrepreneurs, this huge amount of pent-up energy, passion, and value begins to flow.
More Programs Are Not the Biggest Need
In the past, a pervasive assumption among local leaders and national program developers has been that finding the right program will solve every problem. People trying to address a need often think they need more or newer programs. But in the current reality—characterized by shifting cultural norms and complex adaptive systems—it seems clear that the problem is not a lack of tools. Lots of good information, content, and resources are available now and being developed everywhere.
The challenge is not to develop more solutions. It’s about curation: sifting through all the possible solutions to find the right one for the given context, to strategically address system-wide issues.
The emerging need of ecosystem builders is to find the right resource—or better yet, the right set of resources—in the right context, at the right time.
The Core is Caring Connection
But even well-curated resources are not the whole answer. Connecting people to resources and to each other in an environment built on trust is essential. This intuitively makes sense to us, as caring relationships are the glue that holds any community together, but it’s not an obvious or intuitive truth in a world that has been overly focused on increased economic output as success.
Organizations are often designed to share information, but not necessarily to build trust. As CO.STARTERS’ work has evolved in cooperation with the communities we serve, we have come to understand that both are essential and non-negotiable. For entrepreneurs and communities to thrive, information sharing and deeper personal connection must increase together. Together, connection and trust are self-promoting, resulting in not just a list of resources and contacts, which are vital for any entrepreneur, but a living community of people connected by trust.
This has become the heart of CO.STARTERS’ work. I believe that in the future economy and society we are moving toward, the most valuable currencies will be connection and trust.
CO.STARTERS Itself is Changing
Over the past five years, CO.STARTERS has been living within these changes, while we are at the same time working to understand and to guide others in navigating this.
From a single program to help local leaders and creative starters flourish, CO.STARTERS has now grown to serve more than 10,000 starters pursuing all kinds of business and thousands of ecosystem builders in 172 communities with 15 proven resources and tools.
Take a closer look at what we’ve been doing this past year in our CO.STARTERS 2018 Annual Impact Summary >
While we are continuing to support these starters and communities, we are now significantly expanding that support by building a meta-network to support starters and ecosystem builders who are outside the scope of our proprietary CO.STARTERS programs. In a similar fashion, we are now focusing on developing program stacks that integrate multiple programs drawing equally from our existing CO.STARTERS programming and the growing number of excellent proven resources available nationwide.
Equally important, we’re helping lead and shape the national conversation about how to nurture entrepreneurs in a way that builds up a healthier ecosystem with a thriving entrepreneurial culture. We’re working with the Kauffman Foundation to accelerate the creation and adoption of an ecosystem building model for economic development. We are facilitating the formation of national collaborative networks like RuralRISE, and are designing models and tools for leading national ecosystem building organizations, like the Startup Champions Network. One organization and one partnership at a time, we are strengthening connections between nodes in a network that is bigger than us all, which is making up the fabric of our emerging economy and society.
This Work is Just Begun!
From my perspective, this radical transformation of our communities out of the Industrial Age is only accelerating. While these changes are at times producing distressing or divisive activities, the positive transformation of our communities through entrepreneurship is exhilarating! There is a lot more to be done, but the opportunities for starters to improve their lives and communities through thriving businesses within a supportive ecosystem of support are greater than ever and increasing all the time. It’s a great time for starters… to be one or to support one!