Building Ecosystems and Cross-Sector Collaboration

Written by: Jenny Sheets
Jenny Sheets is the Director of Startup Programs at Emerging Prairie, a company focused on uplifting the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

I recently had the privilege of attending two fantastic summits: first, the Minnesota Young American Leaders Program in Minneapolis; second, the Startup Champions Network Summit in Washington DC. Both were full of ecosystem builders and people doing a job just like mine: building up their startup communities through economic development and quality-of-life initiatives. The content of the two summits focused on the importance of ecosystem building and crosssector collaboration.

What is Ecosystem Building?

What is an ecosystem? Well, according to Khan Academy, “Populations and communities are groups of organisms. A population is a group of the same species living in the same area. A community is a group of different species living in the same area. An ecosystem is all of the organisms in an area plus the nonliving (non-species) parts of their environment.”

Just like a single population of fish can’t survive on its own because it needs food, water, and habitat, an entrepreneur can’t survive solo either. Using the definitions above when it comes to “startup ecosystems” think of an ecosystem as the founders, employees, customers, government, academics, law firms, CPAs, and all of the entities that help startups thrive. Without a supportive ecosystem, great ideas have nowhere to go.

Ecosystem building is intentionally bringing all of the startup elements together in a community. Sure, a founder’s ecosystem could be global. Maybe their lawyer is in London, their business advisor is in India, and their customers are in South America. However, that founder is not part of an active, integrated ecosystem. Establishing startup support in a community benefits everyone. Suddenly, a business advisor may be working with a dozen local founders. Then, those founders meet each other and start sharing resources. Those resource providers become champions and make referrals to startups hiring employees, and the list goes on and on.

There are people, like myself and other startup cheerleaders in our community, whose jobs are not necessarily to offer business services, but to build the ecosystem. This requires bringing in all the players required to support startups for the betterment of the greater community. At Emerging Prairie, we put founders and startups in the middle of the circle. When planning all our events and programming, we ask: “Does this support founders and startups?” Depending on the need, we build the ecosystem by inviting in investors, the Small Business Development Center, the Economic Development Corporation, universities, students, legislators, or artists. Ecosystem building is about evolving and adapting to the needs of specific populations as well as the greater community.

What is Cross-Sector Collaboration?

Cross-sector collaboration happens when individuals and organizations, across diverse sectors, work together to address challenges and opportunities impacting the community. For example, if community leaders were to address the challenges of homelessness with cross-sector collaboration, they may bring together stakeholders from different backgrounds and expertise to address the issue, such as: nonprofits, corporations, families, schools, law enforcement, faith-based organizations, and more. Usually, cross-sector collaboration is required when an issue is larger and more complex than a siloed entity can address, such as health care, equal access to education, crime, epidemics, etc

Collaborating across sectors is not easy. It’s complex and time-consuming—carving out time on the calendar for busy individuals, facilitating challenging conversations, creating action plans, and holding people accountable—but the benefits far outweigh the costs. For example, there are bills being introduced in Washington DC right now by the Center for American Entrepreneurship, a nonprofit that would encourage more diversity in venture funds, which would lead to more diverse portfolios. Did you know that women receive less than 2% of venture capital funds and black founders receive 1%? These bills require collaboration between private venture funds, elected officials, nonprofits, and startups. It’s not easy to get everyone to agree on common goals or even common challenges, but the positive impacts of cross-sector collaboration can be world-changing.

Ecosystem Building + Cross-Sector Collaboration in the FM Metro

Ecosystem building and cross-sector collaboration start with knowing the players and understanding roles. The Fargo-Moorhead area is extremely lucky to have very knowledgeable professionals supporting startups, nonprofits, academics, and so many diverse industries. If you consider yourself an ecosystem builder, continue to be present in the community, especially at events that intentionally bring together different sectors, such as events put on by Emerging Prairie, The Chamber of Commerce, or Concordia’s Lorentzsen Center. Additionally, keep strengthening the ecosystem by encouraging more startup activity and elevating other ecosystem builders.

Ecosystem building is great, but let’s take it a step further. It’s one thing to network and be present in the community. It’s another to bring people together to facilitate, address, and find solutions to a challenging, complex issue. There may be a need for a formal facilitation organization in the Fargo Metro, but cross-sector collaboration can also happen on a case-by-case basis as long as organizations are willing to participate. An example, on a very small scale, would be Emerging Prairie’s hosted event last year called “Who Builds Fargo? A Conversation on Attracting and Retaining Talent for Fargo Startups.” We had a panel of speakers that crossed sectors: Kilbourne Group, Microsoft, Checkable Health, and the Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corporation. Collectively they discussed what it would take to attract and retain startup-ready talent in the area. Everyone had the expertise to share, and opinions differed, which was the point.

Emerging Prairie continues to engage these individuals in conversations moving forward, and the discussions are fantastic, but it’s not a perfect system. We don’t have a designated facilitator; we don’t have a clearly defined goal with metrics; we don’t have a timeline and a way to hold people accountable. The point is: it’s a start. There will never be a perfect system. But, I believe that given Fargo’s increasing population, as well as the support of business, the arts, and education, the city is ready for more organized ecosystem development and cross-sector collaboration. Let’s start the conversation together.

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