Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

November 16, 2018

The world of economic development is full of gimmicky words such as economic gardening, accelerators, gazelles, second stage businesses and incubators. A new catch phrase gaining momentum is – entrepreneurial ecosystem.

When I first heard this term, I had flashbacks to my middle school science class but, the more time I’ve spent learning about this new phrase, the more I’m starting to think that this term is actually well placed.  I now think it has real meaning. My apologies to Mrs. Pickard, my former science teacher, but in this context an ecosystem is a rather simple idea.  It has 3 basic parts: the users, the consumers, and the environment. However, when you break it down into its subgroups, the entrepreneurial ecosystem can get much more complicated and confusing.

In an entrepreneurial ecosystem, the users are the actual entrepreneurs. These are all sorts of businesses; the largest companies with the most employees, the mom and pops and even those wanting/trying to start a new business. The consumers, of course, are the customers. But, what really make this ecosystem challenging is the entrepreneurial environment. Like any environment, the conditions have to be just right to allow the users to grow while attracting enough consumers for all. This is where local economic development can come into play.

At the highest level, the philosophy of economic development promotes a business friendly environment. From my own experience, stating this phrase to people often results in more glassed over blank stares than follow up questions.  What I really want to communicate is that as local economic developers, we can provide resources to create a positive entrepreneurial ecosystem.

If we want businesses to start, grow and expand in our area, we must help provide the right environment to let them grow. Businesses need access to a variety of resources and it is our role to facilitate and provide the correct conditions such as funding sources, low regulatory hurdles, access to a trained workforce, business opportunities, and connections to other like-minded and experienced entrepreneurs.

Our office has a variety of programs such as the Advancing Charlottesville Entrepreneurs (ACE) Program that award grants to micro-businesses to increase revenue, the GO Hire program helps City residents get hired to semi-skilled positions and assists businesses looking to add skills to their workforce, and the Virginia Jobs Investment Match Program is for high growth companies adding numerous employees.

Over the years, OED has cultivated a series of business subgroups through these various programs and outreach efforts but the businesses have mostly been categorized based on company size, industry, and location. Our future work needs to be more intentional and focused on blending these business subgroups to realize that they are all part of the same ecosystem. We also support local branding initiatives to help promote certain City-based industry clusters with Made In Charlottesville and the Charlottesville Ale Trail.

Many different groups have begun to explore effective entrepreneurial ecosystems and create programming around best practices. I was fortunate to attend a conference hosted by the Ewing Marion Kaufmann Foundation, a leader in developing entrepreneurial ecosystems. They have placed an enormous amount of time and energy creating an ecosystem building playbook – a comprehensive guide for communities to build an ecosystem to support their community. The conference allowed all types of players in the ecosystem to gather in a place to learn, trade ideas, and share experiences.

If you have an interest in this topic, I would encourage you to learn more about Kaufmann’s work, your role within the entrepreneurial ecosystems and how you can help make it stronger.

– Jason Ness, Business Development Manager


OED Updates:

  • Earlier this week the Charlottesville Economic Development Authority (CEDA) approved an allocation of matching funds for the Catalyst Accelerator Program. Catalyst will accelerate the growth of early-stage, scalable companies within the GO Virginia Region 9 footprint. The program is expected to launch in mid-2019 and is currently seeking state support through GO Virginia.
  • In partnership with the Virginia Career Works Charlottesville Center, the City of Charlottesville Job Center will be hosting a Reverse Reentry Job Fair on Tuesday, November 20th from 1:00pm to 4:00pm at CitySpace. The Job Fair is an opportunity for individuals with prior criminal histories to gain access to the job market with employers seeking out the employee instead of the reverse (the typical job fair format). Employers will approach the individuals and engage in conversation, sharing who they represent and what services they offer to the community.
  • The City of Charlottesville Office of Economic Development and Job Center will be hosting an Open House on Wednesday, November 28th from 10:00am to 3:00pm at the Job Center located at 201 East Market Street in the lower level of the Jefferson Madison Regional Library. The Open House is open to all members of the community interested in meeting new Job Center staff – Roy Fitch, Darrell Simpson, and Zoie Smith. It will also be an opportunity for partners, employers, job seekers, and other interested parties to learn more about employment services, programs, and events offered by the Job Center.