Entrepreneurship is so closely linked with Silicon Valley it may seem preposterous California is learning how to build entrepreneurial ecosystems from Appalachia, but it is. Eleven community colleges in Appalachia have been creating ecosystem maps — an effort that has led to a larger ecosystem building project in California. Both efforts can inform communities nationwide.
Looking toward local assets to promote entrepreneurship
The 11 community colleges in rural Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia began working with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship(NACCE) to map their local assets for entrepreneurship. Many of the communities, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia, are impacted by the decline of the coal industry and the need to replace its jobs with new ones.
The assets include strengths and attributes of the communities, local industries and businesses, resident talent and skills, nearby community colleges and other institutions. Mapping those assets compiles — on a community or ecosystem basis — what Dr. Saras Sarasvathy, Professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, calls the “Bird in Hand Principle” for entrepreneurs. Those entrepreneurs must start with their means, which can be grouped into three categories: Who I am – my traits, tastes, and abilities; What I know – my education, training, expertise, and experience; and Who I know – my social and professional networks.
In mapping those means or assets across an ecosystem, communities have not just assembled them but discovered new ones. Certain skills essential to traditional industries, for instance, have application to new technology. In West Virginia skilled labor in old-school manufacturing has proven to be an advantage for advanced manufacturing. Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College has transformed agricultural expertise into AgTech proficiency.
Sharing best ecosystem mapping practices across the nation
NACCE shared best practices in ecosystem mapping from its work in Appalachia, and it inspired the California Community Colleges Maker Initiative to incorporate ecosystem mapping into the development of its makerspaces (collaborative workspaces with high-tech equipment for prototyping and fabricating). Thirty colleges went through the ecosystem mapping process with NACCE, which provided a focus to individual makerspaces such as one at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, focusing on arts and creativity. The mapping also provided direction in creating makerspace communities beyond the college, placing students in internships, and developing curricula that prepare students with appropriate skills.
Twenty-eight community colleges submitted grant proposals to the state, and 24 received a total of $6 million in grants, renewable for a second year, to create or strengthen inclusive makerspaces that will foster innovation and entrepreneurial skills that prepare students for impactful careers. The 28 colleges that submitted grant proposals documented more than 1000 ecosystem partners, 1,000 student and community activity participants, and 200 engaged faculty. The colleges proposed 1,400 student internships and leveraged more than $10 million in matched resources.
Helping institutions yield greater benefits to society
That’s an extraordinary outcome already for ecosystem mapping – and one with national implications. New businesses create almost all net new jobs in America, and ecosystem mapping and development are vital to generating those businesses and jobs on the scale that is needed.
Fortunately, ecosystems are evolving across the nation, as evidenced by the first-ever ESHIP Summit convened last summer by the Kauffman Foundation. It brought together more than 400 ecosystem builders from 48 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, plus nine other countries. The resulting digital playbooknow makes the ideas, insights, and solutions that emerged available free to all.
Every community in the nation can benefit from ecosystem mapping, and the nation’s 1,462 community colleges can be a vital resource. But other institutions can benefit as well. Public libraries are starting to host makerspaces, for instance, as their missions evolve and relate increasingly to job readiness.
Silicon Valley may be world-renowned for its entrepreneurship, but even California community colleges looked to Appalachia for help with ecosystem mapping. That’s an important lesson for the nation, because the answers to our national challenges will not come from any one place. They will come from talent throughout the country and an openness to embrace solutions wherever they arise.