I spent the past 48 hours holed up in Kansas City, Missouri, with 75 innovators from 31 cities, and I am once again amazed at the passionate, brilliant minds who are choosing to focus their time and talent on the cultivation of entrepreneurship.
I met leaders like Dr. Edward Glaeser, Harvard Economist, world-renowned urban thinker and author of Triumph of the City - who, instead of breezing in for his inspirational evening keynote, dedicated his full two days together to listening and participating in the ongoing dialogue.
We were all inspired by entrepreneurs like Dr. Susan Amat, the founder of the Miami-based Venture Hive, a for-profit tech business accelerator which provides grant money, mentoring and training while not taking equity from the companies admitted into the highly competitive program. Throughout the past two days, Susan's vociferous advocacy for accountability and equitability within organizations serving entrepreneurs helped stimulate deeper, more meaningful discussions.
And we heard from men like Jose Corona, who shared invaluable lessons learned about the role that government plays in articulating the needs and priorities of community - something he does every day in his role as the Director of Equity and Strategic Partnerships for Oakland's Mayor Libby Schaaf, who consistently reminds the world of her city's priority of lifting up minority populations.
The peer-led Metro Summit for Entrepreneurship Leaders was held in Kansas City, Missouri, on the campus of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a fitting locale, since the foundation's mission focuses on fostering economic independence through education and entrepreneurship.
Rachel Carlton, Kauffman's Senior Program Officer in Entrepreneurship, says that the hope of her team was that by bringing together leaders from all segments of the ecosystem - from entrepreneurs to mayors to funders to trainers - the conversations and dialogue among attendees would encourage collaboration through newly formed relationships as well as help cross-pollinate ideas and solutions within the 31 cities represented at the summit.
Fostering Diversity and Inclusion
One of the most invaluable results of putting people in the same room who are knee deep in solving real-world problems within their own communities is that conversations quickly move from ethereal and idealistic into the far more valuable pragmatic and realistic. Each of us were challenged to engage in a healthy assessment of possible inherent biases and assumptions which could result in unintended negative outcomes within well-meaning solutions.
One recurring theme centered around best practices to foster diversity and inclusion, both of which are vital within a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem. Here are three takeaways that can encourage greater diversity and inclusion within communities:
Use Real World Language
Do you know the difference between diversity and inclusion?
Diversity is having events for women.
Inclusion is refusing to sit on a panel that doesn't include women.
By using a simple example using real world language, an often intangible idea is broken down into pragmatic, actionable concepts.
When we avoid industry jargon and talk about everyday issues, more people will respond to our community's entrepreneurial programs. Because many people don't self-identify as entrepreneurs, and instead call themselves farmers, bakers, or designers, we can inspire more citizens to engage in networks and access support by speaking their language, not ours.
Likewise, framing entrepreneurship in broad terms outside of the conventional concepts of capitalism is vital, since some within a community might readily consider entrepreneurship as a vehicle to solving problems within their community or to create opportunities for social good who might never view entrepreneurship as a possibility outside of its more conventional definition.
Respect Place and Culture
If outreach is respectful of demographics, both by taking events out into neighborhoods and in highlighting individuals within that neighborhood as mentors and experts, it can appeal to a broader segment of a community. When individuals attend an event where they can interact with role models and mentors who look like them and live where they are, it is easier to self-identify as an entrepreneur, engage in a network and enroll in programs. This also includes youth, as highlighted in Miami, Florida, where some programs have intentionally moved youth tech entrepreneurship fairs and events into local neighborhood parks and community centers for higher local engagement and greater exposure to concepts and technologies that may not otherwise be accessible.
Don't Just Tech
While high-growth technology startups offer the potential for rapid scale and large exits, it is important for communities to also support and showcase non-tech companies to foster inclusion and diversity. When the majority of efforts and messaging within a community focus on tech, it can disenfranchise the rest of the entrepreneurial community. But even bigger than that, failing to provide adequate mentorship and training to other types of companies results in lost potential economic impact generated from healthier, faster growing "Main Street" and lifestyle companies. While a region's venture capital investments might only focus on those high-growth tech startups, community leaders can reach a broader, more diverse startup community by creating opportunities to celebrate, showcase and support other types of businesses.
By prioritizing the need for diversity and inclusion within any entrepreneurial ecosystem, communities empower more individuals to contribute to their own local economies - not only through better access to support, mentors and funding - but mostly because more of us believe it might be possible to become an entrepreneur in the first place