Economic Gardening: Changing Community Culture to Grow Entrepreneurs

Who among us doesn’t want to live, work and play in a vibrant community? In addition to supporting local entrepreneurs, each of us can help to cultivate community vitality by understanding the larger strategies designed to assist small businesses to grow and thrive. Programs that help to develop business plans, obtain financing and market and manage enterprises are frequently included in a community’s economic “tool box.” Universities, Small Business Development Centers and local Chambers of Commerce often provide direct assistance that can range from one-on-one consultation to classroom instruction and group workshops.

Pioneered in Littleton, Colorado in 1987, and based on David Birch’s research at MIT, the concept of “Economic Gardening” recognizes that small businesses create most of the new jobs in local economies. While providing skill training for individual entrepreneurs is a very important component of economic gardening, it is only part of the picture. If entrepreneurs are to have their best chance to grow and thrive, being part of a community culture that understands, values and supports entrepreneurship is also important.

Communities are sometimes unaware of the depth and breadth of the local entrepreneur base and its contribution to their overall economy. They might not understand the support the community can provide and the importance of a supportive culture. “Culture is a mindset built on commonly held and shared beliefs …about starting, owning encouraging and supporting our own companies and entrepreneurs. It is a way of thinking that drives a group to act.” (EDA University Center/Center of Northern Iowa) The actions of local leaders and residents demonstrating their support for entrepreneurship are at the core of this mindset.

There are various dimensions to entrepreneur friendly communities and many players need to contribute toward its creation. It is not just the responsibility of local leaders or economic developers. Cultural change is broad in its scope and goes beyond positional leadership to less formal social networks embedded in the community. With that said, local leaders – private and public – can be “change masters” by championing initiatives and attitudes that support entrepreneurs. The following are some examples. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but to describe supportive services that emerge from a community mindset that nurtures entrepreneurs:

  1. Risk tolerance: At the most basic level, entrepreneurial communities embrace a mindset that tolerates risk and does not see trying and failing at an enterprise as a character flaw. It supports and encourages innovators who are willing to try time and again before reaching success.
  2. Consumer support of local business: Supportive communities have a “buy local” initiative, encouraging residents to support and patronize their businesses and services first.
  3. Celebration of success: Economic development organizations such as the Chamber promote the successes of local entrepreneurs and small businesses. Start-ups and expansions are recognized and championed through media coverage.
  4. Commitment of Public Officials and Offices: Local elected and appointed officials set a tone of appreciation for business innovators. They take the lead in insuring that local governmental offices and agencies, often the first stop for entrepreneurial enterprises, cut through red tape, streamline approvals, and coordinate with each other, perhaps through a “one stop” center approach.
  5. Public and private financing alternatives: It is important to offer a variety of different financing avenues for entrepreneurs in recognition of their special need for start-up capital and a fast turn-around time for project implementation. Building partnerships between private and public financing sources to reduce/share risks and provide incentive financing, shows support for entrepreneurs.
  6. Networks: Entrepreneurs benefit greatly from opportunities to network with their peers. Facilitating the creation of an entrepreneur network which can then take on a life of its own provides a supportive and strategically beneficial environment.
  7. Supportive services and spaces: Incubators for start-ups and expansions help to reduce initial expenses for facilities and services. Maker spaces are community centers that provide access to tools, equipment and other technology needed to test and launch new products and ideas.
  8. Infrastructure: Entrepreneurs need access to markets and resources. Broadband Internet capacity is a critical component of an entrepreneurial friendly community.

In short, the challenge for communities is to create an environment that nurtures, appreciates and values entrepreneurs and their unique needs and contributions. An adaptation of a quote by Roger Blackwell, Professor Emeritus in Marketing at The Ohio State University, is as follows:

To create a community culture, mindset and initiatives that support entrepreneurship, and to realize the benefits and investment from this economic development approach, what does a community need to become?

The following resources provide additional information:

EDA University Center/University of Northern Iowa: eda.uni.edu/supportive-culture

Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation: kauffman.org/what-we-do/resources/policy/economic-gardening

Myra Moss is an Associate Professor and Extension Educator (Heart of Ohio EERA).

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