Local Learnings: Entrepreneurship builds, but it needs a new way of building

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This report from the National League of Cities surprised me a little bit. On the one hand, cities are certainly feeling a new obligation to support entrepreneurship, especially among disadvantaged communities — and they’re more likely than some other organizations to value the community-stabilizing function of a strong local business base, in addition to the economics. On the other hand, Brad Feld identified more than 10 years ago that governrments have to be feeders, not leaders, of entrepreneurship initiatives. The report from Bruce Katz’s Nowak Drexel Finance Lab comes to the same basic conclusion that Feld did, and identifies ways that city governments can fill those Feeder roles.

When I first read Feld’s assertions years ago, I have to admit I was pissed. I even wrote somewhat angrily about it in the first version of The Local Economy Revolution. But over the intervening years, I’ve had to admit he was right.

There’s a lot that governments and economic development agencies can do to advance entrepreneurship from squarely within their wheelhouse — from the information-gathering that the report recommends, to funding, connections, and using its convening power. But entrepreneurship is such a different process — more organic, more network-powered, more chaotic, more dependent on the semi-coordinated actions of semi-independent actors. It’s hard to keep track of what’s going on, it’s way harder to measure progress, and it’s way harder to find newsworthy wins and successes.

There’s a lot of dimensions where the paradigms of government as we practice it today tend to tie the hands of people at City Hall when it comes to supporting entrepreneurship. Thankfully, this report details several specific things that city agencies can do successfully. But it has to be a collaborative, multi-angle process, not just a new city program.

One piece that I do wish the report had leaned into harder is who gets involved in creating the support systems for an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem. Successful Black and minority entrepreneurs can be extremely hard to find if you’re not deeply tied into the community where they work, and it’s too easy for the “city leaders” to pick a few who have gotten press coverage, (or default to nonprofit leaders who may not actually have any relationship to entrepreneurship), rather than do the tough digging to find the people who really are tied into the organic, overlooked small business community. Additionally, it’s crucially important that the people who know the community and the context best be part of the process of creating the solutions, not just responding to surveys or rubber-stamping a well-intentioned city-led effort – one that is more likely than in most subject areas to miss the mark.

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