Who do you picture when you hear the word “entrepreneur?” Do you imagine a 20 something plugging away on their computer coding for an app? Maybe you envision your local coffee shop owner who wants to create space for community members to connect over a good cup of joe. As Forward Cities journeys with communities to develop equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems, one thing we are learning is that our collective imagination around entrepreneurship will have to expand.
This past April, we invited a group of ecosystem practitioners from Buffalo, Richmond, and Jacksonville to see how different communities in Indianapolis are seeking to provide greater access, financing, and support for entrepreneurs of color and others who are disconnected from traditional business networks. We had the opportunity to visit two neighborhoods–King Commons and River West. In wholly unique ways, these places offered our participants an opportunity to see dynamic practices being applied to create opportunities for aspiring and beginning entrepreneurs.
In King Commons, DeAmon Harges and Wildstyle Paschall from The Learning Tree introduced us to the Biker Boyz and Girlz, a bike repair shop based in a home garage and run by young black men and youth from the neighborhood. They also connected us to Tameika McIntyre, a black woman launching a small restaurant inside of a bodega still under development. Lastly, social entrepreneurs LaShawnda Crowe-Storm and Phyllis Boyd from the RECLAIM project showed us how they are using art and farming to enhance health and safety in the community. The spirit here was one of grit, hustle and resilience, all essential elements of entrepreneurship that we hope to enhance and elevate through our work in neighborhoods across the country.
In River West, community leaders Gary Opp (Near West Collaborative) and Jason Ward (Westside Community Ministries) guided us through a more traditional business corridor with a number of ventures underway up and down W. Michigan Street. Among them were two food and beverage establishments (Super Tortas – Estilo Barrio and The Linebacker) using a shared space to provide outdoor seating and entertainment for their respective customers, Source River West (a non-profit hub for entrepreneurs) and Indy Convergence (a dynamic community art and event space). To the casual observer, the “feeling” of entrepreneurship was stronger there, even though the community still requires further economic growth before residents would describe themselves as economically thriving.
The conversation that emerged from our visits centered around the question of which community had a more viable entrepreneurial scene. For several people in our group it was hard to imagine how investing in the bike shop or small restaurant in King Commons was really going to make a difference. To them, those enterprises seemed less like examples of entrepreneurship and more like examples of community development. River West seemed a bit more promising and viable with its greater brick and mortar infrastructure.
It is striking how our imagination around entrepreneurship impacts our sense of who exhibits entrepreneurial potential. Just like in every other arena of life, we have preconceived biases about who the ideal entrepreneur is and what viable businesses look like. However, in order to develop inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems we must expand our vision to include people who have been historically and systematically excluded. The exclusion of communities of color from traditional economic development and business investment has rendered those residents invisible to our collective imagination. In order to “make the invisible visible,” as De’Amon and WildStyle describe their work, we must seek out community residents as our guides. No one can tell the story of a neighborhood the way neighbors can.
Our hope is that exposure to entrepreneurship in cities different than our own and processing the experience in cross-city, cross-sector learning groups will provide ecosystem practitioners with an expanded vision allowing them to re-imagine what an entrepreneur looks like and where entrepreneurial supports can be put to use. As that vision expands, here are a few things our group gleaned from their visit to Indianapolis that you can consider for your own entrepreneurial ecosystem work:
- Identify and develop cultural and economic brokers who can resource and connect community-based entrepreneurs to the marketplace of the entire city so their businesses can grow towards sustainability;
- Consider the history of violence and trauma (racial, gender, class, religious, etc.) in your community and how it informs the work we do to create economic and entrepreneurial opportunities;
- Address the missing pieces of local economies, such as a lack of public transportation and banking, food, and technology deserts that prevent communities and entrepreneurs of color from thriving;
- Invest in businesses whose growth potential will give them the capacity and resources to launch and invest in other entrepreneurs and business.