"While many folks seem to be waiting for someone to come solve our society’s issues, the ESHIP Communities teams are building the future world they wish to see now. While I know from experience it’s not easy work, it’s important, and it is manifesting at a small scale, what we hope to change at a global scale.”
senior program officer, ewing marion kauffman foundation
Any glance at my social media feeds these days and the weight of the world often quickly overtakes its wonders. Yet, despite all of the present anger, collapse, and chaos, I see a great transition taking place. Perhaps it is the collective “immune response” of our planet? I see people and nature working together to help us let go of outdated, often extractive ways of doing, to uncover new, more inclusive, more interdependent, and regenerative ways for all of us to live and be together.
I do not believe big, revolutionary, new approaches — the ones that can supplant the way “things have always been done” — will come in one burst of genius from our celebrated leaders or big institutions, as they often benefit from the way things already are.
In my experience, new and novel approaches — seedlings of a more just, future world — come from unexpected people working together in community towards common causes they care about. Innovative insights lie at the edge of any system. It is most often in local communities where new ideas first find their footing, then are watered and grown through the entrepreneurial spirit.
It is these ideas and more that led to the creation of the ESHIP Communities program in 2017, a five-year collaboration among the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Forward Cities, and four groups of open-minded leaders in Baltimore, North Central New Mexico, Kansas City, and Long Beach. Together we launched the program around the simple hypothesis that “entrepreneurship is a community sport.” That is to say, a more connected, collaborative community that intentionally built relationships and trust across its differences could unlock latent entrepreneurial talent in places where talent was abundant, but opportunities were perhaps not.
Observing the four ESHIP Community Councils and the talented Forward Cities team has filled me with hope for a future world that is yet to fully arrive. While many folks seem to be waiting for someone else to solve our society’s issues, the ESHIP Communities teams are building the future world they wish to see now. I know from experience that it is not easy work, but it is important. And it is manifesting at a small scale what we hope to change at a global scale. The impacts to date have been impressive and real in just a few short years. What has come from the program will undoubtedly inspire and inform more communities across the country to take similar approaches in building more equitable entrepreneurial-focused economies.
It is with great admiration and gratitude that I congratulate the ESHIP Communities teams, especially the Local Directors and Organizers, on their impact and progress so far. While the formal ESHIP Communities engagement ends soon, I am sure the impact of what was started over the last five years will continue to grow, and we will be learning from and inspiring others for years to come.
The work of the ESHIP Communities program reminds me of the words of Indian author Arundhati Roy, which give me solace in these transitionary times, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Andy Stoll is a social entrepreneur and senior program officer at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. He oversees the grant supporting the ESHIP Communities Program.
President and CEO, Forward Cities
Great Beginnings & Humble Endings
A common reflection, when looking back at the history of a significant movement or successful program, those who have been involved from the beginning often share that when they started they could never have imagined that it would grow to become the success that it is in the present. For ESHIP Communities, I can unabashedly say the exact opposite is true. On the afternoon of September 19, 2018 - nearly four years ago - a small yet diverse, group of community leaders from across Greater Kansas City gathered in a conference room at Plexpod Westport Commons to hear about and consider supporting a never-before-heard-of initiative, ESHIP Kansas City. What transpired in that room that day foreshadowed a community-centric action and learning journey that is poised to have a transformative impact on the field of ecosystem building for generations to come.
This eclectic group of grassroots, institutional, religious, and economic leaders showed up, listened to the 'pitch and plan' and then proceeded to share their own truths about the realities of the lived experiences and very real disparities of underestimated entrepreneurs in the Greater Kansas City community. They also articulated how place and positioning have systematically privileged some communities and disadvantaged others. They shared their fatigue of the many past failed initiatives that talked a good game but, in the end, landed in the same growing pile of unfilled promises by the ‘powers that be’. Most importantly, they shared what ESHIP Kansas City would need to be – and not be – in order to make a tangible difference in their community. We knew something very special was afoot. This pivotal conversation was only the beginning, but it signaled the path ahead.
The next three years in Kansas City would represent a vital learning journey for the ESHIP Communities team – primarily one of humility. From that first day to the last weeks of the ESHIP Kansas City engagement – and what seemed like every other day in between – we came to understand that while it may seem prudent and efficient to aim toward the codification of a replicable model for building entrepreneurial ecosystems, the actual process of doing that work is so much more complex, particularly when you layer on centuries of systemic inequities, harms of history, and general economic disparities. Attempting to solve for these wicked problems would require something much more dynamic than a strategic plan or list of standardized action steps; it would require a complete reimagining of power structures, curated space for hard conversations, and the willingness to let go of our own vision for the work in lieu of local community stewardship.
Over the next year, each of our ESHIP Communities will take on the full stewardship of the parts of this work that hold the most value and resonance for their local community and that they would like to see sustained for the benefit of entrepreneurs in their community. Simultaneously, Forward Cities will be partnering with the Kauffman Foundation to gain an even deeper understanding of all the work that was done throughout the initiative, emerge consequential learnings, refine the ESHIP Communities pathway and tools, and, ultimately, to publish a universe of best practices, tools, and other resources that leaders from communities across the country can use to catalyze their own local and regional ecosystems. There will be much to share so stay tuned!
I want to express a sincere and profound gratitude for all the Forward Cities staff members, both present and past, who played a vital role in the development, management, and coordination of this initiative over the past five years. Your care for and commitment to our local leaders, councils, and communities was evident in the excellence which you demonstrated throughout your work on the initiative. This could not have been possible without your tireless efforts.
To our Local Directors/Organizers and Councils: you were the heart and soul of this engagement. You leaned in and were willing to play a role, not just in serving your local communities but also to be a part of an innovative and iterative pilot program where you had to grapple with and embrace emergence — no easy task under normal circumstances and even more daunting during a global pandemic. We are so grateful for the commitment, care, and grace you showed throughout the program. Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to join you on your journeys of service to the communities of entrepreneurs that you care so deeply for. It has been our honor and privilege.
Finally, as the Forward Cities team looks ahead to the next chapter of our journeys, it is these vital lessons that we carry with us to inform the pathway ahead, the milestones we will look to guide us along the way, and the values that will inform the ways we will navigate our relationships and networks to collectively design a better future for entrepreneurs. Where many organizations in this position might speak to their ‘humble’ beginnings, we are grateful to claim a more humble ending, as we step into the background with the hope that we have played a small part in helping build the capacity of all these communities. We will remain forever grateful for the opportunity to serve, support, and steward.
Fay Horwitt is the President & CEO of Forward Cities and has served as the programmatic (and later) executive lead of the ESHIP Communities Program.