PLACE Builders: The Seed Planted by Pava LaPere

June 21, 2024 | By

Kevin Carter, Director of Business Development for EcoMap Technologies and Co-Director of the PLACE Builders fellowship program

Kevin Carter is the Director of Business Development for EcoMap Technologies and the Co-Director of the PLACE Builders fellowship program. As the inaugural cohort comes to a close, he reflects on the origins of the PLACE Builders fellowship.

Eight people standing in front a Baltimore mural on a brick wall.
The eight PLACE Builders fellows meet for the fellowship kickoff in Baltimore in April 2024.

With the inaugural cohort for the PLACE Builders fellowship program set to wrap this upcoming weekend, I’ve found myself grappling with a rhetorical question: how did we get here already?

In partnership with Forward Cities we have planned, fundraised, recruited, and run a full fellowship program in Pava LaPere’s honor within nine months of losing her. That’s just the pace of action that Pava inspired.

Sometimes when dealing with a rhetorical question, you can’t help but approach it literally. So as I’ve been reflecting back on the PLACE Builders program the week before our close-out celebration in Durham, NC, I thought it would be helpful to shed a little light on how exactly we got to this point and where we’re headed from here.

The seed of PLACE Builders was planted nearly three years ago in Fall 2021. As Pava got more involved with Forward Cities and their Baltimore ESHIP Community, she got a glimpse into how much critical yet overlooked and underfunded work certain ecosystem builders put into better connecting their communities. And this work can be stifled by the economic realities of needing to dedicate time towards generating income, often in a way disconnected from their ecosystem building skill set.

So one night, Pava wrote up a memo on what she coined the EcoMap Ecosystem Builder Salary For a Year (EBSFAY) program. The premise was simple: EcoMap would run a promotional campaign to find part-time ecosystem builders who wished to be able to dedicate full-time energy towards it and then award one recipient a $60,000 stipend paid out over the course of the year. This EBSFAY recipient technically wouldn’t be an EcoMap employee and their main requirements involved reporting back on the work that they were doing in their community. This wasn’t a completely altruistic endeavor… we had plans to create a marketing campaign around the search and selection process in order to raise EcoMap’s profile. But at its core, the EBSFAY program was designed to let an individual reclaim the value of their time and pursue their passion for ecosystem building.

Now when Pava proposed this concept, we hadn’t even raised our Seed round yet. As a nascent company still month-to-month on its own payroll, we eventually decided to raincheck the concept until a more opportunistic time. But the seed was planted, took root, and would be ready to sprout when the time was right.

"PLACE Builders has been an exercise in smart specialization and network utilization."

Kevin Carter

Fast-forward to October 2023 - roughly a month after Pava’s tragic passing. Startup Champions Network (SCN) hosted its annual Fall summit, held this time in Phoenix, AZ. After a month of missed conferences, our team decided to make our first public appearance at SCN. The SCN ecosystem was incredibly supportive of our team during our darkest hour and it only felt right to be surrounded by that type of community to collectively grieve. Even through all the grief, there was a desire to take action.

A quote by and photo of Pava LaPere

An installation honoring Pava at the Pava Marie LaPere Center for Entrepreneurship at Johns Hopkins.

Through conversation with Fay Horwitt, President & CEO of Forward Cities, at and after SCN, it became apparent that there was an opportunity to partner. My initial intent was to revive some version of the EBSFAY program in Pava’s honor, meanwhile the Forward Cities team was in the planning stages of a cohort-based program that focused on capacity building for equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem builders. Rather than try to run these two programs separately, we decided to collaborate on the fellowship program that soon came to be known as PLACE Builders - standing for the Pava LaPere Award for Cultivating Ecosystems.

PLACE Builders has been an exercise in smart specialization and network utilization. We quickly divided up the tasks that it would take to get this program up-and-running. On my side, I would help set up a fundraising campaign, contribute to the ethos/values of the program, and lead the application/interview process to find our inaugural cohort. Forward Cities brought their expertise to bear in curriculum development, mentor matching, and cohort facilitation. Like in any fruitful partnership, we each were able to play to our strengths in order to develop something more impactful than just the result of our individual labors.

Once we formally announced PLACE Builders towards the end of 2023, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of moral support, monetary donations, and commitment to action throughout our collective networks. Hundreds of ecosystem builders in our network either spread the word about the program, made a contribution to getting it off the ground, and/or dedicated their time to help make it a success. Through our joint ecosystem outreach, we were able to raise over $25,000 and receive over 80 applications for the first cohort in just a couple of months.


A group standing in front of a Pava LaPere Center banner

The PLACE Builders fellows and program team join Pava's family at the rededication of the Johns Hopkins student e-ship center to the Pava Marie LaPere Center for Entrepreneurship in Baltimore in April 2024.

After an intense interview process, we were somehow able to whittle down the 80+ applications down to our 8 inaugural fellows a few weeks before our first cohort event: the rededication of the Johns Hopkins student e-ship center as the Pava Marie LaPere Center for Entrepreneurship. The fellows made the early April trek down to Baltimore in order to meet each other in-person for the first time and get a glimpse into the impact that the namesake of their fellowship program had on her ecosystem. Instead of strangers meeting for the first time, it felt as if long-lost friends were reconnecting. Through exploring the Baltimore small business community that Pava adored so much to experiencing the emotional rededication ceremony, the spirit of Pava’s legacy permeated that entire weekend and set a powerful tone surrounding the purpose of the program.

About a month later, our cohort shared another in-person experience: this time at SCN’s Spring 2024 summit in Shenandoah Valley, VA. Both Fay and I knew how special this network was - not just for the formation of PLACE Builders, but as a group of humans we both count among some of our closest personal and professional relationships. Now we had the opportunity to plug the fellows into our beloved community, many of which directly supported the program’s creation in the first place. Through numerous shared meals, drinks, and conversations, our fellows had the opportunity to develop some of the same type of bonds that Fay and I hold so dear.

Two women standing in front of a bakery

Fellows Sarah Spear (left) and Erica Williams (right) attend the 2024 SCN Spring Summit in in Shenandoah Valley, VA. Photo credit: Sarah Spear.

And now here we are in our final week of the first PLACE Builders fellowship program. We’ve come a long way since this initial seed was planted. Despite the unimaginable twists and turns it took to get here, something beautiful has sprouted from this tragedy. When I look at the PLACE Builders fellowship, I see Pava’s legacy being carried forward through each of our fellows and the work that they’re doing in their own respective ecosystems.

So that’s the very abbreviated answer to the rhetorical question of how we got here. And I’m proud to announce that her legacy is not going to stop with this first cohort. We have been able to successfully fundraise over $90K to date - just under $10K shy of our initial $100K goal to set this program up for future sustainability. Please, if you have the means, consider making a final donation to help us hit our goal by the time this first cohort wraps.

I cannot adequately express how appreciative I am to everyone who has made the PLACE Builders possible. In a time where gratitude can be hard to find, I have no shortage of it here. A sincere ‘thank you’ to all financial supporters, cohort speakers/mentors, the Forward Cities + EcoMap teams who have volunteered their time, and of course, the inaugural PLACE Builder fellows themselves. They are an embodiment of Pava’s love of place which is kept alive through their commitment to building equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems in the places they call home.

PLACE Builders logo

Inspired by the legacy of Pava LaPere, forever Chief Ecosystem Officer and Co-Founder of EcoMap Technologies, as a tribute to her legacy of fighting for equal access to opportunity, the PLACE (Pava LaPere Award for Cultivating Ecosystems) Builders fellowship aims to catalyze more equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems by providing intensive training, peer support, and community pilots to eight selected fellows.

We invite you to support the inaugural PLACE Builders fellowship fund.