Solution Stories: The Bold Experiment of the Community Entrepreneurship Accelerator

November 22, 2019 | By

Brett Brenton

Many of today’s cities, while sharing a great deal in common with cities of the past, have taken a number of bold, new moves to evolve the way they serve their residents.

While technology has had a significant influence on this change, we are also seeing it emerge through other innovative means, such as inclusive approaches to solving economic development challenges. The old model focused almost exclusively on recruiting large employers who would, in turn, attract a high quality workforce. In fact, that model still holds an allure to cities, as was evidenced by the HQ2 ‘race’ in recent years. While that approach still obviously has its place, some more progressive cities have adopted a more expansive entrepreneurial focus as a major part of their economic development philosophy, diversifying what had been a largely universal mindset in the field.

This is where the work of Forward Cities has been focused over the last year, specifically through what we call our Community Entrepreneurship Accelerators (CEAs) in Indianapolis, IN, Franklin County/Columbus, OH, and both Pittsburgh and Westmoreland County, PA. These communities have seen the value in broadening their focus on entrepreneurial support, placing an equity lens on this work to ensure more access to resources was available to those with fundamentally sound business ideas.

The process began with the recruitment and training of full-time Local Directors (and a part-time Project Manager in Westmoreland Co.) who brought an understanding of local stakeholders and the entrepreneurial landscape in their respective cities. Their efforts have evolved over the course of the year into a dynamic, focused scope of work, primarily aimed at identifying key barriers to local entrepreneurial engagement, developing community-fed solutions to overcome these barriers, and most recently implementing these solutions in short-term pilot projects. All of this has been done with the entrepreneur front-of-mind, which leads to a true human-centered design approach to this work and ensures that the solutions are primarily informed by the unique circumstances in each community.

The path to each testable solution is a story in itself, one you’ll have the opportunity to learn more about in a series of “Solution Stories” that will launch in the coming weeks on the Forward Cities site. Generally speaking, each city gathered a group of cross-sector stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds. While that sounds fairly standard, what was different about this approach was the engagement of members of communities who typically do not have a seat at the table for such conversations. Bringing together diverse perspectives and backgrounds helped to broaden perspectives, surface new understandings, and inform the process in a much deeper and more comprehensive way.

Far from easy—or natural at first for that matter—this blending of personalities, histories, and lived experiences has generated a host of unique conversations geared around collective problem solving. In some cases, systemic racial issues surfaced. In others, the challenge of gentrification and how it forces displacement on those who called these neighborhoods home for generations. These are raw and delicate topics of discussion, especially when people who come to the table with differing opinions engage them as conversational topics.

Over time, you could see a honing of thought that led to a number of agreed-upon ideas. The inputs we had helped to shape an understanding of what could be tested, learned from, and potentially scaled across each community. This looked very different from city to city. Including what was derived from some short-term strategic planning engagements in Buffalo, NY, Richmond, VA, and Jacksonville, FL, we developed twenty-one fairly unique concepts. Twelve of those are now ready to implement, thanks to collective funding efforts in each city.

Soon, we’ll have a series of case studies that speak to these bold CEA experiments, and we’ll be able to share with our growing learning network (of over two dozen cities and counting), and at our annual conference (save the date for June 10-12, 2020 in Columbus, OH). All of this will be because a series of groups were convened, not because it came easily, but because the product would be something that reflected the will of a community. In many ways, this could serve as a model for many other areas of focus—education, poverty alleviation, health insecurity, and many more. For now, we look forward to what we’ll learn about creating more equitable environments for entrepreneurial success.