On April 28, 2022, 20 champions, advocates and supporters of entrepreneurs from across the Valley streamed into a conference room at JMU’s Ice House in Harrisonburg. For four hours, they mapped out assets, hastily scribbled on post-its and weighed opportunities on flip charts covering two walls. The big question that fields the conversation:
What would the Shenandoah Valley look like if it was THE textbook example of a thriving rural entrepreneurial ecosystem?
“The essence of an entrepreneurial ecosystem is its people and the culture of trust and collaboration that allows them to interact successfully. An ecosystem that allows for the fast flow of talent, information, and resources helps entrepreneurs quickly find what they need at each stage of growth. As a result, the whole is greater than the sum of its separate parts.” (Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, 2018)
The last decade of entrepreneurship & innovation in the Shenandoah Valley
The idea to convene entrepreneurial supporters from across the Shenandoah Valley is not new. In 2012, the Shenandoah Valley Innovation Coalition (SVIC) was created by a “coalition of the willing.” Leaders from the Chamber of Commerce, city and county economic developers, 2-year and 4-year higher education institutions, the Small Business Development Center, and business owners saw the need to work together for one common element: helping small businesses start and grow in the Shenandoah Valley.
SVIC’s vision was to develop the Shenandoah Valley as a thriving, globally-connected ecosystem that attracts, seeds and grows talent and business. Accomplices in the coalition have been on a mission to accelerate innovation, creativity, and economic development across the Shenandoah Valley through the active collaboration of business, government, community, and academic organizations. SVIC accomplishments include a searchable resource directory to help entrepreneurs find the help they are looking for and an interactive roadmap to help guide entrepreneurs to resources along their journey.
As is often the case, ambitious initiatives that involve a large number of stakeholders across an equally large region are akin to sprints: Short, intensive times of work and close collaboration followed by phases of rest and recovery. After the last two years of the pandemic and the natural evolution of the ecosystem, it is time for another sprint to shift the ecosystem into its next phase of maturity and evolution. As a result of recent grants awarded to build the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, the Shenandoah Valley Innovation Coalition is officially transitioning into the Shenandoah Valley Ecosystem Coalition.
Evolution: Shenandoah Valley Ecosystem 2.0
“It’s great and somewhat surreal to see the progress in the Shenandoah Valley over the last 10 years!”
As a result of these efforts over the last decade, entrepreneurial supporters are once again rolling up their sleeves to fill gaps, align efforts, avoid duplication and help entrepreneurs in the Valley thrive. Over the next two years, a group of dedicated entrepreneurship supporters is taking an ecosystem approach to building the proverbial village that it takes to start, manage and grow successful businesses in the Shenandoah Valley. Close to 40 accomplices were invited and half of them responded to the call. Based on this initial conversation, we hope to grow these grassroots efforts across the region. Everyone who is interested in seeing entrepreneurs in their community thrive is invited.
Entrepreneurs’ needs front and center
Based on conversations with entrepreneurs and small business owners (a distinction that we’ll elaborate on over the coming months), the entrepreneurial talent in the Valley faces four main challenges:
- Rural infrastructure issues (high-speed internet, slow & cumbersome bureaucracy).
- Cultural issues (hesitancy to try something new, trust in technology, innovation & new ways of doing things, the old boy’s club).
- A lack of entrepreneurial community and a safe space to ask questions, get advice and build relationships with peers and mentors;
- Access to tailored support services to move their business forward and guidance in navigating the support landscape.
While this coalition has limited control over rural infrastructure and cultural issues, the call for community and better access to existing support services are urgent and a priority for action and collaboration.
Amplification over duplication
Prior to this meeting of the minds, we hosted some 20 1:1 conversations with representatives from entrepreneurial support organizations and performed an initial baseline assessment to get a snapshot of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Shenandoah Valley. The results of this research highlight
- A strong rural culture biased toward action.
- The need for greater visibility and accessibility of existing support services.
- The desire for a stronger and more accessible community of entrepreneurs and their supporters (mentors, advisors, service providers, etc.).
- The need for a shared language around entrepreneurship.
- The call for a more organized, visible and connected network of entrepreneurial support organizations and individuals.
“Unlike some of the bigger cities, people in the Valley are keen on implementing and getting things done.”
A recurring theme in these early conversations was the desire to get to work and execute instead of long meetings without real outputs. The majority of stakeholders have been active participants in the ecosystem for years; they’ve been part of earlier sprints and know the value of taking action over talking. As opposed to metropolitan and larger urban areas, the Valley benefits from a strong word-of-mouth culture and social proximity that allow for a fast flow of information, talent and resources across the region.
“We have so much opportunity here in the Valley! I want to help define that path for those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do something.”
Gaps & challenges
“It’s hard to understand all what resources are available, how to access them and who to go to for advice and the next steps.”
Based on their role and function in the ecosystem, each partner has a unique perspective on the challenges and barriers entrepreneurs face in their respective communities:
Resource visibility & accessibility
From programming to one-on-one business advisory, microloan programs to small business service providers, entrepreneurs can tap into a wide range of support. Due to the rural nature of our region, however, not all support is available in all localities and where it is, it’s not always accessible. First-time and early-stage founders, in particular, are confused about where to start and who to reach out to first.
“There are so many resources and information that it can be overwhelming. I think entrepreneurs and those who might become an entrepreneur one day need a little help to find their way around.”
The Shenandoah Community Capital Fund secured funding to help finance an initial digital platform that will house an AI-powered virtual resource directory of entrepreneurial support offers. The Shenandoah Valley Ecosystem Coalition will build on this infrastructure to further amplify what is already happening and fill gaps that remain a challenge for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the region. The platform is scheduled to go live in the summer of 2022.
“We need infrastructure to work together to utilize the resources we already have and build onramps into the ecosystem across our region.”
Secondly, entrepreneurs need more community and opportunities to connect with their peers, stay the course, get advice and know that they belong. Be it serendipitous collisions in coworking spaces, at events and in coffee shops or more structured approaches such as mentoring and peer support – with the rich social capital and entrepreneurial expertise within the Valley’s communities, a lot of untapped potential is just waiting to be activated.
“Early-stage entrepreneurs need a community: if they don’t know what to do next, they need a place to go for ideas and feedback.”
The strength of weak ties
“Key actors in the ecosystem need mechanisms to meet and share resources regularly so that we know what’s happening across the region. That way, we can pass more relevant information on to entrepreneurs and those who might one day become one.”
Most entrepreneurial support organizations reported they felt very connected to other supporters within their city or county, but less so to other localities across the Shenandoah Valley. Given the rural character of the Valley, this is hardly surprising. It offers a great opportunity to strengthen these existing connections and build an even stronger network of organizations to better serve entrepreneurs of all backgrounds across the Valley.
“I want to see entrepreneurs get all the support they need and I’d love to see the different ecosystem actors work together to grow and enrich the ecosystem.”
To strengthen these ties, it is essential to co-create a shared language around entrepreneurship and gather stories about the makers, doers, dreamers and visionaries in our communities. Peeling back the layers of what makes entrepreneurship in the Valley unique will allow us to uncover the narrative about our region.
“We need to tell more stories to reach more (soon-to-be) entrepreneurs and let them know that it can happen here. We need to talk in a unified voice about all the incredible things that are already happening for entrepreneurs in the Shenandoah Valley.”
After half a day of slinging post-its, mapping assets and debating priorities, the working group of the Shenandoah Valley Ecosystem Coalition came up with eleven potential initiatives to foster a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem. Within this first 3-month sprint, each task force is going to focus on one of their proposed initiatives:
- Common language around entrepreneurship (Storytelling task force)
- Assessing entrepreneurs’ true needs at all stages (incl. Idea-stage entrepreneurs) (Customer discovery task force)
- Community engagement: Outreach to entrepreneurs through existing channels (Event outreach task force)
- Overall: Better connecting entrepreneurs of all stages & backgrounds to existing resources, building what’s needed, getting rid of what isn’t; as a result: make entrepreneurs feel seen, heard and that they belong. (all task forces)
If you want to join us, come to our next in-person session on July 27, please contact Anika Horn, Director of Ecosystem Building, at the Shenandoah Community Capital Fund at [email protected]