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Facilitating Entrepreneurial Ecosystems Through a System of Stakeholders Zahraa Yousif


This work was made possible through Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

About the Author Zahraa Yousif develops global strategies to grow the next generation of leading entrepreneurs. She is a Fulbright scholar at the Vanderbilt University Master’s in Leadership and Organizational Performance (LOP) where she focuses on strategy and innovation to support dynamic entrepreneurial environments that achieve robust economic outcomes. She was nominated by Stanford University as an Innovation & Entrepreneurship fellow and named by the World Economic Forum as a Global Shaper founding member. The Bahrain native supported and mentored hundreds of entrepreneurs and young leaders in the past 6 years by leading the largest international youth organization and consulting startups in 5 countries. Discover Zahraa’s latest work on Special Thanks The author of this paper would like to thank the following individuals* for providing valuable inputs and guidance that is used in this project: Amanda Banik, Vanderbilt University Brian Phelps, Nashville Innovation Project Erik Stam, Utrecht University Hanes Motsinger, The Wond’ry at Vanderbilt University

Ian Hathaway, Techstars

Jonathan Newberry, UNICEF Office of Innovation Khaled Alalawi, Tamkeen Labor Fund

Matthew Helt, Techstars

Moshe Cole, InfoWorks Consulting

Seth Olson, Resonance Global

Susan Douglas, Vanderbilt University Zainab Al-saffaf, Bahrain Economic Development Board

*This work does not represent the above mentioned individuals’ or their respective organizations’ opinions.


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Around the world, governments, communities and ecosystem practitioners are working to spur economic growth by supporting entrepreneurial ecosystems. The entrepreneurial ecosystems approach emerged as a response to ineďŹƒcient traditional economic development approaches. This emergent ďŹ eld is growing however, it is yet to be adopted at its full value. The concept is grounded in a system-based approach that supports economic vibrancy; nonetheless, the current way it is adopted misses the mark on this grounding foundation. Current applications of the entrepreneurial ecosystem are fragmented, existing analytical frameworks are focused on outputs instead of outcomes, and practices discard contextual and time dynamics. With that, current practices are not taking the entrepreneurial ecosystem approach to its full potential. This paper presents guiding points for ecosystem experts, economic development practitioners, and policymakers who are working to enable entrepreneurial ecosystems through the following: (1) Adopting a system-based understanding (2) Mapping the entrepreneurial ecosystems (3) Designing comprehensive analytical frameworks (4) Being adaptable to time and context


INTRODUCTION “When a flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” - Alexander Den Heijer Just as significant as the environment is for flowers to bloom, the “entrepreneurial ecosystem” is imperative for an entrepreneurial economy to boom. The past two decades have witnessed a pervasive use of the term “entrepreneurial ecosystem” in scholarly and applied discussions of strategy (Adner, 2017). The growing phenomena of entrepreneurial ecosystem is a system approach to tackling an economy’s complex and interconnected elements. Its unique economic significance is in concentrating on the design of the whole as distinct from the parts.  With this heightened attention from scholars and practitioners, there is an increased shift focusing on the role of the environment or the “ecosystem” (Alvedalen, & Boschma, 2017). Illustratively, the past decade saw a global growth of entrepreneurial ecosystems from Manama, Bahrain to Lagos, Nigeria. In addition, taking an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” approach increasingly receives considerable attention amongst businesses (Feld, 2012) and governments who recognize the merit of this system-based approach. These entities embrace it as a way to foster contexts for thriving entrepreneurship and innovation. Organizations such as the World Bank, the World Economic Forum (WEF), Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and Kauffman Foundation have developed comprehensive tools. However, the field is still emergent and has a long way to go. For example, an agreed upon definition of “entrepreneurial ecosystem” is yet to be named. Furthermore, the tools and existing research take a fragmented approach which misses the system-based foundation that the entrepreneurial ecosystem is grounded on. This paper points out the shortcomings of existing practices and proposes the foundation for future research and work to support entrepreneurial ecosystems.  4


business ecosystem and its biological


shifting from randomly collecting

The origins of the “entrepreneurial ecosystem” concept comes from biology where an ecosystem refers to the natural environment and its elements (Nicotra, Romano, Del Giudice & Schillaci, 2018). An ecosystem is made up of interacting elements including plants, animals, rocks, soils, and the local atmosphere. Similarly, entrepreneurial ecosystems are composed of different interconnected elements. The concept of ecosystem is appraised in business scholarship by Moore (1993) who first coined the term “business ecosystem”. Moore (1996)


Moore (1993) calls for

elements towards a more structured community; a network in which companies not only compete but also collaborate and coevolve. Applied to entrepreneurship, the concept of ecosystem refers to an overarching infrastructure that supports business and e c o n o m i c g row t h b eyo n d m e re ly constructing a network amongst different actors. The notion refers to “a broad system of heterogeneous elements” (Nicotra et al., 2018); it is grounded on connecting the various elements or stakeholders within the system. 

defines the business ecosystem as “an economic community supported by a foundation of interacting organizations and individuals – the organisms of the business world”. In this parallel of the



The entrepreneurial ecosystem


approach creates a new understanding


achieved. The entrepreneurial ecosystem

The entrepreneurial ecosystem emerged in response to traditional economic development approaches that resulted in limited effectiveness. Simply creating favorable “business-friendly” environments and providing transactional forms of support (such as financial assistance) are insufficient (Mason & Brown, 2013) because addressing segments of an economic issue is a dichotomy to tackling the market complexity where financial, societal, social, environmental and other issues are interwind. Entrepreneurial ecosystems move beyond that; they are perceived in the eyes of academics (Acs, Autio, & S ze r b , 2 0 1 4 ; Fe l d m a n , Fra n c i s , & Bercovitz, 2005), policymakers (Isenberg, 2010; World Economic Forum, 2013), and business practitioners (Feld, 2012; Hwang & Horowitt, 2012) as fundamental tools for g a l v a n i z i n g re s i l i e n t , s u s t a i n a b l e economies (Spigel, 2017). The three following points unravel the advantages of taking entrepreneurial ecosystem approaches:

of how

economic development is

offers an intrinsically original perspective on economic growth. According to Theodoraki, Messeghem & Rice (2018) entrepreneurial ecosystems can expand our perspective around entrepreneurship. This offers the opportunity to understand how economic clusters and entrepreneurial communities come to life (Mason & Brown, 2013). The entrepreneurial ecosystem makes a shift from conceiving enterprises in isolation to envisioning them as a part of evolving complex systems. This conceptualization prompts many entities to shift their efforts from a narrow focus on financing or training entrepreneurs towards wider, more encompassing Entrepreneurial Ecosystem strategies (Auerswald, 2015). Instead of being focused solely on p ro b l e m - s o l v i n g , e n t re p re n e u r i a l ecosystems look at all possible causes of success and failure within a given context. This approach allows solutions to entrepreneurial and economic development challenges to be more comprehensive and consider long-term causes and effects.


Entrepreneurial ecosystems shift the

The entrepreneurial ecosystems'

unit of analysis to a more holistic one.

network configuration enables

The concept of entrepreneurial

stakeholders to thrive through building

ecosystems shifts the unit of analysis

social capital. The infl uence of

from a firm level to a broader level: the

entrepreneurial ecosystems is that they

entirety of the ecosystem where it is

are complex social systems that build

studied (Mason & Brown, 2013). The new

social capital. As implied in the network

unit of analysis can be the country, state,

theory perspective, the entrepreneurial

region, city, or even university campus.

ecosystem is built on a relational

Expanding the unit of analysis is bound to

structure amongst different stakeholders

consequently create a bigger impact. For

(investors, accelerators, governments,

once, the entrepreneurial ecosystem can

etc.) which influences social network

play a vital role on a regional level

connectivity (Ratih, Chandra & Ning,

because it shifts focus to a broader,

2 0 1 8 ) . W i t h t h a t , e n t re p re n e u r i a l

regional scope. The regional level of

ecosystems are designed to foster

analysis spurs entrepreneurship through

sustainable relational encounters. To

facilitating knowledge transfer and

illustrate, a major study of around 3000

innovating regional policies (Ratih et al.,

startups in China that had structured

2018). Overall, the approach embraces

monthly meetings exhibited 8-10% sales

complexity by broadening focus through

growth relative to startups who did not

encompassing the holistic system.

participate in the regular meetings (Cai & Szeidl, 2017). To summarize, by building a broader understanding to economic development that expands focus from firms to the bigger system they are within, entrepreneurial ecosystems are able to embrace the complexities of contexts they are within through social structures of connected stakeholders.



isolation of other components of the


of entrepreneurship and the causal

An entrepreneurial ecosystem is a system approach that is best understood through a Systems Thinking lens. Systems Thinking interprets complex systems (such as families, organizations, cities, and of course, Entrepreneurial Ecosystems holistically instead of looking at the smaller parts of the system (Senge, 1996). This approach argues that there is no inherent end to the system. Instead, it examines a larger number of interactions and complexities (Senge, 1996) that may affect entrepreneurial success and failure or economic development, broadly speaking. The essence of systems thinking is based upon seeing and understanding interrelations, not linear cause-effect relationships. This nuanced perspective results in solutions and strategies that move beyond looking at causal relationships in a linear and isolated fa s h i o n ( S e n g e , 2 0 07 ) . Ta k i n g a n Entrepreneurial Ecosystem approach denotes looking beyond the components of the ecosystem (the entrepreneurs, corporates, universities, etc.) and exploring the connections amongst them. Previous scholarly effort that solely studies entrepreneurial elements in

ecosystem misses out on the wholeness dynamics in the ecosystem (Anderson, Drakopoulou Dodd, & Jack, 2012). Most existing definitions convey an obscured interpretation of entrepreneurial ecosystems. Most definitions describe the entrepreneurial ecosystem as a composition of different elements. These elements are often presented as lists or diagrams depicting interconnections between all the components (Erina, Shatrevich, & Gaile-Sarkane, 2017; Mason & Brown, 2014; Spigel, 2017; Stam, 2015; Darden School of Business, 2012; World Economic Forum, 2013; Isenberg, 2011), call attention to the interconnections between elements and depict that through lists or diagrams that show networks of connections amongst the various elements (Malecki, 2018). The fragmented, hard-to-understand, nature of these definitions and diagrams obscures the whole premise behind the entrepreneurial ecosystem’s holistic system approach. As such, decision makers in an entrepreneurial ecosystem are left with an intellectualized definition of the entrepreneurial ecosystem that provides limited guidance on how an ecosystem of stakeholders can provide integrated services, partnerships, and resources that promote economic d eve l o p m e nt a n d e nt re p re n e u r i a l 8

s u c c e s s . I n s te a d , a c a d e m i c s a n d practitioners are left with a convoluted, abstract definition of entrepreneurial ecosystems, which prevents this up-andcoming field from making true contributions to economic development.

WHERE WE STAND IN SUPPORTING ENTREPRENEURIAL ECOSYSTEMS Based on the inviting advantages of taking an entrepreneurial ecosystem perspective and its growing prominence (Zacharakis, Shepard & Coombs, 2003; Malecki, 2018; Feld, 2012; Isenberg, 2010), leading economic development organizations such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Bank, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) have developed various tools to define successful ecosystems. However, existing research remains limited in its ability to capture the essence of ecosystems and track their p ro g re s s i n s u p p o r t i n g e co n o m i c development. Moreover, almost no reference is made to systems theory or the network literature. This section highlights the key theoretical holes within present-day research and practice. To begin with, existing scholarly research often takes a fragmented approach to understanding entrepreneurial ecosystems. This

Figure 1. The most referenced diagram in illustrating ecosystems. Adapted from “The entrepreneurship ecosystem strategy as a new paradigm for economic policy: Principles for cultivating entrepreneurship”, by D. Isenberg ,2011.

a p p ro a c h d o e s n o t c o n s i d e r t h e interactions between component parts in the system, which is the grounding


foundation of the entrepreneurial

to producing a comprehensive network

ecosystem concept. Research describes

approach therefore limiting practitioners’

the elements of an entrepreneurial

ability to assess the impact of structural

ecosystem without giving attention to the

holes within an ecosystem and to

connections between them (Figure 1).

understand why some entrepreneurial

Taking an inventory of ecosystem

ecosystems have been able to make vital

components implies that composing

connections while others fail (Alvedalen &

parts may infl uence one another.

Boschma, 2017).

Howeve r, t h i s re s e a rc h d o e s n ot illuminate how infl uence may occur

The difficulty of creating entrepreneurial

within the system. With merely listing the

ecosystem frameworks is in the inherent

ecosystem components, this type of

dynamic nature of the entrepreneurial



ecosystem which can blur outputs and

relational value to be found in the

outcomes. In many cases, what is being

entrepreneurial ecosystem approach.

measured is not the aggregate value that

Research looks at the elements as

entrepreneurial ecosystems can create.

equally important. Even the diagrams

The ultimate impact of an entrepreneurial

depicting entrepreneurial ecosystems

ecosystem is to generate economic

mostly place the elements appearing to

growth and innovation by generating

have similar weights which does not

entrepreneurial activities (e.g. more

represent different ecosystems’ realties.

startups) as an output that the system

does not reveal the

enables. Similarly, certain metrics like job Second, current practices are yet to

creation are not a measure of the

create a comprehensive analytical

entrepreneurial ecosystem outcome but

framework. Existing entrepreneurial

an output of it. Stam (2017) explains that

ecosystem literature is still in search for a

entrepreneurial behavior is an output of

framework that outlines entrepreneurial

the system while the new structural

ecosystem causes, effects and impacts

changes are outcomes of the system.

(Stam & Spigel, 2017). Generally, both

S t a m m ove s t h i s o u t c o m e i s a n

academic and non-academic

“emergent property of the system” the

publications provide lists of relevant

system’s dynamics and its emergent

ecosystem elements or factors without

property through interconnections over

clear empirical evidence or causal

time and within the context; which leads

relations between elements and outputs

to the next point:

(Nicotra et al., 2018). There is a negligence


Third, existing practices ignore the effect of time and context. The economy is a constantly evolving system in which stakeholders interact with each other dynamically over time. The ecosystem is a n d w i l l a l w a y s b e m a r ke d w i t h emergence. In spite of that, practitioners are still approaching ecosystems as static phenomena that can be captured (Theodoraki et al., 2018). In addition, Stam (2017) asserts the necessity of measuring the context quality when analyzing entrepreneurial ecosystems. For example, measuring the percentage of startups that applied and received bank loans is an indicator of one element within the ecosystem (access to finance) and not the holistic ecosystem impact.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTITIONERS Start with a paradigm shift that address entrepreneurial ecosystems as systemb a s e d a p p ro a c h e s g ro u n d e d o n connectivity. Practitioners are ought to have an understanding of Entrepreneurial Ecosystems in order to eff ectively intervene. The most fundamental re c o m m e n d a t i o n t h a t o t h e r b e s t practices can be built on is to start with a revived understanding of entrepreneurial ecosystems. The eminence of an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem approach goes beyond the elements themselves to encompass the overall connectivity amongst them; it connects the dots.    Map the ecosystem showing relationships. Ecosystem connections can be better captured and understood t h ro u g h s o c i a l n e t wo r k a n a lys e s . Endeavor Insights reports have revealed insightful learnings through network analyses: building a network map with vital nodes and relationships amongst them. For example, an Endeavor Insight report (Morris & Török, 2018) mapping the tech ecosystem in Buenos Aires revealed the reasons behind the entrepreneurship

Figure 2. Buenos Aires tech ecosystem map. Adapted from “Fostering Productive Entrepreneurship Communities: Key Lessons On Generating Jobs, Economic Growth, And Innovation”, by R. Morris and L. Török, 2018, Endeavor Insight.

epidemic in the Argentinian capital through socially embedded relationships amongst stakeholders (Figure 2). Another


example is a research supported by the

large interlinkage between the two

Kauffman Foundation, conducted by Dr.

territories and other international

Karen Stephenson, a Harvard-educated

stakeholders. These three examples

anthropologist and titled “the Kansas City

i l l u s t r a t e t h e ro l e o f i l l u s t r a t i n g

Connector Project”. The project looked at

interactions through a network map in

the entrepreneurial and education

understanding entrepreneurial

ecosystem in Kansas City through a time-

ecosystems. Auerswald (2015) affirms that

lapse of interconnections over 3 months.

efforts for enabling and supporting

The network time-lapse depicts the

entrepreneurial ecosystems should be

evolution of the social network through

grounded on mapping the ecosystem.

interconnections. A third example is the

World Bank’s (2018) Map Design Unit

Design comprehensive analytical

research around the status of the startup

frameworks. Mason & Brown (2014)

ecosystem in the West Bank and Gaza.

emphasize the importance of measuring

The mapping showed highly connected

work that aims to reinforce

international actors including several

entrepreneurial ecosystems. However,

university networks which suggests a

building an analytical framework that

Figure 3. A framework for measuring entrepreneurial ecosystem vibrancy. Adapted from “Measuring an entrepreneurial ecosystem”, by J. Bell-Masterson, and D. Stangler, 2018, Kauffman Foundation.


The gist of an entrepreneurial ecosystem is the dynamic interactions of its components takes a holistic, dynamic approach is not

to enhanced fl uidity, diversity, and

a simple task. While some metrics like

density and calls for growing connectivity

startup rates and number of

and relationships across ecosystems.

e n t re p re n e u r i a l e x i t s a re re a d i l y accessible, gathering comparable data to

Be adaptable by taking time and

assess an entrepreneurial ecosystems

context into consideration. The structure

holistically is more difficult. Furthermore,

and influence of ecosystems change over

the gist of an entrepreneurial ecosystem

time in response to social and economic

is the dynamic interactions of its

changes. Practitioners and policymakers

components. A relevant framework is

need to understand how ecosystems

presented by Bell-Masterson & Stangler

emerge and evolve over time as well as

(2015) who proposed a framework that is

the economic and political context in

based on connectivity and described

which entrepreneurship occurs.

connectivity as the “source of more and

Practitioners need to be adaptable in

better entrepreneurs in a region” (Figure

their approaches of both understanding

3). Bell-Masterson & Stangler (2015) also

and fostering entrepreneurial

emphasizes that better connectivity leads


Existing Practices


Fragmented approach

System-based approach

Limited frameworks that measure

Comprehensive frameworks that focus

outputs not outcomes

on the aggregate value

Static, ignores time and context

Dynamic, adapts to time and context


CONCLUSION Businesses and economies do not grow in a vacuum; a healthy environment is needed. The new entrepreneurial ecosystem approach to spurring thriving entrepreneurship communities does not only take entrepreneurship elements within the environment into consideration but goes beyond that to encompass the context as a whole. To take full advantage of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, practitioners need to base their efforts on systems practice by paying attention to the value of a system-approach by (1) taking a more holistic perspective instead of isolating fragmented elements, (2) outlining comprehensive frameworks that capture the stakeholders interconnections and highlight the long-term aggregate value of the ecosystem, and (3) considering the effect of time and context on the ecosystem dynamics. Upcoming entrepreneurial ecosystems endeavors are encouraged to (1) be grounded on a system-based understanding of ecosystems (2) map ecosystems through network analyses that illustrate interconnections amongst stakeholders (3) revise analytical frameworks to measure the aggregate, long-term value of the ecosystem, and (4) keep the dynamic, context-based, ever-changing nature of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in mind. In the end, while a flower relies on several animal species to pollinate, an entrepreneur relies on mentors and advisors to pollinate ideas; a flower prospers in healthy soils while an entrepreneur needs a market; a flower needs reliable access to water and soil just like an entrepreneur needs access to capital; and a flower needs the sun and entrepreneurs need the light of opportunity. No entrepreneur is an island. Taking a system approach that enables the interaction of different stakeholders is vital. Entrepreneurship decision makers need to connect the dots.


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Profile for Zahraa Dagher

Connecting the Dots: Facilitating Entrepreneurial Ecosystems Through a System of Stakeholders  

There is growing adoption of Entrepreneurial Ecosystem approaches amongst economic development practitioners. However, existing research is...

Connecting the Dots: Facilitating Entrepreneurial Ecosystems Through a System of Stakeholders  

There is growing adoption of Entrepreneurial Ecosystem approaches amongst economic development practitioners. However, existing research is...