CONNECTING THE DOTS
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 www.zeeforzahraa.com. 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 isÂ 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
AN ANALOGY FROM
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:
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.
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
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
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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There is growing adoption of Entrepreneurial Ecosystem approaches amongst economic development practitioners. However, existing research is...
Published on Dec 2, 2019
There is growing adoption of Entrepreneurial Ecosystem approaches amongst economic development practitioners. However, existing research is...