Building an entrepreneurial community isn’t easy. It takes a lot of collaboration and commitment to just start, let along sustain. Its years of trial and error in a world where failing fast is encouraged but getting back up again can be hard without the proper support. St. Louis’ entrepreneurial scene has come a long way and is now a nationally recognized community; however, there’s still so much to learn from our peer regions about making entrepreneurship accessible and equitable.
I had the distinct pleasure of visiting another national hub of entrepreneurship (and my birth city), San Antonio, for my first Startup Champions Network (SCN) Summit. SCN is a network of self-proclaimed ‘startup ecosystem builders,’ individuals who care passionately about local startup communities and work to build the necessary networks and infrastructure to see them thrive. While the field is relatively new, SCN’s vision is to drive ecosystem building as a discipline and legitimate profession. Much like a realtor or marketing association, SCN exists to serve its members by providing professional development, networking opportunities, and community for ecosystem building practitioners.
Over the course of the 2.5-day conference, I did my best to eat as much Tex-Mex as humanly possible (I checked that box) and dive head-first into the wonderful world of startup ecosystem building. Here are my top takeaways.
1. San Antonio’s tech journey has a lot in common with St. Louis
Almost a decade ago, AT&T had a major presence in downtown San Antonio – sound familiar, St. Louis? San Antonio’s preeminent and most popular coworking space, Geekdom, emerged out of a need to drive density to its urban core and attract both large and small tech companies to the city.
Even more eerily similar behind these tech startup origin stories is that both Geekdom and St. Louis’ T-REX started by occupying a few floors in a large downtown office building. For Geekdom, this genesis occurred in 2011. A few years later, vigilant members of San Antonio’s tech community formed a coalition called Tech Bloc, which advocated for ridesharing companies to operate in the city.
St. Louis had a similar response back in 2015 when our tech community rallied behind local entrepreneur Ed Domain to fight back against the Missouri Taxi Commission who was preventing Uber from operating in St. Louis City. Former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens later signed a bill into law in April 2017 that would pave the way for both ridesharing services to operate in the stat
2. Access matters for entrepreneurs
On the first day of the SCN Summit, participants assembled at Launch SA. Opened in 2014 as a partnership between the City of San Antonio’s Economic Development Department and LiftFund, Launch SA is an entrepreneurship and small business center located within San Antonio’s downtown Central Library. The group talked about barriers to accessing resources for non-traditional or first-time entrepreneurs, highlighting how embedding these resources within a community asset like the library has helped facilitate this connection. Libraries are the original coworking spaces after all!
3. Creating inclusive communities don’t happen by chance
On our second day, we heard from a panel talking about equity and inclusion in startup communities and ecosystem building. One of my biggest takeaways was from a woman who ran a co-working space and incubator in the southwest part of the U.S. A freelancer, she was unable to find a co-working community she felt welcome in and as a result, launched her own. “Representation matters for this community. When we ask people of color why they join our space, it’s almost always because they saw someone who looked like them.”
She went on to explain how her incubator operationalized inclusion, especially during tours and member onboarding. “I make sure our staff go out of their way to immediately greet people of color when they come into the space. We ask them what their business is and what their challenges are as a business owner. I have [my staff] document who they met with and they need to be able to report back the nature of the businesses and what their needs are.”
So, by no mistake, their community has achieved almost 50/50 gender parity and over 40% of their members are people of color (which is a metric they actively track). The owner of the space also has a different way of approaching participation on panels. Because representation matters so much, she will often ask who else is on the panel and will gladly recommend underrepresented founders who maybe haven’t had the opportunity to speak on a panel. We often forget that speaking on panels is a privilege afforded to some as a way to promote one’s self, ideas, and company. Let’s not take that responsibility lightly!
I believe St. Louis can learn a few things from San Antonio. No matter the size of a startup community, it’s critical to bake the tenants of accessibility and equality into your community’s foundation. We want entrepreneurship to thrive in St. Louis and every region and that starts with reaching people, clearing the path to relevant resources, and building a space where everyone’s voice is heard.