Free Resources & Strategies for Higher Ed Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building. The C•CUBE Toolkit from UWO & Venn Collaborative sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation

Centering Diversity, Equity, Belonging and Inclusion in Ecosystem Building

By Jim Woodell and Fay Horwitt, President & CEO of Forward Cities

Ecosystems thrive when they are inclusive, fostering connections, conversations, and cultures that embrace the entire community. On this website, you’ll discover resources to explore and implement inclusive approaches. Here, we outline some principles to start with to guide and anchor this work.

Creating an Inclusive Welcoming Environment

Building an inclusive ecosystem extends beyond the mere act of opening access to events, resources, and funding. As it has often been aptly noted, creating a “level playing field” is insufficient if the game itself is inherently unfair. True ecosystem building requires the cultivation of a welcoming culture that nurtures trust and a collective commitment to a shared effort. This commitment values both cooperation and healthy competition, grounded in a profound respect for strategies that acknowledge and address entrepreneurial and ecosystem inequities.

Building Diversity of Viewpoints and Leadership

Ecosystem building isn’t a top-down endeavor imposed on a region by a hierarchy of individuals or organizations. Instead, it emerges from all levels of the community, led by entrepreneurs who prioritize community well-being. To be truly inclusive, ecosystem building must incorporate diverse viewpoints and experiences, reflecting the full breadth of stakeholders and beneficiaries within the community.

Addressing Systemic Inequities and Embedded Structures

Recognize that the foundations of equitable ecosystems, as well as the inclusivity of organizations themselves, originate from complex, historical systems. These systems are often deeply ingrained, older, and more entrenched than we might initially acknowledge. There may be a tendency to avoid exploring these issues fully, even among well-intentioned individuals who recognize their systemic nature, fearing that such examination may lead to hopelessness, defensiveness, or friction. However, the equity-focused vision in ecosystem building seeks the opposite: a comprehensive understanding of these systems—both historical and contemporary—enables tangible improvements. This understanding drives the development of policies, rules, resource allocation (both formal and informal), and programs designed to address and rectify inequities.

Building human ecosystems that prioritize systems change and equity introduces specific challenges that can be complex and multifaceted. The following are some of the common challenges in attempting to build equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems – as well as some proactive approaches to mitigate them.

Building Trust and Safety – Trust is foundational in ecosystems aimed at systems change and equity. Participants often come from diverse backgrounds with potentially conflicting interests or histories of marginalization. Establishing a sense of safety and trust among members is crucial but challenging, requiring transparency, consistent positive interactions, and time to develop.

Equitable Participation and Power Sharing – Ensuring that all voices, especially those from historically marginalized communities, are not only heard but also have influence, presents a significant challenge. This involves dismantling traditional hierarchies and power structures within the ecosystem and fostering an environment where decision-making power is shared equitably.

Aligning Diverse Goals and Values – In ecosystems focused on systems change, aligning the goals and values of diverse stakeholders can be particularly challenging. Each participant may come with different expectations, priorities, and cultural values, which can lead to conflicts or misalignments. Harmonizing these diverse goals requires ongoing dialogue and the flexibility to adapt the ecosystem’s objectives.

Sustaining Long-term Commitment and Momentum – Systems change is typically a long-term process that can face numerous setbacks and challenges. Maintaining engagement and motivation over time, especially when progress is slow or outcomes are not immediately visible, is difficult. This challenge also involves managing fatigue and discouragement while continually inspiring and motivating participants.

Measuring Impact and Progress – In ecosystems oriented towards equity and systems change, defining and measuring success can be complex. Traditional metrics may not fully capture the depth of systemic changes or the incremental improvements in equity. Developing and agreeing on meaningful, equitable, and comprehensive metrics that reflect true progress is a significant challenge.

Embracing Continuous Learning and Adaptation

Recognize that making these commitments within an entrepreneurial ecosystem is not a static declaration but an evolving journey. It goes beyond simply outlining principles; it demands a commitment to regular assessment and adaptation.

  • Continuous Assessment—Regularly evaluate ecosystem practices and initiatives through an equity lens. This assessment should be comprehensive, considering the experiences and perspectives of all community members. It should seek to identify areas where improvements can be made, whether in access to resources, representation, or the fostering of an inclusive culture.
  • Revisiting Principles—Acknowledge that as you learn and grow, the principles guiding equity efforts may need revision. An equitable and inclusive ecosystem should be dynamic, responsive to changing circumstances, and informed by feedback and experiences. Be open to refining these principles to better reflect the evolving needs and aspirations of your community.
  • Feedback Loop—Establish a continuous feedback loop that involves stakeholders from various backgrounds. Encourage open dialogue and transparency in sharing what works and what doesn’t. This feedback should inform not only the principles but also the day-to-day practices within the ecosystem.
  • Commitment to Adaptation—Demonstrate a commitment to adapt and evolve based on what you learn from ongoing assessment. This includes making necessary changes to policies, programs, and resource allocation to address emerging challenges and opportunities.

Putting it into Action

In the end, it is important to understand that catalyzing and nurturing equitable ecosystems is only possible when the people who care step up and move these strategies from concept to action. Forward Cities has developed a helpful framework for assessing and addressing ecosystem inequities by cultivating a culture of access, belonging, inclusion, diversity and equity (ABIDE). One simple way to get started is to use the following questions as a plumbline when assessing your ecosystem or engaging in exploratory conversations with other ecosystem stakeholders.

  • Access – Are there equal opportunities for every entrepreneur to find, reach, utilize, understand, and explore resources, learn skills, and acquire  both the human and financial capital required to successfully ideate, launch, operate and grow a business?
  • Belonging – Are there spaces, places, and affinity groups where  entrepreneurs can find a sense of identity, acceptance, and support amongst others, particularly where there is a common or shared sector, experience, culture, or demography?
  • Inclusion – Are there Intentional behaviors that recognize, include, and integrate diverse people groups, their perspectives, and (sometimes) unique needs into their organization, leadership, programming, and offerings?
  • Diversity – Are there intentional efforts to reach and serve entrepreneurs from all people groups, regardless of race, gender identity, country of origin, language, physical ability, education level, veteran status, criminal history, area of residence, or any other demographic distinction?
  • Equity – Are there compensatory practices, programs, offerings, funding, positions and decision-making authority that levels the playing field for every entrepreneur, leader, and stakeholder?

It will be important to understand that there is no ‘perfect’ when it comes to ABIDE factors in your community. However, as with anything, change is only possible after first acknowledging the need for it. Make no mistake; his work is not easy. Working towards true equity in your ecosystem will not be easy and you will take some hits; but the destination will make every mile of the journey worth it. As ecosystem and community leaders, we must meet this challenge head on and with deliberation.

Photo of Fay HorwittAbout Fay Horwitt
Fay Horwitt serves as President and CEO of Forward Cities, where she oversees organizational and programmatic strategy. In this capacity, she has a passion for designing community-based initiatives and  convening entrepreneurial supporters within and across communities for knowledge sharing and collaborative projects to support local entrepreneurs. Recent successes include the Black Wall Street Forward and PLACE Builders action learning networks. Additionally, Fay is a nationally recognized expert, keynote speaker, truth-teller and thought leader on the topics of equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems and inclusive entrepreneurship.

Image of variety of arms and hands together on a yellow wall.