This guest post comes from the team at Startup Space, working with entrepreneurship support organizations and other partners to connect entrepreneurs to the resources in their communities and deliver insights.

“You never want tragedy to lead to change, but history will show us that sometimes that’s what it takes to shake us out of our current reality.”
Meg Steur, Director of Platform for Forge North (Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN) in comments made during the ICBI35 session, “Community to Grow: Practical Insights for Developing Your Ecosystem Strategy”

No one can dispute the nearly incalculable toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has affected every aspect of society and business around the globe for the past 15 months. Now as cities, states, countries and regions begin to emerge from the world-shaking changes this global crisis wrought, a few lingering facts remain:

  • First, many areas of the world are still deep in the turmoil. They are facing new virus strains and devastating consequences. For them, getting past the worst of the crisis may be months or years away.
  • Second, “back to normal” may not be a wise or desirable goal. Wherever “normal” equates to a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion, we can all agree there should be no effort to return.
  • Finally, the pandemic presented challenges we’d never encountered before and on a scale few of us could have contemplated. Many of the concepts that came out of meeting those challenges have had both short- and longer-term benefits for our organizations and our clients and stakeholders. We should examine those carefully and consider integrating them permanently into our operations moving forward.

The recent 35th annual International Conference on Business Incubation (ICBI35) featured seven tracks sharing innovative ideas for entrepreneurs across the globe. Two of those tracks – “Entrepreneurial Ecosystems” and “Pandemic Adaptations and Economic Recovery Efforts” – highlighted pandemic-born concepts that had crucial impacts on the ability of support organizations to serve entrepreneurs and execute on their missions. The takeaways from the sessions within these tracks are ripe for those sharing in the mission to support the growth and recovery of entrepreneurship in their communities:

“What are the old practices that we should return to, what are the new practices that we’ve had to develop for the last year that we should retain, and what do we need to let go of from both of these things?”
Question posed by Jack Marck, Executive Director of Illinois AgTech Accelerator, during the ICBI35 session, “Creating a New Normal: Discussion of How Entrepreneurial Support Systems Can Emerge Stronger by Embracing Lessons Learned During the Global Pandemic”

Narrowing in on just a few insights from dozens of conference sessions was no easy task, but we’re seeing a clear theme in realizations that had truly “moved the needle” for entrepreneurial support organizations during the pandemic clustered in four primary areas. The following overview, while not exhaustive, presents a closer look at the highlights from our point of view.

Concept 1: Virtual is Valid and Can Offer Unique Value

Across the 11 sessions honing in on the response to the pandemic, participating experts and organizational leaders repeatedly shared that with few exceptions, the entrepreneurs they serve were eager to accommodate the forced move to virtual. “[Our experience has been]…a testament,” said David Ponraj, founder and CEO of Startup Space, a community-building platform for ESOs and EDOs. “We’re a small business ourselves, and we saw that people are willing to do business virtually.”

And when entrepreneurship centers pivoted to a virtual model, entrepreneurs embraced the change. Meg Steur, Director of Platform for Forge North, shared, “We’ve been really impressed with our community’s ability to create virtual spaces…24 hours after going to ‘work-from-home’ orders, [a coworking space] stood up a virtual membership option. In the first 30 days, they had 300 people sign up as new members of their community. They were doing daily coffee chats and daily lunch check-ins for working moms and lots of educational content on entrepreneurship or meditation and really thinking about folks holistically through this experience.”

That’s not to say that every entrepreneur was equally able to take advantage of virtual offerings. Presenters at ICBI35 acknowledged the persistence of the digital divide and the inequity it exacerbates. According to Deborah Novick, Director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Westchester County Office of Economic Development in White Plains, NY, supplying technology to entrepreneurs was a critical element in the Launch 1000 effort she spearheaded to provide entrepreneurial training to 1000 county residents. “We were committed to solving the digital divide in this program. So of our 525 applicants, about 100 requested laptops.”

Across the board, ICBI35 presenters spoke of how moving to a virtual model actually allowed them to serve more entrepreneurs. Removing the constraints of having to secure physical space or find time slots that worked with often-difficult commutes “…allowed us to access conversations with people that we wouldn’t be able to have otherwise,” said Jack Marck, Executive Director of Illinois AgTech Accelerator. “There are a lot more options for being able to connect with a lot more people in a lot less time.”

Going virtual also sparked a valuable change in approach for Sue Susenburger, Global Communication Innovation Manager for The Connectory by Bosch, a collection of five physical spaces in the United States, Mexico, Germany, Brazil, and China. Whereas each city had previously tended to operate with a focus on its own local area, the pandemic resulted in a shift to where, “…we were able to create a discussion across different countries…doing more joint workshops, cross promotions, and initiatives” that might not have happened otherwise.

Concept 2: Purposeful, Consistent Convening Can Break Down Pre-Pandemic Silos

According to many of the ICBI35 panelists, in pre-pandemic times they encountered entrenched silos among their stakeholders, partners and entrepreneurs. The silos may have been by industry (healthcare, food/agriculture, tech, etc.) or by location (city-centric, state- or province-centric, etc.), but they definitely existed and there was little incentive for those in the silos to break out. “That convening aspect for us…we’ve always talked about it as the connective tissue of our community,” said Steur. “Pre-pandemic, we saw a lot of ‘collisions’ happening at networking events and at happy hours hosted by our partners. What we’ve heard over the course of the last year is we’ve gotten really good at doing education virtually and can deliver awesome content. [We’re] really thinking about ‘How are you putting in those opportunities so that folks consistently have something on their calendar where they can show up, build those connections, and seek support.”

A similar realization spurred Susenburger to make a simple but impactful change. “We just started cross-sharing each [country’s] events among our channels…expanding efforts and offerings through partnering.” 

Concept 3: Trust is Key, and Focusing on DEI Helps Build It

The idea of entrepreneurship centers as “trusted connectors” surfaced repeatedly across the ICBI35 sessions. And time and again, this concept was tied specifically to ensuring that in a post-pandemic world, organizations focus on concerns around entrepreneur obstacles related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Ponraj explained that “…in one of the biggest metros of the United States…people of color applied for PPP at 30%, compared to the white folk in that same city and nationally at about 70%…but in the absence of a trusted connector, people don’t trust the [PPP] program…”

Steur agreed, adding, “Now what we’re talking more about [compared to pre-pandemic] is ‘How do we think about things differently in terms of who’s getting hired, who’s getting access to funding’…”

Craig MacMullin, president and CEO of the Center for Entrepreneurship Education and Development (CEED) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, shared that for his organization, being seen as a trusted connector by members of indigenous cultures and by people of color involves taking a supporting role rather than a starring one. “We’re bringing a lot of our programming to [people in these groups], but…because it’s a different culture, we can’t go in there with our white privilege and say, ‘Well, this is how you need to do it.’…[So] we’re looking to leverage the things that we do [through] other partners…We’ll provide them with a sizeable chunk of programming that they can then take to that community, and where we can support, we absolutely do…”

Concept 4: Contingency Planning and Resiliency Building Will Be Key to Preparing for the Next Disruptive Event

The COVID-19 pandemic was, to use an overused phrase, “unprecedented.” But in the Fireside Chat session of ICBI35, Bob Johansen, Distinguished Fellow of the Institute for the Future, noted, “The expectation we should all have is we’re going to face the rolling risk of health and climate disruptions…Now once you set that expectation, there’s lots of ways we can thrive.” In other words, COVID set the precedent and we’d be wise to learn from it. In practical terms, Johansen recommended that entrepreneurship centers turn the lens on themselves to question their preconceptions about where/when/how they serve their communities. The move to virtual models, driven by COVID, proved that “where” may matter much less than we’d previously thought. And organizations that can accommodate varying “whens” and “hows” – for instance, by providing resources that can be accessed synchronously or asynchronously, via the cloud or mobile – may also have a post-pandemic advantage and leg up on responding to whatever crisis appears next.

Finally, in a session entitled, “Practical Contingency Planning and Resiliency Building for Startups,” David Madié (founder and CEO) and Elizabeth Binning (Head of Training and Growth) of GrowthWheel International in New York, NY, shared a number of self-assessment tools and resources. While the session looked at these tools from the perspective of small businesses, the assessments are equally valid and valuable for entrepreneurship centers to use as they examine their risk and readiness. “I think it’s safe to say that very few of us…were prepared for the COVID-19 crisis. There was little contingency planning, and if we got through that it was…merely luck…” but “…now the timing is perfect to work on this…[because] every single company is very aware that a crisis can happen unexpectedly.”

**All session recordings from ICBI35 are available for purchase. For more information, email [email protected].