I recently joined a group of civically-engaged Akronites on a trek to Charlottesville, Virginia, to participate in the Tom Tom Founders Festival’s Hometown Summit, a convening of leaders from small and mid-sized cities who focus on creative community problem-solving. (Fund President Brad Whitehead was also on the agenda.) It was a really fantastic grouping of people and ideas, and I learned so much that I can apply to the ongoing work in Akron to spur entrepreneurship. I’ve boiled down these lessons into five major takeaways:
1. Community-focused efforts should be of the people, by the people, and for the people
Abraham Lincoln was describing his vision for government with these words, but he may as well have been talking about entrepreneurship efforts. Time and again, I heard that efforts to drive growth will not be successful if they come from the top down. Just as we tell entrepreneurs they must listen to their consumer, so must we. The sleekest maker space in the country will fall flat if the receiving community doesn’t want it. So listen to and engage with the activators in your city before taking concrete action.
2. Collaboration is key
Not once did I hear an organization claim to have turned around a city on their own. Without exception, the speakers from thriving cities were quick to heap praise upon their partners. Their efforts were successful because entities like city government, foundations, chambers of commerce, universities, special improvement districts, nonprofit support organizations, and community development districts aligned and worked toward a common goal. (For more on how to implement successful collaborations, here’s a good resource.)
3. Be inclusive
This point is closely related to the two above. If you truly want to engage all citizens, regardless of age, race, gender, or sexual orientation, you must invite everyone to the table. The efforts that were successful in supporting a diverse population were successful because they engaged a diverse population. The entire community was listened to and learned from, and a diverse group of leaders and citizens implemented the resulting plan. If you’re wondering why you’re having a hard time reaching a part of your population, look around the boardroom. Are they represented?
4. Collisions can be fun!
There was a lot of chatter about “facilitating creative collisions” at Hometown. Whether formal (a co-working space or entrepreneurship hub) or informal (a popular coffee shop), successful cities have a center of activity. Within this space, movers and shakers can talk, brainstorm, bounce ideas off one another, and generally make trouble (the good kind). Yes, people will do this on their own, informally or in small groups, but having a dedicated place to foster this kind of creative activity was a tipping point for several of the cities we heard from. But don’t fall back on a “build it and they will come” mentality (see point 1). First, notice where people are already gathering and start there. What’s working well? What’s missing? What are people asking for?
5. How you tell your story matters
The importance of narrative was a resounding theme throughout the week. The way you tell your city’s story will impact how the rest of the world views it. It will also impact how your own residents view themselves and their potential. This does not mean we should gloss over those areas that need improvement. But by lifting up the success stories of a city, we can drive positive change through inspiration and encouragement, too. It’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about our work with The Devil Strip. (Did you catch the latest episode of Akro-preneurs, featuring Naresh Subba of Family Groceries?)
Bonus Learning: Akron and all of Northeast Ohio’s urban areas are in good company. It was reaffirming to meet and talk to leaders from so many other small and mid-sized cities that are wrestling with similar issues of economic development, entrepreneurship, placemaking, equity, and artistic inclusion. We’re not alone, and in some areas, we’re even a little ahead.
Tremendous thanks to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for supporting and sponsoring the Akron group’s trip to Charlottesville. Photo courtesy of Chris Horne.