By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“Pizza, beer and music are the holy trinity” of a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, Evan Absher of the Kauffman Foundation told about 100 people attending yesterday’s “Mayor’s Summit on Entrepreneurship.”
The morning session, hosted by Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, officially kicked-off “Innov865 Week,” the region’s first-ever week-long celebration of entrepreneurship. It was also the fourth Mayor’s Summit that Kauffman has co-hosted around the country, going to places where Mayors are heavily involved in the start-up space.
“Entrepreneurship has been part of my agenda since I came into office,” Mayor Rogero said. “Today’s theme is rethinking economic development. We are not talking about scrapping or taking away from anything we are doing.”
Yet, as the Mayor noted, 100 start-ups creating three jobs each equals one company recruited into the region that creates 300 jobs. During the Summit, attendees broke into small groups to develop ideas to further enhance and advance the community’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and the start-ups that are part of it.
In a soft spoken but fast-paced manner keynote address, Absher, Kauffman’s Program Officer in Research and Policy, hit on some key points for a very diverse audience that included a handful of elected officials. In the process of doing so, he challenged some norms in the start-up space.
“Culture almost always precedes vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems,” he explained. “People move to and live in a city.” In the case of Knoxville, Absher said he understood “Sundown in the City” was a big catalyst in the development of Downtown Knoxville’s thriving restaurant, music and cultural scene that is now expanding north into Happy Holler and east beyond the Old City.
Other key points in his presentation were the need for a more diverse set of entrepreneurs, a more laser focused effort on high potential start-ups, and the importance of connectivity strategies.
“Women entrepreneurs are key to accelerating growth,” Absher said, adding that foreign-born entrepreneurs and other underrepresented populations are also important and underutilized.
On the topic of job growth, he noted that three cities – Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville – account for about one-half of all job growth in the state. With young entrepreneurs of all types creating nearly all net new jobs through good times and bad times, Absher encouraged the attendees to focus on what he characterized as “Main Street” start-ups.
“We need to find in those firms the high-growth ones and take them to the next level,” he said. To do so, Absher urged the attendees to recognize several realities.
“Large firms do not create new jobs,” he reemphasized. “Incentives for large firms are the least effective for job creation.” Earlier, he showed a chart summarizing the State of Tennessee’s top awarded incentive packages, and all but two went to companies headquartered elsewhere.
“Most high-growth (start-up) firms need access to customers,” Absher said about the importance of networks that provide connectivity. To illustrate the point, he used a heat map or density diagram that showed the stark difference between communities like Knoxville and both Boston and Silicon Valley.
“People who know people who know people . . . that (connectivity) is a powerful trait in all successful entrepreneurial ecosystems,” Absher observed. What was left unsaid but clearly implied was the importance of local business executives helping entrepreneurs succeed by connecting them with potential customers and mentors.
After Absher’s presentation, Mayor Rogero moderated a panel that featured Dana Mauriello, Head of Wholesale and Manufacturing for Etsy; Doug Lawyer, Vice President of Economic Development for the Knoxville Chamber; and Jill Van Beke, Director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Launch Tennessee. Mauriello was in town for yesterday afternoon’s “Knoxville Maker City Summit.”