EcoMap ReCap: Startup Champions Network (SCN) 2021 Fall Summit

The Startup Champions Network (SCN) met in-person for the first time since March 2020, and nothing notable has happened since then.

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EcoMap ReCap: Startup Champions Network (SCN) 2021 Fall Summit

The Startup Champions Network (SCN) met in-person for the first time since March 2020, and nothing notable has happened since then.

All jokes aside, there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air as SCN convened again in a post-pandemic world, after just sneaking the last San Antonio-based Summit in under the wire March 10–12 last Spring. So much of the work that ecosystem builders do depend on human connections, something we’ve all come to realize just doesn’t translate the same way via Zoom.

Ecosystem builders around the country — and even one from Colombia (shoutout to Flor) — convened in Des Moines, Iowa to discuss the ups, downs, and everything in between of the work that we do. The EcoMap team’s contingent to this conference consisted of Sherrod Davis — our COO — and Kevin Carter (me) — our Head of Business Development.

While I could do a session-by-session recap of everything that happened at the SCN Fall 2021 Summit, I don’t believe that would do it justice. With so many divergent sessions and breakout opportunities, no two attendees had the same experience.

Instead, I thought it would be helpful to break down the Summit into three themes that emerged throughout. No matter which sessions you attended, or the people you spoke with, these seemed to be the undercurrent of what SCN Fall 2021 is all about.

Ecosystem Builders as Bridges

One of the first themes of the Summit emerged during the Summit Kickoff session.

The majority of the events took place in the vibrant and spacious Gravitate Coworking hub in downtown Des Moines, and I could not picture a better venue for the occasion.

Geoff Wood, the Founder of Gravitate and one of the fantastic hosts for this Summit, gave all of us out-of-towners a brief history of Des Moines. More on that later.

One of the primary symbols of the city are the three bridges — Walnut, Locust, and Grand — that connect Des Moines from East to West. These bridges are proudly depicted on the red, white, and blue Des Moines city flag. The blue undercurrent represents the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers that run through the city while the red trapezoid symbolizes its passionate residents who serve as its lifeblood.

Ecosystem builders, Geoff said, are inherently bridges.

Bridges to resources. Bridges to people. Bridges to entire communities.

Our primary purpose as ecosystem builders is to help those cross over the troubled waters of venture building and reach the other side. Although bridges alone do not drive an entire ecosystem, they are the infrastructure that enable its entrepreneurs to reach their desired destinations.

This flag really connects with many city residents, perhaps none more than the Des Moines natives in the room who played a big role in bringing the SCN Summit to their city. Accordingly, Geoff showed off the Des Moines flag tattoo that covers his inner arm during the Summit Kickoff.

He is one of the supportive bridges in the Des Moines ecosystem, after all.

The Story of Des Moines

As someone who had never the pleasure of visiting Des Moines before, I have to admit I was pretty clueless about the city’s history. I really thought of the two Big C’s — corn & caucuses. But the SCN Fall 2021 Summit did a fantastic job at letting Iowans tell the story of Des Moines’ development of its entrepreneurial ecosystem over the past couple of decades and arts scene over the past couple of decades.

Eric Engelmann — the Founding Executive Director of the New Bohemian Innovation Collaboration (conveniently shorthanded to NewBoCo) — gave a wonderful summation of Des Moines’ entrepreneurial history on Day 1.

While it would be incorrect to say “nothing was there” prior to the turn of the millennium, Eric mentioned that entrepreneurs in the region weren’t really talking to each other about the concept of ecosystem building.

A huge turning point came when Iowa became the 8th region in the Startup America Partnership — a collaboration between the Kauffman Foundation and White House in 2011 to jumpstart entrepreneurial ecosystems around the country. This Partnership provided resources such as new networks, funding opportunities, and accelerator programs to bring Iowan innovators out of the woodwork.

From there, once these soon-to-be ecosystem builders finally started to gather in the same spaces, the greater Iowa ecosystem began to boom.

Geoff built Gravitate Coworking as a physical representation of the ecosystem.

Eric laid the foundation for NewBoCo to become a force across all stages and ages in Iowa.

And Tej Dhawan co-founded the Plains Angels network to invest in early stage companies in the region.

And The Greater Des Moines Partnership (aka — The Partnership) became a hub to unite the corporate, startup, small business, and artist communities in the city.

Iowa identified two cornerstone industries — AgTech + InsuranceTech — and developed a ton of industry-specific resources to build them up. So now organizations like AgVentures Alliance, Ag Startup Engine, BrokerTech Ventures, and the Global Insurance Accelerator serve as the backbone to clusters of these ventures. Iowa Startup Accelerator and Techstars Iowa Accelerator

Of course there are too many catalysts to properly name/cite here — so apologies in advance if someone is reading this and their contributions are not properly mentioned — but that’s the beauty of an ecosystem that’s rapidly catalyzing. At a certain point, the output becomes much greater than the sum of its parts. That’s where Des Moines’ entrepreneurial ecosystem resides right now.

People Make the Place

Finally, I would be remiss to not touch on the wonderful people that make up the Startup Champions Network community.

Anika Horn — ecosystem builder extraordinaire — set the tone early by getting all the attendees in the mindset of sharing both what they can offer and what they are looking for in one-minute “speed dates”. Once these conversations started to flow, they were hard to stop.

One of the true pleasures of the Des Moines conference was having the opportunity to connect in both formal and casual settings to discuss the work that we do.

For example, after Day 1’s structured programming at Gravitate wrapped up, we each split into smaller groups for Dinner with Locals. This was an incredible opportunity to get a key player in the Des Moines entrepreneurial ecosystem over a meal. I had the pleasure of breaking bread with Craig Ibsen, a Managing Partner for Next Level Ventures, one of Iowa’s (and the region’s) largest venture firms.

Afterwards the good times continued to roll with a visit to Teehee’s Comedy Clubwhere club Co-Owner Sid Juwarker told the story of Des Moines’ developing comedy ecosystem, and emphasized the importance of supporting our own independent arts scene, no matter where we’re from. Otherwise, those artists might just move to Iowa.

The next morning we kicked off the day by attending Des Moines’ local 1 Million Cups (1MC) chapter — a Kauffman Foundation-enabled networking event that occurs in over 160 communities around the country every Wednesday morning. With the Iowa Cubs baseball stadium as a backdrop, we had the opportunity to learn from Iowa’s accelerator leaders about the role their programs play in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. And while this info was incredibly valuable, so was the opportunity to chat with and learn from the 100+ attendees in the more casual setting that it provided.

Last, but certainly not least, we ended Wednesday evening with a session called Roses & Thorns. This was an opportunity to break into smaller roundtables to have open and honest dialogue about our careers in ecosystem building. After all of the interpersonal interactions over the last two days, I came into this session truthfully not knowing what I would get out of it. I mean, hadn’t we already spoken about this at length? But I cannot adequately describe how impactful it was to have a venue to speak from the heart about what it’s like to work in this space.

The space created by our facilitator (shoutout to Fay Horwitt) set a vulnerable tone which led conversations to a place not possible in a larger group setting. I left that room feeling like I got out of a therapy session, feeling understood, rejuvenated, and even more passionate about the work I have ahead of me.

What’s Next?

A common theme of the sessions is that we were finally among the people that understand all of the crazy work that we do. While our day-to-days may be different, the shared motivations and challenges served as a uniting force between us all.

So my appeal to any ecosystem builder reading this — please join us next Spring in Durham, NC March 1 -3, 2022 for what is sure to be another cathartic conference. The fantastic Fay Horwitt, CEO & President of Forward Cities, will be serving as the next Summit host.

My main takeaway from SCN Fall 2021?

Ecosystem building work is hard, but it’s even harder without a supportive community that is going through those same struggles.

SCN offers that community and enables you to be the best bridge you can be.

Kevin Carter

Head of Business Development