Of course, the narrative of unemployment and underemployment in the region is well worn. All anyone ever talks about is jobs, jobs, jobs. We need more jobs. Elections are fought and won on at least the rhetoric around this issue.
It’s also no secret that most job growth comes from small to medium sized enterprise, which has made increasing entrepreneurship an ubiquitous public policy goal. Everyone is saying entrepreneurship is the answer to their economic problems right now, so make no mistake, entrepreneurship itself is not a creative solution. Nor are we unique in our policies and programs to promote entrepreneurship. On paper, our startup grants, investment funds, coding programs, and accelerators are not a differentiator. There has to be something deeper, authentic, and committed behind the policy.
We have to be brutally honest with ourselves and ask, why would someone choose to start a business here vs. all those other places doing the same thing?
Point #1 will take time, good examples, and a culture shift. I think a little more variety in who we celebrate as successful entrepreneurs will be helpful in that. A major advantage for cities like ours is affordability, because starting a business can be (or appear) impossible where financial fallout would be swift and fatal.
Point #2 is exactly why I believe any city that is serious about improving its economic fate needs to make livability and placemaking a huge priority. This is also why I found myself accepting a contract to help develop an accelerator of sorts through the entrepreneurship program at the University of New Brunswick. I believe that entrepreneurship and quality of place/community are intrinsically linked.
For those unfamiliar with the term, accelerators provide some startup funding for new businesses and connect entrepreneurs with mentors and training. My first thought was that there is a already a surplus of startup accelerators (I even participated in one in 2011) and it could be counterproductive to make another. But showing true foresight, my boss told me to stick at it, get to know the accelerator landscape and find out what’s missing.
My revelation came from a period of introspection after a lot of research. I was sitting there thinking, “I am not really an entrepreneur. Should I be the one making this program?” That led to, “Why am I not an entrepreneur?” Because my business is me. Gracen Inc. My business is me pursuing excellence in what I do and one day building a team that pursues excellence in what they do as well so we can transform cities together. Let me be clear, I absolutely want to do big things. I want to have an impact that pushes every city in North America to become even just a little more liveable and climate friendly. But my success will never be measured in venture capital funding or an acquisition. Personally, I am strongly opposed to “explosive growth” and a stratospheric return on investment. I want to grow just a notch faster than I’m comfortable with to keep me scrambling and learning. I want to earn a good living, not a killing, and I want to help others do the same. These ambitions are incompatible at worst, collateral damage at best to most accelerators out there who stake their entire purpose on a few big wins. Since the business world seems to love baseball terminology so much: most accelerators are in it for the grand slams, but most entrepreneurs are hitting singles. Singles still win games.
In fact, when I began to think of the entrepreneurs I can most relate to, I realized those people would not qualify for startup accelerators. Why? They are not fundable. They are not looking for venture capital or a big ‘exit.’ They are built on the unique talents and creativity of individuals and they grow over a lifetime of quality work. They are too inherently slow for accelerators.
Our answer to that is a decelerator. As in, slow down with the grand slam fixation and let’s also think about how we can support businesses that have a long slow road ahead. We are not competing with accelerators, we’re opening our doors to all the entrepreneurs that get locked out of them.
To the aspiring Youtube film house, tiny-house construction firm, seniors’ fitness program, wood furniture designer, graphic design studio, chocolatier - please apply to the Summer Institute and we’ll start that long road with you.
To me this is bigger than jobs, jobs, jobs. It is about people feeling like they are somewhat in control of their destiny while the labour market spits in their face. It’s about people fulfilling their potential wherever they want to, including smaller cities that can be the perfect launchpad. Finally, it’s about seeing a future for small cities that doesn’t include futile tax-breaks to try and persuade big companies to set up shop in town. Instead, this is an emerging vision that creates opportunity in small cities simply by making them places where talented people naturally want to live.
Applications are due March 15. All NBers welcome, not just students. summerinst.ca