How do we create an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Maine?
The question is not meant to imply Mainers aren’t entrepreneurial. We certainly have a workforce known for its hard work and resourcefulness. But we can’t rest on our reputation for “Yankee ingenuity.”
What I’m talking about when I say we need to foster an entrepreneurial ecosystem goes beyond having a large share of small businesses and a workforce known for showing up for work on mornings when there’s two feet of snow on the ground. I’m talking about creating an environment where more Mainers see launching their own companies as a viable option, and where those entrepreneurs have access to a robust and well-organized network of professional services and mentors to help them succeed.
One such effort to foster that kind of environment is happening this weekend in Portland. It’s called Startup Weekend, and is exactly what it sounds like. A weekend dedicated to creating startup companies.
People sign up to take part in the weekend. Anyone can join, as everyone has different skills and experience they bring to the table. On Friday night, entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas, participants vote for the business they want to build, and the assembled teams spend the next 48 hours building that startup from the ground up. Pretty cool, right? It’s not too late to sign up to participate this weekend.
At the end of the weekend, the teams pitch what they’ve come up with to a panel of judges, who select a winner. The winner receives business consulting services.
Startup Weekend is a global phenomenon, with more than 1,000 events being held in more than 450 cities.
This will be Portland’s second Startup Weekend. The first was held last March, and the winning team, led by a Bangor resident, is still in development of a mobile app that helps people work towards goals with the help of friends.
This weekend, the organizers of Startup Weekend have brought in Emily Madero to provide a keynote address. Emily is a Maine native who now helps run a successful business incubator in New Orleans called Idea Village, which has as its mission “to identify, support and retain entrepreneurial talent in New Orleans,” she said.
Emily grew up in Portland, and attended Tulane University. She was working on an MBA with a focus on entrepreneurship when Hurricane Katrina struck. She became involved with Idea Village after returning to the city after being evacuated.
“It was an opportunity to do a hands-on project, but what I found really exciting is it was sort of right in the space I was particularly interested in, which was entrepreneurship and conscious capitalism and leveraging entrepreneurship as a change agent,” she told me.
I spoke with Emily at length about what it takes to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem, how to leverage entrepreneurship for change, and what she thinks are Maine’s key strengths that could be used to promote business development. Rather than post the entire, lengthy discussion here, I’ve pulled out some choice quotes I think help illustrate those issues.
Emily Madero on New Orleans and leveraging entrepreneurship as a change agent:
When we were founded in 2000 this was really a failing city. It was a city in decline … we were failing in education, we had terrible crime issues, politics were corrupt. There was a real leadership issue, so a group of young, forward-thinking leaders and entrepreneurs came together, at first putting their heads together to understand why the city wasn’t participating in the entrepreneurial boom that a lot of the rest of the country was seeing, but also realizing there was a leadership issue here.
Their thought was, ‘let’s leverage entrepreneurship as a catalyst for positive change, and a driver not only for economic development, but entrepreneurs tend to be great leaders and they tend to take on tough problems like education, like managing water, which is an important regional issue we have. So if we’re able to provide an environment where entrepreneurs can thrive, they’re not only going to hire people, and create jobs and generate revenue, but they’ll also provide the right leadership for the city to turn around. So we were founded just as much about focusing on specific ventures as building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in a virtual desert.
Emily on the strengths Maine can leverage to foster its entrepreneurial environment.
What Maine has going for it is the geographic proximity to the tech and innovation hub in Boston, and that university hub. I personally believe the culture in Maine is incredibly creative and industrious, hard working, and a culture where people tend to be community-oriented, and be really proud of local, which I think is an important part of galvanizing the broader community around entrepreneurship.
I think there’s a couple things that New Orleans has that we actually share with Portland. We’re a destination location, as is Maine. It’s Vacationland, right? So you may not have a deep roster of resources that are there locally, but what I try to do is … align with conventions or events or holidays or things that are happening here anyway. New Orleans is not a hard sell, so we have keynote speakers and investors that come in and I try to plug that individual into our season to do a workshop or keynote or be a panelist.
I would suspect that Portland and Maine has incredibly deep resources in that area, in terms of potential investors and advisors that have connections to Maine in some way. So if you’re thinking of building this place-based network, they may not be full-time residents, but it’s a magical place that resonates with a lot of people that probably have incredibly rich networks and resources that if you can engage them in the entrepreneurial world and movement and find an efficient way to plug them in, get them invested and involved, you’re going to see that sort of seed a relationship and their engagement will build organically.
Emily on brain drain:
In terms of population, and brain drain particularly, it’s interesting that in New Orleans and Portland, Maine, in general what we have going for us is lifestyle. People want to be there, it’s just a challenge of finding jobs and being able to support your lifestyle. So I think in New Orleans there was a population that wanted to be here, but there was a mass exodus. Tulane wasn’t necessarily retaining graduates, and people who grew up here were leaving to pursue career opportunities in other cities. I think that turned around after Katrina because all of a sudden we had major problems and people are ambitious and came down here to solve problems. But what started as more of altruistic, going-to-rebuild-the-city [motives] has become more of a there’s a lot of opportunity here, and entrepreneurial opportunities, because any problem becomes a market opportunity.
Emily on leveraging challenges to create opportunities:
I think Maine is someplace where you have this incredibly rich culture and people want to live there. So I think it’s about identifying what those seeds of competitive advantage are — and ironically I think our competitive advantages in New Orleans was a lot of these problems. We see a lot of ed tech businesses because we had a lot educators coming down here to work on education reform after the storm. Water challenge is another area where we see activity with entrepreneurs that are solving regional challenges of water management. That’s become a natural asset. I think the opportunity is to identify what are those top line competitive advantages for Portland, whether they’re leveraging natural assets of the culture or the geography, or they’re addressing serious challenges that could be compelling for a certain population.
Emily on why she thinks Idea Village has been successful at “seeding an entrepreneurial ecosystem:”
I think the tool we’ve leveraged here in New Orleans and at Idea Village is the idea of organizing and galvanizing our community around a season. Seasons are something people understand here. We have Mardi Gras season and crawfish season and festival season. That’s sort of a way our community lines up around different times of the year. It’s sort of an academic calendar — maybe that’s something that resonates in the Northeast. We run all our programming on a seasonal basis, so we open up all our applications in August, we run programming throughout the year and then it culminates during New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, which is every March. It’s a way not only to bring together our local network, it’s also an easy, efficient way that we can leverage talent from across the country and globally to come in and support the entrepreneurs that are growing here. I certainly think that’s something that’s translatable to any community. It makes it an easy way to start shifting the culture toward more of a focus on entrepreneurship and innovation.
Emily on what she thinks of Portland’s entrepreneurial scene:
Ever since I left Maine 15 years ago, every time I go back it seems to be, especially in Portland, you have this thriving young professional culture. So if you’re attracting a lot of young, smart people I think it’s an area where you are definitely going to see a lot of interesting growth for sure.
I think what’s interesting is it seems like it’s really a grassroots effort. I definitely see a lot of similarities [between New Orleans and Portland]. I wasn’t here at Idea Village when it was founded, but it was founded by a bunch of believers who loved New Orleans, loved the city and were entrepreneurial and sort of put their heads together in a grassroots way. There was no centralized funding, there was no organization, there was no structure around it. And it seems that’s kind of what’s happening [in Portland]. You have got some entrepreneurial leaders driving it in a grassroots way. But you’re probably starting with a richer playbook of assets, so I think it’s really exciting.