New Startup Champion Tiffany Henry is the Rural Director at Conductor in Conway, Arkansas. In her role as an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder she works with communities to create cultures of innovative problem solving and helps to grow entrepreneurs by connecting them with resources and partnerships to help them succeed. We interviewed Tiffany to learn more about her thoughts on rural entrepreneurial ecosystem building, as well as her hopes as a new member of SCN.
What roles or functions do you play in your ecosystem?
The Conductor is a public-private partnership based out of central Arkansas that supports innovators and entrepreneurs through mentoring, accelerator and bootcamps, a makerspace, meet-ups, and other similar activities. We recently received a grant from the SBA to expand our offerings to ten rural counties surrounding our home base. My role is to build the infrastructure and oversee the expansion, and to hire and train local ecosystem builders who will tailor the programming to their community’s needs.
What is your definition of an ecosystem builder?
An ecosystem builder sees the possibilities for innovation, progress, and connectedness in their community, and believes that supporting and strengthening entrepreneurs is the force that brings those possibilities to life. Similar to building a house, a mason would want to be sure his structure is as strong as possible, with the right ratio of brick and mortar to hold it all together. An ecosystem builder wants to make their community as strong as possible, pulling together entrepreneurs and the support resources to create a cohesive and sturdy structure that can hold the weight of comprehensive economic development. However, one major difference is an entrepreneurial ecosystem is fluid and constantly changing and adapting, therefore an ecosystem builder’s work is never finished!
What are the biggest challenges you face in ecosystem building?
The biggest challenges I face in ecosystem building align with ESHIP Goal 1: Inclusive Field and ESHIP Goal 6: Universal Support. Rural communities can be overlooked as places that spur innovation and that have a robust talent. Particularly as it pertains to tech companies and remote work opportunities. Infrastructure barriers are what prevents rural communities from thriving, not a lack of vision or grit. The external perception of there being minimal value in building a rural ecosystem is a challenge, as well as advocating for inclusion of the rural perspective in policy discussions.
Barriers of inclusivity and universal support are also seen within the communities as well. Close relationships and family histories can be a hurdle to overcome, which are typically magnified by personal identity markers like church affiliation, political views, or cultural differences. One of the coolest things about being an ecosystem builder is to see these challenges as opportunities for learning and growing together, because ultimately most people share the same goal of seeing their community and economy grow and thrive.
What is the most successful/impactful program you have done in your ecosystem?
One of the things I am most proud of is my home town of Russellville, Arkansas receiving a Local Foods Local Places (LFLP) award from the EPA to provide consulting for a culinary incubator/makerspace. This project is a public-private partnership between the city and our local university, where the city owns the building and the university coordinates the programming. This two year saga has involved lots of personal outreach to the city and university, prodding for progress. Activities included having the Mayor and university Vice President present at 1 Million Cups to spark external support, host the Mayor and VP with their staff on a multi-city tour of other makerspaces in the state and hear from their local entrepreneurs about the benefits of the space, presenting to Main Street Russellville about the opportunities for this project and how they can get involved, and last but not least, writing the LFLP proposal and providing it to the city to submit along with all the necessary support letters. We were notified a few months ago we were accepted into the program, and our first community meeting is in September. All of these actions I took outside of any official job or capacity, but as a passionate member of my community. I consider this to be the most successful thing I have done for the ecosystem because It was through this experience that I realized that I am an ecosystem builder. It has been very rewarding to see relationships and partnerships that were formed through this process continue to blossom and grow and I look forward to watching the huge impact I know the culinary incubator/makerspace will make in my community.
What is your biggest frustration as an ecosystem builder?
My biggest frustration as an ecosystem builder is when people or organizations are not interested in collaborating. It is doubly frustrating when there is a person who wants to connect their resources, but their governing organization does not. For example, when we were forming our 1 Million Cups organizing team, a staff member from the Chamber of Commerce totally understood what we were doing and saw the benefits of the program. She wanted to be involved and saw the potential for the Chamber to connect to early stage startups. However, the Executive Director of the Chamber did not see the value of supporting early stage entrepreneurs and preferred his staff focus on typical economic development avenues. I get frustrated because I know ecosystem building works, and I know that eventually when programs are successful people want to be on board. I just prefer they cooperate from the beginning!
What ecosystem building skill or knowledge do you want to gain?
I want and need to continue to learn how to be more inclusive. It is a repeated topic of discussion of my team, and the number one priority as we design programming and evaluate our successes and opportunities for growth. There is no ecosystem without diversity, and I hope to always be one who contributes to a society of equitability and justice.
What’s next for you as far as ecosystem building?
My next step for ecosystem building is designing the framework for the rural expansion of our work at the Conductor. This is an unprecedented opportunity for the state of Arkansas, as we have been awarded a grant to identify and train ecosystem builders to run their own programming in their communities. In addition to the SBA award, we also are included in the Kauffman Inclusion Open to bring our 10x Accelerator to six rural regions through what we are calling the 10X Rural Growth Program. Each region will have 5-10 companies who will go through 5 weeks of startup curriculum followed by one-on-one mentorship and coaching. I am so excited to bring these programs to the entrepreneurs in rural areas, and can’t wait to develop ecosystem builders who will serve to strengthen our communities and our state!
What motivates you as an ecosystem builder?
I am powered by the “A-ha!” moments when connections are made and needs are filled for entrepreneurs. I was working with an entrepreneur who was frustrated by perceived opaqueness from her city government. I asked if she had seen contradictions between what was said at city council meetings and the subsequent actions taken in the community. When she told me she had never attended a city council meeting I said she should go and see for herself what was being discussed. I could almost see a literal light bulb turn on in her head as she realized she could be a part of the conversation if she would just take action and go. I am motivated when I see others empowered to be the change they want to see in their communities.
What are the most important things that need to happen to advance the field of ecosystem building?
I think ESHIP Goal 2: Collaborative Culture is one of the most important things that needs to happen to advance the field of ecosystem building. Because of some ESO objectives and funding models, there can be a sense of competitiveness and fear if support for a newly created venture is credited to a particular organization. While meeting objectives and maintaining funding are legitimate concerns, fostering a spirit of uncooperativeness is the totally wrong approach to strengthening the ecosystem and does a disservice to the entrepreneur. I firmly believe a rising tide lifts all ships, and when builders and organizations can learn how to work together in healthy and supportive ways everyone succeeds.
You've just joined SCN. What does it mean to you to be an SCN member or what are you hoping you can get from SCN?
I am so excited to be a part of SCN!!! It is such a joy and a privilege to join this dynamic group of innovators, doers, makers and dreamers. As I have been growing in the field over the last few years, whenever I would read an article or interview that was particularly impactful, or talk to a person that was so energized and insightful, it would more likely than not be an SCN member. I love the diversity of the SCN membership and that the summits are always in new places. I hope to gain wisdom from the deep experience of the group and form lots of friendships with incredibly inspirational people.
Are you planning to attend the Madison Summit and what do you hope to learn or accomplish at the Summit?
I am not attending the Madison Summit because the RuralRise Summit is at the exact same time. RuralRise will be in Pine Bluff Arkansas this year, so I definitely need to go and support my state that I love so much! I appreciate that SCN summits are so frequent, I look forward to attending the next one!
What do you hope to contribute to SCN? What skills or interests are you hoping to share?
I hope to bring encouragement and positivity to SCN and for members to know I am always on their team. I am skilled at listening and communicating and tend to be bent towards empathy and compassion. I hope to contribute to the knowledge bank with perspectives and experience from the rural space and provide as many connections and resources as possible to help other ecosystems thrive.