By Sean Griffin
CEO and Founder, Startup Cup
The following is a guest commentary for CNBC.com.
An entrepreneurial ecosystem has sprouted in what some would say is a most unexpected community. It has all the elements of a large city effort, including support for technology startups as well as the 98 percent of startups that are not technology-based.
Partnerships have been forged to include entrepreneurs and investors, government and private enterprise, professional and academic, and national and global programs. Short-term weekend programs and long-term multi-month programs, accelerator space and increased funding options have emerged. All of these efforts are focused on catering to entrepreneurs of varying degrees of experience in starting a new business, as well as those in various stages of business growth.
When we consider all of these efforts, thoughts of Boston, New York City, Chicago, Silicon Valley, or Liverpool come to mind. But Tulsa, Oklahoma is where this entrepreneurial ecosystem has grown, in much the same way any entrepreneurial endeavor grows, one step at a time, one program at a time.
Birth of An Idea
Tulsa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem development started as a casual conversation with our former Mayor at a local gathering place. As the conversation became more serious this was followed by an airplane trip to the Kauffman Foundation in 2006, and since then the idea has grown into a full blown entrepreneurial movement.
Our initial goal was to include as many people in the community as possible and showcase the opportunity to grow entrepreneurs and startups in Tulsa. We invited key players involved in economic development to rally around Entrepreneurship Week USA, at the time a new Kauffman Foundation program. This program is now known as Global Entrepreneurship Week.
We wanted to create a regional program that would inspire a new level of entrepreneurship and startup activity. We knew it would be critical to include everyone in the mix and were very deliberate to engage entrepreneurial service providers, higher education, and “raw” entrepreneurs in the process. With the focus on increasing the quality and quantity of new startups, the Tulsa Entrepreneurial Spirit Award business model competition was launched.
A Little Messy
Growing Tulsa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has been more than a little messy, and like any startup it has also gone through its own growing pains. We had to stay focused, remain open to experimentation, be persistent, and work to showcase what was possible. Not everyone was on board. Proponents even challenged the approach and target audience. The debate was lively and allowed us to question every step and decision along the way. With mess comes the ability to evaluate and reorganize, and like we encourage any entrepreneur – test, learn, adapt.
Serving A Need
In conjunction with the Kauffman Foundation efforts, the entrepreneur and civic leaders of Tulsa have guided the City to inspire and foster an increase in the number of start-ups. Since introducing Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) and the Tulsa
Entrepreneurial Spirit Award Business Model Competition, now the Tulsa Community College StartUp Cup, the entrepreneurial landscape of Tulsa has emerged nationally as a recognized leader at fostering entrepreneurs.
As a result of the ongoing efforts to grow GEW in Tulsa, an entrepreneurial ecosystem has emerged, driving fresh economic growth and making the region and the state more competitive on a national level. Programs that have grown in Tulsa since 2006 include: TCC StartUp Cup, The Tulsey Awards, Startup Weekend Tulsa, TCC Launch Your Entrepreneurial Journey, Fab Lab Tulsa, The Forge, The Innovation Institute, OSU Entrepreneurial Bootcamp, OU Launchpad, SeedStep Angels, TEDxTulsa, Ignite Tulsa, and Tulsa Web Devs.
Onward and Upward
Like any growing startup we have to remain focused on the future. We are continually evolving Tulsa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to meet the needs of our entrepreneurs where they are at in their business lifecycle. Creating a culture and environment where entrepreneurs are encouraged to take risks and innovate is critical. We work diligently to increase the number of people who participate in the entrepreneurial experience. We want to open entrepreneurship to everyone and anyone who has ever said, “I want to start my own company.”
An ecosystem evolves because programs evolve. Many of our entrepreneurial programs have come and gone over the years, but the ones with staying power have evolved over time. An example of experimentation during Tulsa Global Entrepreneurship Week 2012, Startup Weekend Tulsa has partnered with the Tulsa Fire Department in an effort to engage people in emergency services with the desire to start their own business, but don’t have the right tools or mentoring to get their company off the ground. From this experiment we will take lessons learned and apply them to our ongoing efforts to encourage increased entrepreneurial and startup activity.
Tulsa – An Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in the Most Unlikely of Places
Tulsa has come a long way since those early days of entrepreneurial ecosystem building. Since 2006, more than twenty-three entrepreneurial programs and service centers have developed, supporting a diversity of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial efforts. The Tulsa Entrepreneurial Spirit Award has morphed into the StartUp Cup Business Model Competition and is now being replicated in communities around the world. Many StartUp Cups are announcing their winners during Global Entrepreneurship Week 2012. The TCC StartUp Cup, powered by the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, is a featured event of Global Entrepreneurship Week USA 2012, and new mentorship driven programming is already in development for launch in 2013.
Tulsa isn’t the only model for growing an entrepreneurial ecosystem, but it is a model communities around the world can emulate as a way to grow a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem. From a single program to an entire ecosystem, each is built just like a business, step-by-step. The first step is to have the idea, then take action. The next step is yours.
Sean Griffin is CEO and Founder of StartUp Cup, and serves as Chair of Entrepreneurial Initiatives for the City of Tulsa.