Connections, collaboration cited as key for KC at Big Idea Exchange
Joel Wiggins (from left) leads a panel discussion featuring Cameron Cushman, Jo Anne Gabbert, Maria Meyers, Danny O'Neill and Mi-Ai Parrish on Monday as part of One Week KC.
Endeavoring to make a place "America's most entrepreneurial" is nice in concept. It's the sort of ambition that can generate all kinds of energy and provide fodder for countless conversations. But how, pray tell, does a city go about delivering on those discussions? What's the best way to convert conversation into action? And, once that happens, how can anyone tell if or when the ambitious transformation has taken place?
A cross section of key players in Kansas City's entrepreneurial landscape sat down for a discussion of those questions and more on Monday night over beverages at Boulevard Brewing Company.
The panel, called the Big Idea Exchange, was held by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with One Week KC, a nine-day series of entrepreneurship-focused events in Kansas City. One Week KC arose from The Chamber's "Big 5" objective of making Kansas City "America's most entrepreneurial city," and Monday night's conversation got to the heart of that effort.
Dr. Joel Wiggins, the CEO and president of the Enterprise Center of Johnson County, served as the moderator of the discussion. The panel featured Cameron Cushman, a senior analyst at the Kauffman Foundation; Jo Anne Gabbert, the president of JAG Portfolio Services; Maria Meyers, the CEO of U.S. SourceLink and KCSourceLink; Danny O'Neill, the president and owner of The Roasterie and Mi-Ai Parrish, the publisher and president of the Kansas City Star.
Connections are key
Wiggins opened the conversation by turning to Gabbert. What, he asked, does an entrepreneurial city look like?
Gabbert emphasized the importance of having all the players in an entrepreneurial ecosystem on the same page. "What we think the future looks like is making sure those assets," Gabbert said of things like funding, corporate support and media attention, "are all connected and interconnected in that ecosystem so it's very easy for an entrepreneur to navigate the Kansas City ecosystem.”
Kansas City has those assets, Gabbert (left) said, "yet somehow they're a bit fragmented or dysfunctional at times."
Meyers, who works to link entrepreneurs to the resources they need, echoed Gabbert's sentiment, especially when it comes to connecting ideas and money. "One of the things that Kansas City's looking at," she said, "is not so much that dearth of funding but better organizing what's here."
Cushman also chimed in on the importance of interconnectedness, citing data from a study by Kauffman Foundation senior fellow Ted Zoller about deal-makers in different communities. Zoller's study revealed that places typically viewed as entrepreneurial hotbeds have a high percentage of people involved in multiple deals and linked to different clusters of people through each of those deals.
Kansas City should strive to build a similar web of connections, Cushman said. “How do we make these deal-maker networks look more efficient?" he asked. "And how do we connect the network in different ways?"
But Cushman cautioned that, in doing that, it's important to steer clear trying to become "the next Silicon Valley." Instead, he said, Kansas City should capitalize on its unique strengths to create a different kind of entrepreneurial landscape. “Everybody just tries to recreate what they have in Silicon Valley," Cushman said. "And, I'll tell you what, it doesn't work."
Parrish is a recent transplant to Kansas City who's lived in places like the Twin Cities and San Francisco. She said things like The Chamber establishing its entrepreneurial objective and Kansas City following through with One Week KC serve as a evidence to the area's entrepreneurial spirit. "One of the things I'd say is it's amazing that it's launched and it's here," she said, "because it's harder than you think."
Parrish said one constant she's seen in cities that foster entrepreneurship is generosity, "whether it's with their time or money or ideas."
O'Neill can attest to the existence of that generosity in Kansas City. He said the success he's enjoyed wouldn't have been possible without entrepreneurs who were more than happy to share their time and insights. "I think that's most of it," he said. "I think connections are it."
In retrospect, O'Neill says good ideas and allies proved more beneficial than money would have. In fact, he said, funds without guidance would have been detrimental to his business. "We don't need money," O'Neill said, borrowing from the wisdom of Kansas City businessman Barnett Helzberg. "We need help. We need advice. We need connections."
Credits: Photos courtesy of Brandon Billinger for The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.