The decades-long wealth inequality gap between different demographic groups continues to grow in all major U.S. cities, especially in neighborhoods and populations that have experienced systemic disinvestment. The ESHIP Communities program, developed by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and operated through its partner, Forward Cities, is working to stem this crisis by cultivating local ecosystems of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial support organizations (ESOs). Forward Cities piloted the program in four communities: Kansas City, Baltimore, Central New Mexico (Albuquerque and Santa Fe), and Long Beach.
As the program’s third-party evaluator, NORC used ecosystem frameworks and culturally responsive methods to assess ESHIP’s activities.
Ecosystems are complex, symbiotic environments made up of individuals, organizations, support programs, investors, companies, relationships, policies, spaces, and cultures. All of these factors work together to support local entrepreneurs. The ESHIP initiative involved four steps:
- hire a local director as an “ecosystem builder”
- form a community council of local ecosystem leaders and entrepreneurs
- create pathways for entrepreneurs and community members to join activities
- design and implement small-scale projects that address systemic barriers to entrepreneurship
Convenings brought together aspiring entrepreneurs and helped them identify and apply for small business grant opportunities. The events also connected small businesses with ESOs, which entrepreneurs reported made them feel supported.
NORC’s evaluation found that the community council members’ awareness of ESOs increased across the sites, and members reported their enthusiasm and support for the work of their councils. Members at different sites also gave specific feedback about improving existing ecosystems for entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities.