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5 Ingredients for People Development


People are the economy. Focus on people development, not economic development.

If we've learned anything during the past six years of recession and slow recovery, it is that economic indicators do not always reflect how individuals are doing within an economy.

In our cities and businesses, we often focus on the outcomes. More jobs created, higher property tax, growth in sales or higher margins.

A better focus is on the inputs.

A community or business should provide ingredients for individual people. The outcomes will follow.

There are five key ingredients any city or business should provide. 

Five Ingredients Needed to Build an Ecosystem

Organizations and executives are great at providing resources that create an environment for success. They are less skilled at building the ecosystem themselves.

The reason is simple: you can't mandate a creative, collaborative, or happy city or workplace.

Instead of taking responsibility for implementation, leaders should be the whale poop that builds an ecosystem where their citizens, employees, and volunteers can implement their own ideas.

Work has changed, and this shift in focus will lead to better outputs.

These five ingredients should be the starting point of ecosystem building.

1. Spaces of Serendipity

An ecosystem is best developed by the members who live within that ecosystem. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to know who (or what) you have around you.

Leaders should create, or better yet support, events that connect potential leaders and spark new ideas.

1 Million Cups is a great example; a community directory is another; a company hackathon, like our sister infographic design company Lemonly hosts, is yet another way to discover what talent lives within your own team (with the added benefit of creating four weeks' worth of work in 24 hours!).

Talent is often the most difficult resource to develop. Creating space for connection uncovers this talent.

2. Leadership Development

Many cities have leadership programs. Unfortunately, in my hometown, few (if any) of these graduates actually end up starting or leading businesses or projects.

Top-down education is one way to start, but a better approach would be to find leaders who are already trying to start something and then support them. In other words, have the courage to follow.

Citizens, employees, and yes, even millennials all have the capability and desire to lead. Don't make them pass through the “holy door” of an office or city hall in order to earn the support of decision-makers or executives. Find them where they are, and kickstart their efforts.

As you'll read below, Jim Gartin in Fargo, North Dakota, has done just that — with amazing results.

3. Infrastructure (Especially Internet)

A key ingredient for any project is the tools needed to build the big idea.

Start small. Before you build a huge office complex, research park, or new division in your company, find the foundational resources you need to do it.

The Internet connects anyone in your ecosystem with leaders in other ecosystems. This collaboration can bring new ideas to your city or company, even if you live in a rural area. Make fast Internet a priority.

Provide guidance. Mentorship is consistently the biggest resource potential leaders are looking for. Nothing fancy is needed. Just listen to someone's idea, and introduce them to someone else who can help. This could be within your city or company.

It feels good to get grants and build physical entities that show progress. But these constructions are static and permanent. A 10,000 square-foot building can only hold 10,000 square feet of stuff. Connection to ideas has an infinite ceiling of opportunity.

4. Easy Paperwork

My hometown of Brookings, South Dakota, recently won the Startup in a Day grant, along with 24 other cities across the country. The goal of this grant is simple: make it as easy and as quick as possible to start a business.

For many entrepreneurs, the biggest hurdle to starting a business is paperwork. Knowing what to set up, who to talk to, and when those people are available is enough to frustrate potential success stories.

To solve this problem, Brookings is now implementing OpenCounter as a sort of virtual front desk to provide citizens with everything they need to start a business.

Leaders in both cities and businesses create processes to make their jobs easy and efficient. Rarley, however, do they think first of the “user,” be it a citizen or customer.

Just as a designer looks at a website to see if a visitor is finding what they need, decision-makers need to revisit or change processes to make it easier for creators to create.

If we want solid outputs, we need solid inputs. Removing barriers is a quick way to make this happen.

5. Funding

Large companies and organizations, such as chambers of commerce or economic development organizations, have access to great resources — especially from the viewpoint of a creator.

My brother and I received $15,000 to start our business in South Dakota. At the time, it felt like a fortune and was a big enough incentive to move home and start the company. We now employ 32 people collectively in our home state.

Aspiring creators live in your cities and work in your companies. Ask them how to fund their efforts. A little financial support will help them succeed and encourage them to continue.

Many of these efforts will fail, but that is why providing a little support to a lot of people is the best way to build your ecosystem.

Ecosystem Building in Fargo

Jim Gartin worked for years in economic development in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He thought it was normal that an organization like his would share resources with entrepreneurs and universities. Why would he try to lead new growth efforts when he could support what was already happening?


When Jim started as the President of the Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corporation, he learned that this mindset wasn't the norm. He had to explain ecosystem-building to his board and colleagues.

As he noted, “Everyone has a role — the Chamber, the CVB, the universities — but they don't have to have control. They don't have to run everything.”

The breakthrough in Fargo came when Jim explained the challenge of the workforce:

“A locally grown tech company could go from one employee to 60 very quickly, with no need for tax incentives or special favors. Trying to attract a company that size could take years and cost millions in incentives. Plus, a homegrown company tends to stay involved in the community to further develop the ecosystem.”

When Jim's board heard this explanation, they got it. However, they needed the other side of the equation: someone to support.

An essential ingredient to build an ecosystem is a leader or leading organization on the entrepreneur side.

In Fargo's case, Emerging Prairie was a perfect partner. They write about local entrepreneurs, host events that support entrepreneurs, and run the coworking space where entrepreneurs meet.

Instead of Jim and his board recreating the wheel, they could financially support the existing community organization. Emerging Prairie could find opportunities and entrepreneurs more quickly than an institution could, but they didn't have the same access to resources and decision-makers. Working with Jim and his team opened possibilities for Emerging Prairie.

Companies are starting and growing in Fargo. The city has been named “America's most undervalued tech hub” by Fortune. Fargo's outputs are tangible, thanks to a conscious investment in its inputs.

Cook Up Action Agents

Not every community or business has the entrepreneur or organization ready to implement innovative ideas. Every community or business, however, has the people who could be these leaders.

Provide the ingredients needed to push these leaders forward. Those ingredients will develop the action agents that existing institutions need as partners.

When institutions can partner with active members of their ecosystem, the outputs will be greater than either could achieve on their own.

We hope you are cooking up action in your own community.

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Photo: Fargo-Moorhead EDC