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Entrepreneurs must lead a community and need mentors to succeed.
That was the takeaway from a four-week book study with community leaders in my hometown.
This simple exercise had the greatest output of ideas and action steps for the least input of time and effort of any event I have been a part of.
If you want to generate new ideas for your community, host a book study.
Choose a Text
The idea for a book study started, like most ideas, by stealing it. My friend in Fargo did the same with a small group of friends. I modified the idea by focusing on community leaders. The goal was to discuss what we want our community to be. It is a small version of a community charrette or vision statement with the difference that attendees are responsible for taking action on the ideas.
Before promoting the book study, a text was needed. It was an easy decision: Brad Feld's Startup Communities.
This text provides an easy-to-read blueprint for changing a community. It's a perfect starting place for important discussions on community and entrepreneurship. Feld's Boulder Thesis brings up enough challenging ideas that discussion is not be a problem. It also looks at common roadblocks and entities present in many communities, such as: government, universities, community leaders, and business accelerators.
With 14 chapters, it broke out nicely into four weekly sessions with less than 50 pages a week (so people would actually read it). Our economic development organization generously bought the books and shared them with attendees.
Choose the Participants
The goal for our book study was to generate a vision on where we want our community to be in 5, 10, 20 and 40 years and ideas on how to get there. If everyone is moving towards the same goal, we can achieve more together.
With this in mind, we invited people who work with development, business and government. We also wanted to make the event open enough that anyone interested could join.
We invited a core group of leads, and they could invite others. We ended up with 8 regulars, which was a perfect number for lively discussion.
Choose a Weekly Leader
Just getting these creative minds in one room is a win. Even if the book isn't discussed, there is sure to be interesting outcomes by gathering people who care about their community. The book provides structure and focus to make the conversation productive.
To enable all voices to be heard, we nominated a different leader for each week. They came to the book study with questions for the group from the part of the book they were responsible for. This spurred discussion and ensured everyone could control the discussion at different points in the month.
Similarly, we nominated someone each week to take notes. We combined these notes to share them with others who weren't there…like you! You can view our notes here. (If you've read the book, do your notes match?)
Choose Outsiders to Share
Sitting with fellow community leaders is a great way to create the future of a community. Sharing ideas from outsiders who have been there moves a broad text into a specific context.
We invited David Tominsky from Iowa City to share what they have done in their community. Since Iowa City is more similar to Brookings than Brad Feld's Boulder, it helped us localize the text and learn from the challenges and events they have hosted.
Find your learning partner. It might be an individual or a community (we often look to Fargo and Iowa City). Invite them to talk for 15-20 minutes during your book study to bring new perspective to the text.
Choose the Biggest Takeaways
After four weeks, a number of themes continued to emerge:
- Entrepreneurs must lead
- Mentors are needed to retain and groom future leaders
- A shared vision among participants is essential
- Inclusiveness is an important challenges we face
With these takeaways in mind, we came up with our action items, so the book study was not just an academic exercise but an action exercise.
For us, we are looking at:
- Hosting a Startup Weekend that is integrated with departments on campus and the economic development corporation
- Creating a roster of mentors and connecting them with advisors at the university who can match mentors with students
- Finding leaders or potential leaders of under-served communities and meeting them, encouraging them and inviting them to lead
- Developing a free resource session for Spanish-speakers where they can ask lawyers, bankers, accountants and educators questions with the goal of helping them integrate in the community
- Planning another study session to continue the discussion and helping other groups start their own book studies (let me know if you're interested)
Your takeaways will be unique for your community. Make sure that your book study is not just a way to brainstorm but also to take action. Assign a person who is responsible for each action item and hold them hostage, meaning, set a date to finish the task and tell the world so it will get done.
None of Us are as Smart as All of Us
This Japanese proverb, (also attributed to Kenneth Hartley Blanchard), neatly summarizes why your community needs a book study.
It's a low-cost affair with minimal time committment that identifies and connects leaders. When leaders get together, a shared vision emerges and action follows. The fantastic secret is: anyone can be a leader. A book study is an opportunity to elevate someone interested in the community to become a leader of the community.
Host a book study. It focuses ideas around a specific topic and helps leaders reflect and prepare thoughts more than an open coffee or regular brainstorming session.
You'll find that communal learning creates community action, something every community should hope to achieve.