Reflecting on Global Entrepreneurship Week

November 15-20 was observed in communities around the world as Global Entrepreneurship Week.  Memphis had its share of events and news on the topic, which the local print media covered very nicely, thank you.  This seems like an appropriate time to step back and look at the state of entrepreneurism in Memphis.

We are a community known for entrepreneurial innovation.  From the first chain hotel and supermarket, to overnight dependable delivery, to international charitable fundraising, to Rock and Roll, to the many companies in the biosciences, Memphis can stand proud.

In fact, it is these kinds of wealth creating businesses, grown from entrepreneurism, which can define a community.  As such, while niche ideas and small business entrepreneurial ideas are important; the real impact must come from game-changing concepts and discoveries with national or global implications.  That is how community wealth is achieved.

It is well accepted now that wealth-creating ideas and businesses can be stimulated in a community if there are strong second-tier support services, which themselves become part of the business fabric of a community.  And, for wealth creating businesses to reach full value creation potential, those businesses must systematically bring in minority and women participation in the business itself, in its leadership, in its investors and in its suppliers.  Community entrepreneurism at its peak of value is inclusive, meaning community growth is inclusive as well.

From my vantage point, the state of entrepreneurship in Memphis continues to be energized and active.  The media seems engaged and the pockets of development, support and funding are many.  I believe what is happening in offices of entrepreneurs today can be the foundation for our future.

Over the last ten years, Memphis has invested in services and capabilities that support entrepreneurs from concept through the initial growth phase.  For example, over 180,000 s.f. of incubators/accelerators exist across the community, at organizations such as EmergeMemphis, CEED, the Memphis Music Foundation, and Memphis Bioworks.  No two operations are exactly alike, which is good because the needs of entrepreneurs are as varied as the ideas they are pursuing.

And, more is in the pipeline. The University of Memphis is preparing to convert an off-campus facility into an incubator to encourage commercialization of faculty innovation, critical for the university to compete for grants. Suburbs such as Germantown and Bartlett are working with existing organizations to create incubators in their cities since certain new medical device companies are not interested in a downtown or medical center location. Olivet Baptist Church, New Horizon (and maybe others) offer space to new companies as part of their effort to fully utilize their facilities, upgrade their blighted community, and support their congregation.

While we seem to have a growing community of locations, ideas without financial support seldom see the light of day.  We should be collectively commended for what is happening in this area as well.  A few capital sources have emerged that support early stage companies such as Addison Capital, Innova, and MB Ventures.

Networking activities at the Bioworks Business Association, LaunchMemphis, and TECworks provide new entrepreneurs a chance to meet experienced entrepreneurs, to identify talent, and to meet new vendors; all critical elements for new companies.

Because of all of this, Memphis has built a base of support services that encourages new companies to form, grow, create jobs, and attract talent and capital.

While the foundation is strong, gaps exist that prevent optimization of our entrepreneurial ecosystem to grow into a world-class environment for business creation.  We have no complete suite of services across sectors.  From a communications perspective, no “front door” exists to connect a new entrepreneur to needed services. Consequently, while Memphis may have support services for entrepreneurs, the support community doesn’t make it easy for entrepreneurs to find those services.

And, while all of the incubator growth is good, the proliferation of incubators forces a competitive environment where there is more real estate dedicated to new companies than there are new companies to fill the space. To be successful, more early stage companies must be created, and the incubators must refine offerings and strengthen service niches.

Potential donors may see this duplication of effort and lack of coordination and do not understand how each service plays into the entrepreneurship ecosystem, and as a result they are cautious to support these uncoordinated, inefficient efforts. On a national level, Memphis’ entrepreneurial ecosystem appears disjointed and cannot compete for larger national grants from organizations such as the Kaufman Foundation, SBA, or NSF.

As we observe Global Entrepreneurship Week 2010, we also should be looking toward a year from now and beyond.  This time next year, will we have taken the next steps for Memphis entrepreneurship?  Will we have begun to address the gaps in availability and sustainability?

I hope at that time we are able to say definitively that Memphis has the coordinated and dedicated leadership.  That we are a city that, in every way, welcomes, cultivates, and launches high-growth companies – wealth creating businesses – in our natural areas of strength in logistics, biosciences and support industries.

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