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Conversation and Entrepreneurship – Part 2 of 3

The ever-insightful Tom Chapman, formerly the director of entrepreneurship and innovation at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and now with the venture capital firm Nebraska Global, recently presented a paper called Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem: Lessons from Omaha (which you can download via Silicon Prairie News here).

The paper itself is robust and numerous steps make up Tom’s process for building the entrepreneurial ecosystem. I will draw attention to just a few key ingredients that Tom elicits, where conversation is the catalyst to his entrepreneurial ecosystem endeavor.

In step 2, “Get as many people on the bus as you can and leave” Tom refers to convening conversations. One characteristic that appeared prominent to me was that although these conversations were, to a degree, deliberately organized and managed, Tom recognizes that they must also be authentic; presented on a scale and in a way that allows for intimacy as well as depth. In other words, the fundamental attributes of openness and sharing inherent in genuine conversation are essential to the success of these engagements.

We try to keep in mind a conversation that I’ve heard repeatedly (something akin to Adam Nielsen’s discussion with Sarah Lacy in the summer of 2008): “I do business with these guys because they are my friends. We were friends first and that makes it easier for me to be honest and tell them what I can do to help.”

In step 3, “Study the elements of a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem” Tom dissects the topic of human capital, being one of the five basic elements of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Human capital development includes one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one and many-to-many mentoring types of arrangement. Like TechStars or Y-Combinator, Tom states, “If I were starting an incubator, this is the type of program that I would try to facilitate – minimizing the focus on buildings and accommodations and focusing on peer-to-peer and many-to-many mentoring opportunities.”

Interestingly, Tom also points out how conversation can facilitate another element of a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem: liquidity. The Omaha Chamber not only connects entrepreneurs with investors, but hosts quarterly meetings of investors. “By hosting regular investor meetings, the Chamber has seen that collaboration has increased,” Tom notes.

A knowledgeable community is a further element of a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem, and in that regard Tom is in no doubt that, for Omaha, “the biggest single impact entity of the effort to build a knowledgeable community so far in Omaha is Silicon Prairie News. Their unifying place for information and efforts to sustain an ongoing conversation is incredibly important and valuable.”

Of vital significance is that the conversations that Silicon Prairie News promotes are real and genuine. Silicon Prairie News is an authentic asynchronous way to stay engaged, and virtually every entrepreneur that I work with knows about it now.

“My advice is not to start a Silicon Prairie News in your city – it’s to find a Silicon Prairie News waiting to happen in your city.”

Like many good, authentic conversations, they cannot be forced, but arise from a desire to share and a willing openness to change. Characteristics that apply equally well for those seeking to fuel productive entrepreneurial ecosystems.

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