Venture Atlanta 2020

Stepping Up to Build Unique and Powerful Innovation Ecosystems

A 2020 Venture Atlanta Panel with Jay Bailey, Duriya Farooqui, and Barry Givens

So many things go into building community. I know that’s true. But it wasn’t until I was backstage at Venture Atlanta 2020 that I really realized how much the intangibles matter.

I was at the conference to host a panel about . It was an exciting opportunity. The topic is a passion for me and the panel was composed of Jay Bailey, Duriya Farooqui, and Barry Givens. Each one of these excellent people is helping to shape the Atlanta innovation community, and I call each of them a friend.

This was the first event in the eight months since the start of the COVID lockdown that would be live and in-person (distanced and safe). As soon as we got started, I felt what I’d been missing all these months — true community and the sense of connection that is so necessary for changing paradigms and building unique opportunities. That’s what we were here to talk about and do — bring people together from all corners to create connections and have authentic conversations in proximity with one another.

Jay Bailey knows a thing or two about building a lively, diverse innovation community. His observation that is the heart of the innovation community set the tone for our conversation. Community emerges through created connection, and the strength of progress happens through the quality of the collaboration.

For that community and collaboration to happen, everyone in the ecosystem needs to feel a sense of belonging. That’s the next layer in this foundation for building a healthy innovation community. Spaces and resources like innovation centers and incubators are filled with vulnerability. Cultivating a sense of belonging requires that the spaces encourage opportunity and failure, that they are built ‘of the community, for the community, by the community.’ And when they are, traction happens.

People are the tipping point between whether or not an innovation center thrives and produces real, impactful work. Even more important than the funding, we have to fill the bench and the stable with smart resources. And that means bringing together diversity of all types. Scanning the pockets of places and resources across the whole area for the very best, most visionary innovators.

Each of these people has walked his or her own road to the innovation ecosystem. The journey to the innovation ecosystem likely has been harder for some innovators and entrepreneurs than others, especially underrepresented founders. The resources available have to be commensurate with the need. It has to be affordable for every qualified member of the community to take advantage of its resources. Entrepreneurs need more than symbols of hope. We need to put systems in place to help innovators and founders believe they can do what they want to do, and then help them to it.

That concept is good for the innovators, and it’s good for the investors — or at least the ones that are getting diversity right. It’s flawed logic to think that innovation and investments in innovation can happen if you ignore or neglect diversity. Everyone’s ideas matter. As Jay says all the time, we lose real, measurable GDP when there are no pathways to get ideas into homes. The good news is that in Atlanta and around the country, groups like Techstars, RCIE, and more are taking steps to fix that.

We’re also beginning to share a recognition that success metrics might be biased in terms of how we think about traction, valuation, and assessing the success of a company. The idea of a limited pipeline is false. The talent pipeline is rich. Investors and innovation center leaders have to widen the view, set success metrics that open up possibility for all founders. This is where we’re going to create lasting economic opportunity and brilliance in every community.

Positive Collisions

From a corporate perspective, investing in entrepreneurs and connecting enterprise horsepower is a huge part of the commitment to invest in creating progress by closing gaps and building wealth. More and more, we’re seeing giant companies, each of them leaders in their own sectors, coming together to pool resources and make progress together through investments in philanthropy, innovation spaces, and direct investments in startups. These corporations are fueling innovation ecosystems by seeing them not just in terms of their business imperative, but also in terms of their social and civic imperatives.

Duriya observes that there’s almost a sense of ‘out helping’ one another. Just like the founders in the accelerators and the leaders of the innovation centers, there’s a vulnerability with these corporations. It takes focus and courage to ‘do it big’ and to work together. This ‘competimate’ approach is how communities will win through innovation.

Moreover, when corporations support innovators, it boosts validation for the founders. Looking at companies like Cox Enterprises, we see what can happen when large, successful corporations recognize the power or building innovation ecosystems, irrespective of a purely philanthropic purpose. Barry, who runs the Social Impact Techstars program in Atlanta, explains that the support Cox gives to innovation is amazing not only because it shapes their corporate values but also because it creates an attributable support pipeline to the GDP in the area. He points out that the next generation of talent and consumers care about companies that invest in social impact. It’s another reason why it makes sense for a forward-looking company like Cox to back his Techstars Social Impact program.

Another measure of success is how well the community can retain its innovators. As we discussed, Atlanta has a beautifully diverse talent pool. For the region to benefit from the energy, grit, resources, and training of the individuals in this community, we have to make innovation work for them. As Jay noted, failing to do so will mean losing our DNA to other regions. Beyond wanting to keep these smart individuals here for the sake of the economy, it also is a display of commitment to our home-grown founders.

Particularly for the next generation of innovators, this commitment matters. They’re set to change the world. They won’t do what they don’t believe in. Proving our belief in them takes working together to invest in the things that matter — resources, inclusivity, morals, impact, and positivity.

That’s what an innovation community looks like. A mix of startups, capital, creative influences, dedicated corporations, and community. It takes dreams — and dreamers. It’s got to be great for innovators and for investors. And as I noted backstage for this panel, the intangibles matter.

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Innovation, brand, and corporate strategist with more than 25 years of experience in corporate, entrepreneurial, and civic roles. @disruptorstudio @atlchamber