Entrepreneurship is vital to ensuring that job growth occurs all across America, and entrepreneurial ecosystems enable entire communities to foster job growth and innovation. Crucial to that process is the role of community colleges, which are accessible to every town and city in the nation and are playing an increasingly pivotal role in the evolution of those ecosystems.
Supporting employment growth is not new to community colleges. In the Depression of the 1930s, they began offering job-training programs, and in 1948 the Truman Commission recommended the creation of a network of public community-based colleges to serve local needs, according to the American Association of Community Colleges,
Today there are 1,462 community colleges in America, of which 1,047 are public. And more than 40 percent of U.S. undergraduates attend community colleges.
That scale is what makes them so crucial to entrepreneurial ecosystems. Literally every community has a nearby community college on which to draw. California, America’s most populous state, has 114 community college campuses. Wyoming, the least populous, has seven community colleges.
At the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE), we foster entrepreneurial ecosystems and help produce a generation of ecosystem builders, an emerging field recognized by the Kauffman Foundation, which recently convened the first-ever ESHIP Summit of more than 400 ecosystem builders from 48 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, plus nine other countries. They shared insights, challenges, and lessons learned, and built upon the collective experience.
Entrepreneurial ecosystems create a community culture that embraces, instills, and inspires entrepreneurship. As the ESHIP Summit Playbook states, “Just as the complex biological system of soil, water, sunlight, flora, and fauna in a rainforest allows individual plants to flourish, so the ecosystem for entrepreneurs is essential to their success. Healthy ecosystems allow talent, information, and resources to flow quickly to entrepreneurs as they need it.”
The model is relevant to every community, as every community – no matter how it’s defined – has access to unique local assets – talent, knowledge, and resources. Some communities might best combine with others to create a more robust ecosystem, but every community can participate.
The dynamic West Coast can even learn from remote rural areas. NACCE has learned this working with 11 community colleges in rural Appalachia. Creating ecosystem maps and leveraging community resources in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee has led to a larger ecosystem building project in California, where NACCE is now focused on creating makerspaces with 28 community colleges.
And no resource is more prevalent and more readily available to aspiring entrepreneurs and ecosystems than community colleges, which are typically open-access as well as nearby. Community colleges can both educate individuals in ways that are relevant to entrepreneurship and provide a setting where ecosystems can thrive.
The great news is that communities don’t even need funding to start. If they have passion and commitment, funding will typically follow.
One community college literally started its ecosystem in a closet. From that modest beginning emerged the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Learning Center at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California. The Center now has four faculty members and awards certificates in entrepreneurship and other relevant business skills. Its mission is to transform economic and workforce development in South Orange County by facilitating the establishment, growth, and success of new and existing small businesses, by implementing practical tools and resources for students, individuals, and the community.
It’s passion and commitment that are vital, and when they are expressed by community college presidents, they have special impact. Not only do those presidents provide validation but they also typically give permission to experiment. And from that experimentation comes real innovation.
At NACCE, we have created a “Presidents for Entrepreneurship Pledge” that has been taken by 164 presidents of community colleges in 37 states. By taking the Pledge, community college presidents commit to advancing entrepreneurship in their communities and campuses and providing access points to support local startups and small businesses. They also commit to pursuing five action steps that we believe are crucial for community colleges to advance entrepreneurship in their communities:
Create or Expand Internal & External Teams Dedicated to Entrepreneurship;
Increase Entrepreneurs’ Engagement in Community Colleges;
Engage in Industry Cluster Development;
Leverage Both Community College and Community Assets to Spur Innovation and Job Creation;
Create Buzz and Broad Exposure of your College’s Commitment to Entrepreneurship.
With the help of community colleges, entrepreneurial ecosystems can thrive all across America. That’s great news for job growth and for the vital role of community colleges in spurring it.