Roughly four years ago, while working for a technology company based in New York, I experienced firsthand the entrepreneurial ecosystems of San Francisco, New York, Boulder, and Boston, among other cities. I was intrigued by what I saw. They are filled with people armed with an amazing sense of drive and inspiration, who push forward with new ideas and launch new businesses each day.
I'd return home to Omaha, Neb., and see these same individuals in our region, but they were heads-down and siloed, working on their own initiatives alone and largely unaware of what was going on around them. At the time, there was no outlet for telling the stories of the entrepreneurs and creatives working hard in our own backyard.
This was the inspiration for Silicon Prairie News, a website we started to highlight and document the individuals doing unique things in our own neighborhoods. Our goal has never been to build Omaha and the Silicon Prairie into the next "Silicon Valley"; instead, we are focused on taking the strengths and assets that are unique to our region, and building upon them.
What has made Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, Austin or Boulder different are not the exact same things that will make the Omaha, Des Moines and the Kansas City regions successful. If we want to change American cities (and the jobs they provide), we need to start by increasing the connections in our own backyards. As we continue building the Silicon Prairie, we have found there a few key components which are vital to nurturing any emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem:
1. Grow the community.
One of the first steps we identified as being pivotal to developing and consistently building our community is to identify a community champion, or a small group of individuals, who are passionate about designing the community. If something is not being done, then it falls upon you to create the change you want to see.
It's amazing what you can accomplish when you start, even if you start small. Stay committed and bought into the work for the long haul; the work of building communities isn't something that comes to fruition overnight, or even over the course of a year. Lastly, remember the idea is to empower others to believe and get involved in something bigger than themselves -- and allow others to receive the credit and recognition when it's due.
We are just in the beginning stages of building the community here in the greater Omaha area and the Silicon Prairie. The last three-and-a-half years have been filled with milestones, but I get more excited about what the city and region will look like in three, five or even 15 years.
2. Highlight and share the work of others.
The next step in building a community is to have a distribution channel to share information through events, profiles or stories.
For us this was, and continues to be, the Silicon Prairie News website. I started Silicon Prairie News in July 2008 after I realized that we had a number of innovative, creative, and interesting companies and people right here in Omaha, but there was no "go-to" spot to discover or read more about the projects and businesses in which they were involved.
You will need to challenge yourself as a community to maintain a level of frequency in the updating and engagement of the broader community. Whether this means a post every two weeks or every two days, work to develop a dependable level of engagement. This can include events as well. The tool itself doesn't matter -- a Tumblr blog versus a Facebook Group versus an email newsletter -- as much as the fact that you must identify what works best for your community.
3. Get people together via events and gatherings.
After holding frequent smaller events including BarCamp, Startup Weekends and general meetups, we hosted writer and author Sarah Lacy in Omaha while she was on tour for her first book, Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good. We had over 120 people show up, but the key here wasn't the number of people that participated -- it was the fact that, for the first time, we had entrepreneurs sitting alongside investors, professors and others.
The success of this event inspired us to do something bigger, and that's where the Big Omaha event came in. Today, we bring the nation's leading entrepreneurs and social innovators into Omaha each year. Last year, we had close to 700 attendees from roughly 25 states across the United States.
The benefits of an event like Big Omaha are multifaceted. We are able to connect the innovators and entrepreneurs within the region, but more importantly, presenters return to their cities outside of the region with a new sense of awareness and about the Midwest. This builds bridges within the region, while connecting us with opportunities around the United States -- and the world.
We realize that this is a long-term play, and although we can see incremental changes in the short term, it will take years of dedication and hard work for our region to fully support the efforts of the entrepreneurial community.
But I believe that both Omaha and the greater Midwest are poised to harvest amazing results. We have all of the key components to launch ideas: capital, entrepreneurs, mentors, and key stakeholders. The challenge is in working to accelerate the connection points between each.
Using our lessons to share, inspire and motivate other communities is just one of the things we hope to accomplish.
What are you waiting for?
Author Jeff Slobotski is the Co-Founder and Chief Community Builder at Silicon Prairie News, an Omaha-based company dedicated to highlighting and supporting entrepreneurs and creatives within the Omaha, Des Moines and Kansas City regions. This article was adapted from Slobotski's essay in #FixYoungAmerica: How to Rebuild Our Economy and Put Young Americans Back to Work (for Good), a book of 30-plus proven solutions to help end youth unemployment published by the Young Entrepreneur Council.
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