NEO Collegiate Entrepreneurship Landscape Assessment 

Phase 1 Summary

Earlier this year, Burton D. Morgan Foundation embarked upon a comprehensive assessment of the collegiate entrepreneurship ecosystem in Northeast Ohio. After more than a decade of work to bolster Northeast Ohio’s collegiate entrepreneurship ecosystem, the Foundation and its partners have made great strides in increasing collaboration among the more than 20 colleges and universities in the region. The Foundation is regarded by many as an influential convener in this space. This is a responsibility not taken lightly, and as we entered 2020 and the next decade of our work, we sought to do so with renewed intention. Through a series of interviews and electronic surveys that comprised Phase 1 of the assessment, we turned to the faculty, staff, students, founders, and partners who operate in the collegiate ecosystem day in and day out to understand how to bridge the gap between where we are and where we need to go.  

With Phase 1 of the assessment now complete, Foundation Staff presents this blog post as the first of many updates as we continually adapt our work to support the ecosystem and be responsive to its most pressing needs.

To conduct the assessment, the Foundation engaged  Chris Thompson  of  Civic Collaboration Consultants. Chris served as the Director of Regional Engagement at The Fund for Our Economic Future until 2016. Passionate about regional collaboration, he started Civic Collaboration Consultants where he now works full-time to help others achieve enduring, positive community change.  

The assessment was conducted using telephone or videoconference interviews and electronic surveys. A curated contact list of nearly 400 stakeholders was developed by Foundation Staff and divided into three key stakeholder groups: (1) faculty and staff; (2) students and alumni; and (3) program partners. In total, the assessment reached 141 individuals and more than 50 institutions and organizations.

“Themes” is the overarching term chosen to refer to the main ideas, gaps, strengths, weaknesses, tensions, and generally noteworthy insights that emerged throughout the assessment. There was no exact algorithm for determining what qualified as a theme, but items on this list were mentioned often enough to conclude a pattern of significance. The themes are grouped into three categories. The first consists of themes that should be addressed on a campus-by-campus basis (Campus), the second contains themes that would be best explored through a regionwide approach (Regional), and the third is comprised of themes related to how the ecosystem might organize and build the capacity to address regional themes (Capacity).

(1)  Embedding Entrepreneurship Across Campus
When asked on the survey, only 26% of faculty and staff participants indicated that elements of entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial mindset were embedded across campus.

(2)  Campus Promotion and Awareness of Entrepreneurial Offerings
Less than 10% of student and alumni survey participants said that they felt most students knew about the entrepreneurship offerings on their campus. Comments in both interviews and surveys indicated that word of mouth remains the primary source of awareness of campus offerings.

(3)  Mental Health Resources
About half of the student and alumni participants who had started a business indicated that they did not receive sufficient support for the stress and anxiety of launching a business.

(4)  Mentorship and Individualized Assistance
When asked to rank the value of various resources, students and alumni ranked one-on-one assistance from faculty, staff, and mentors the highest. This theme has important equity implications, as one’s personal network has a direct impact on access to capital and other opportunities. Foundation Staff sees potential in cultivating a shared mentor network composed of diverse professionals to give students from any campus equal access to individualized guidance.

(5)  Legal and Startup Capital Education and Resources
Participants valued the existing programming in this area and expressed a desire for more education and resources to help students develop a better understanding of raising capital and legal considerations for starting a business.

(6)  Pitch Competitions
Pitch competitions are a polarizing topic, primarily because this term applies to a broad range of events with very different purposes, formats, and measures of success. There exists opportunity to establish a clearer, more uniform approach to what makes a pitch competition most valuable.

(7)  Entrepreneurial Mindset Assessment
Most faculty and staff do not have a formal method for assessing the entrepreneurial mindset, but they acknowledge the integral role of entrepreneurial mindset development. About half of participants expressed interest in developing experimental assessment tools.

(8)  Shared Ecosystem “Hub”
Participants feel they lack comprehensive awareness of ecosystem resources, programs, and  events. There is desire for a shared regionwide platform to aggregate and organize information such as a resource database and events calendar. Similar efforts in the youth space have yielded greater connectivity and awareness of a central platform to look to when searching for shared resources.

(9)  Regional Collaborations
Both the interviews and surveys asked questions about the Entrepreneurship Education Consortium (EEC), the JumpStart Higher Education Collaboration Council (JSHECC), and the Northeast Ohio Student Venture Fund (NEOSVF). While responses spanned the spectrum, most participants found these entities to be valuable sources of educational programming, best practice sharing, or network-building. However, most participants also recognize untapped potential and alignment among these entities and feel they are well positioned to play a larger role in fostering greater ecosystem strategy, collaboration, and programmatic and administrative coordination.

(10)  Greater Ecosystem Coordination
This critical theme is woven throughout some items above but merits its own designation. Throughout the assessment, our collegiate partners expressed a need for greater regionwide alignment, strategy, and programmatic and administrative coordination. The needs in this area cannot be successfully undertaken in a part-time capacity. Foundation Staff sees potential in better aligning existing entities such as JSHECC, EEC, and NEOSVF and plans to explore models for designated oversight of regionwide programmatic and administrative coordination with the involvement of key stakeholders.

Next Steps - Phase 2
With these themes in mind, Foundation Staff has begun considering the avenues through which we can respond and adapt our work accordingly.

The Foundation can begin supporting themes at the campus level (1-3) now. Grantees are encouraged to consider themes 1-3 when designing programming and requesting Foundation dollars. In addition, the Foundation may issue requests for proposals aimed at addressing one or more of these gaps on campuses across the region.

Themes at the regional level (4-7), as well as related capacity themes (8-10), will take time and hinge upon further work and resources. For systems-level work to be successful, there must be capacity to support the various players in their collective work. Thus, the Foundation plans to embark upon the second phase of this assessment, in which it will begin exploring models to better align presently independent entities; promote more efficient use of resources; define a unifying strategy for the ecosystem as a whole; and designate oversight of regionwide programmatic and administrative coordination. Under this model, community-led programming and working groups, with grant support, could begin to collaboratively address themes 4-7. The Foundation is beginning to gather the resources necessary to conduct Phase 2 and hopes to provide the next update on that work in early 2021.