In the Spotlight: Cecilia Wessinger, founder of Mass Collaboration

Cecilia Wessing has been developing entrepreneurial ecosystems since before it was cool. Or at least, since anyone knew to call it that.

The average person is probably not familiar with the term “entrepreneurial ecosystem builder,” but Cecilia Wessinger, the founder of Mass Collaboration in Tulsa, Oklahoma, hopes that will change in the next few years. 

As a consultant with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Cecilia collaborates with communities around the country to grow the ecosystem building field into a recognizable profession that brings a new approach to economic development. 

Part of growing the field starts with naming it. The term “entrepreneurial ecosystem builder,” has been around for less than two years, but it’s already gaining a lot of steam. 

Cecilia defines ecosystem building as a natural evolution of economic development that seeks to achieve different, more equitable outcomes by connecting entrepreneurs from all backgrounds with the support they need. 

Cecilia shared insights about the evolving world of developing entrepreneurial ecosystems, and the work she is doing to push the diversity and inclusion movement one step further into “belonging.” The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. 

What is the origin story for the field of ecosystem building?

The 2017 ESHIP Summit was an event that gathered “early adopters” of the field of entrepreneurial ecosystem building, some who had been doing this work for decades. While the term only started being used in the late 2000’s and still isn’t widely understood, it has become mainstream.

We believe that entrepreneurship is the pathway to creating more robust communities and more equitable economies. So if we want to support entrepreneurship, then supporting entrepreneurial ecosystem builders will exponentially widen the field and provide better support than by supporting one entrepreneur at a time. 

We’re starting to see some progress. York, Pennsylvania, just hired its first ecosystem builder, a guy named Skyler Yost. That’s his title. So that’s a win. The more people who do this creates more opportunity. 

You described some of your work as “building the invisible connective tissue of the ecosystem,” which sounds very difficult to measure. How do you track progress? 

Progress is really hard to quantify in building entrepreneurial ecosystems. We still tend to gauge things by industrial-age factors — job creation, profit margin, bottom line. All those things that people are crying out for — inclusivity, diversity of thought and people — those don’t happen because you use the same formulas that got you where you are. When you measure things by the way things have been working for a long time, there’s not a lot of innovation and creativity that goes into that.

And numbers like job creation can be bad indicators. Companies like Amazon are net zero when it comes to job growth. For as many jobs as you create, there are jobs that are gone because it’s just not sustainable.

And when Uber or Lyft say they’re creating 1,000 jobs in the community, we know that sometimes Uber drivers are side hustlers. Sometimes they’re driving for Uber and Lyft, so is that counted as two jobs or one? And sometimes they’re driving a cab too. So job creation is just a bad indicator. 

My friend Tom Chapman talks about asking communities how much wealth they’re creating. That’s his metric. Job creation is all well and good, but let’s get back to the idea of actually building up the ecosystem.

Wealth creation makes sense, but also sounds hard to measure. Are you developing any other metrics for evaluating progress? 

I’ve been working on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for about a decade or so, and I’m  certified in Cultural Competency. I joined the Startup Champions Network about a year ago and was a part of the Intercultural Unity committee, but recently moved off of that committee into the metrics committee. I’m looking to infuse some inclusion work into the metrics we’re solving for.

I’m putting together some tools where we actually measure what your skill set and your values are. It’s kind of a personality test, in an expanded cultural competency lens. It’s not about measuring how racist you are, it’s about how interested you are in learning about other cultures and people. Here are strategies that you’re implementing. Here are your actions, your knowledge. 

And how would you see that measurement being used? What would ecosystem builders do with their test results? 

The goal is if I’m talking to an organization that goes into communities across the US, and they form a council and get as much inclusive representation as possible, then this test can help measure the cultural competency of that organization, and not just stop at asking are there enough people of color represented? Now we can take into account the willingness of the people who are in the room to engage with other people, and the knowledge that they have, and then we can work to improve and add to their knowledge. 

So it’s about moving beyond the approach that sees diversity as a box to check?

Right. Diversity is a fact. We talk about diversity as if it’s this treasure we can obtain if we work hard enough. The fact is, the world is diverse. What are you going to do about it? 

How do you get past tokenism and silo-ing people from diverse backgrounds — like how there’s a tendency to put people of color on diversity panels.

There’s an interesting example from Deloitte and Touche. They disbanded their Employee Resource Groups, like Women in Tech, Black Coders, etc. They did ERGs for decades and they realized for their culture that it wasn’t working as well as it could be.

Instead, they created Inclusion Councils where all employees are welcome. They realized that only a certain flavor of people join the ERG groups anyway. You’re usually a joiner, an extrovert, and then you’re around people like you and there’s a lot of comfort there, but if the power dynamic still sits with cis-white-hetero males, and they’re not at the table in the ERGs, how do you change the power dynamic? Nothing changes. 

Can these Inclusion Councils change things? I don’t know. We try things and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.

Can you explain what you mean when you say you focus on belonging? 

I like the Vernā Myers quote, “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” Taking it further to say, “Belonging is dancing like nobody’s watching.”

When you feel like you belong, you can come to self-actualization, creativity and innovation. You have to have belonging first. My work with the foundation is to create opportunities and community so people can feel a greater sense of belonging.