What nature teaches us about entrepreneurship ecosystems

This spring I traveled with an alumni group from my college to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands, where we explored the delicate balance of the Galápagos ecosystem.

Our naturalist guides encouraged us to leave nothing behind but footprints on the islands we visited. The number of visitors allowed to visit the islands is strictly controlled each day so human impact is minimized. Certain islands are off limits, reserved for wildlife and research scientists only. Marine and land iguanas meander freely among volcanic rocks and lava tunnels, while the shorelines are frequented by Magnificent Frigate birds, Galápagos Penguins, Sally Lightfoot crabs, Sea Lions and Blue-Footed Boobies.

Each lesson learned from our explorations illuminates the elements of natural selection, observed by Darwin during his visit in 1835. Numerous biologists since that time have studied natural selection at work among the islands’ finch population, fondly known as Darwin’s finches. The islands are uniquely suited for this research because isolation and extremes in environmental conditions facilitate observation of evolutionary adaptations. The size and shape of finch beaks change in response to drought or flood conditions and the type of food supply (seeds) available to sustain life. “The Beak of the Finch” (Jonathan Weiner) elegantly captures the nature of this research and is a book I highly recommend for nature and ecosystem enthusiasts.

Of course, having been a dedicated proponent of our region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem for the last two decades, I muse over the comparative dynamics of the famed Galápagos ecosystem and the human-centered entrepreneurial ecosystem our region has assembled. Our ecosystem has endured some seismic disruptions over the years, ranging from the impact of the 2008 recession to business closures during the historic 2020 pandemic. Throughout these challenges, the region’s ecosystem continued to hum, serving entrepreneurs from all backgrounds with services they needed for their ventures to grow and prosper.

It is the ebb and flow of the needs of entrepreneurs that contribute to this apt comparison. Just as drought and flood conditions in the natural world yield rapid anatomical adaptation, so too the elaborate network of services and support our region has spawned evolves and morphs over time to serve the needs of entrepreneurs.

Ecosystem proponent and founder of the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project Daniel Isenberg Ph.D. can be credited with defining the concept of the entrepreneurial ecosystem as a way to coordinate the support elements that bolster entrepreneurship in a region — e.g. labor, educational institutions, government, capital, success stories, entrepreneurship-focused NGOs and leadership.

The adaptability of ecosystems in nature parallels the resilience of entrepreneurship services in terms of diversity, symbiotic relationships and complementary niches. The role of uncertainty in entrepreneurial and biological ecosystems is critical. In both scenarios, serendipitous events play a role in pushing plants and animals to evolve and entrepreneurs to move in new directions through experimentation. All ecosystems — natural and human-centered — must possess the ability to learn, adapt and change, or they will wither in the face of turbulent times.

The Entrepreneurship Education Consortium is Northeast Ohio’s hub for the university-based entrepreneurship ecosystem. 

Deborah D. Hoover

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