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On Civic Entrepreneurship

3 minute read
by Alex Hillman

Geoff and I were out chatting about some things last night and in conversation I mentioned the term “Civic Entrepreneurship”. The word came out of my mouth nonchalantly, and frankly, I’m not sure where exactly I’d heard it before, or if I was using it in the appropriate context. Either way, Geoff’s reaction to the term and what it might mean, was enough to get me to think more about it on my walk home.

Confident it was impossible that I had coined the term myself, and curious about any kind of real context, I decided to ask google for a definition.

The first result, a newsletter from the Center for Community Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin, caught my eye. The result summary contained enough information to match what I’d considered myself, so I dug deeper.

The term civic entrepreneur combines two important American traditions: entrepreneurship–the spirit of enterprise–and civic virtue–the spirit of community.1 The article goes on to establish five important qualities in civic entrepreneurship.

  1. Realistic understanding of contemporary economic realities and willingness to embrace those realities on a local level, building a foundation for larger future growth.
  2. Results-driven attitude towards change. Focus on why things can happen, rather than why they cannot. Focus on mobilizing resources to an end game.
  3. Collaborative leadership style, rather than leading with formal authority they lead with credibility. Strong ties between economic development and community development. Strong bridging between these two arenas.
  4. Long-tail self interest. The individual leader’s end game is long term, short term and narrower goals are heavily focused directly on community involvement. “Give give give, till your face falls off”. Sound familiar?
  5. Creating, and enabling, new leaders. Playing different roles within different teams. Heavy focus on teamwork and encouraging collaborative growth.

A lot of this rings so, so true to everything I’ve been immersed in for the last year and a half. But I’ve noticed something else.

A lot of “civic entrepreneurship” qualities read a whole lot like what’s evolved into this moving target people are calling “social media”. This piece, for me, is a great and humbling reminder that even new and exploratory concepts aren’t new, simply evolutions.

I laugh, often, when I (or anyone else, for that matter) are referred to as “social media experts”. How can you be an expert in something that most people struggle to define in the first place? It’s too new for there to be real experts.

Are you an expert simply by being an early adopter? I think that’s a difficult, and dangerous, thing to quantify given the connotations of “expert”.

Social Media leadership? Certainly. I know a lot of brilliant social media leaders. Social Media Innovaters? Absolutely.

Now. I’m not sure if you could call yourself a Civic Entrepreneurship expert, even though the arena is well defined, and well established. Proof? The points in the article cited above were written nearly 10 years ago.

I have to wonder how many participants of the social media space have read the newsletter. Or were they too busy suckling their RSS feeds looking for the latest trend to mimic.

Although, I have to think that there’s something intrinsically humbling, probably tied to quality number 4 above, that most “civic entrepreneurs” wouldn’t go so far as to call themselves an expert.

There’s a difference between calling yourself an expert, and being identified as one.

Be realistic. Be persistent. Share responsibilities. Be humble. Know your roots. Care.

At SXSW, during the coworking core conversation, Geoff made a point that blew my mind with it’s obviousness. That exact same point is relevant to this conversation as well:

These aren’t secrets to successful coworking. These aren’t secrets to successful business.

These are the secrets to being a good human being.

1Reference: Civic Entrepreneurs: Economic Professional as Collaborative Leader

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Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.