Building an Ecosystem for the Next Generation

Building an Ecosystem for the Next Generation

Minnesotans are eating the fruits of the economic seeds planted between WWII and the 1980s—but what are we doing for the next generation?

When I was growing up, my father, a senior civil servant in India, was transferred from city to city every few years. One of the first things he would do when we arrived at our new government bungalow was plant a few fruit trees. “Why do we do that? We always leave before they bear any fruit,” I asked one day. He asked, “Well, you remember the papaya we had for breakfast this morning?” I nodded, and he continued, “That was because someone before us had planted that tree.”

In my present-day home of Minnesota, we are justifiably proud of our economic position in the country. Among other strengths, we have a balanced set of industries fueling an economy that is not dependent on any one sector. And our unemployment rate hovers around 3 percent—the envy of many other states. We are, in essence, eating fruits as a result of seeds planted between the end of World War II and roughly 1980.

Unfortunately, lately we have not been planting many seeds for new trees to grow. The last Fortune 500 company to be born in Minnesota was in the 1970s. According to Kauffman Foundation research, Minnesota is No. 47 in new venture starts—we are behind Mississippi! While the overall number of new starts have been in decline for the past six years throughout the country (with a minor uptick last year), we in Minnesota slipped three more slots since last year.

Meanwhile, all things that are born will die. Nationally, the average age of a corporation has declined from 61 years in 1958 to 18 years now. At our current churn rate, 75 percent of the S&P 500 will be replaced by 2027. True to form, many of our larger corporations are showing the telltale signs of age: laying people off, agreeing to be acquired, moving headquarters elsewhere, etc. They will soon no longer be able to continue holding up this state’s healthy economy by themselves.

The first step of the 12-step process is to admit that one has a problem. Fortunately, there are several people who are willing to admit that we do have a problem, and willing to help plant new seeds to replace these fruit-laden trees when they become barren in a decade or two. Thoughtful academic institutions, foundations, support organizations, service providers and individuals within businesses can help us not only keep Minnesota strong, but make it even better. If so, we can turn an impending crisis few know about into something the majority never needs to face.

One such ambitious project has broken ground in Elliot Park for the 14,000-square-foot FINNovation Lab slated to open in downtown Minneapolis by December 2017, just in time for the national attention coming this way due to the Super Bowl. The Lab, in cooperation with Impact Hub Minneapolis-St. Paul, will support mission-driven change makers in growing their businesses, with the aim of creating living-wage jobs and positive social impact in the region.

Besides co-working space, the project will provide business support systems for for-profit and nonprofit organizations to allow for rapid growth and flexible working relationships. Services will be tailored in partnerships with experts in business leadership and social innovation. It plans to have access to cost-effective financing and will serve a mix of organizations, from inexperienced, idea-stage founders to established businesses—all with a benefit to the greater good in their model or mission. A mix of business models, sectors, industries, needs and stages of maturity among the members will stimulate cross-pollination within a diverse group.

There are several other programs like this. Some support taking an idea to the point of starting a business, such as the 100 Launches program. Others, such as Rocket Network (my organization), support those ideas that have survived the birthing process and are dealing with the inevitable growing pains that come thereafter. All we can be sure of today is that with access to large meeting areas for networking and speaking events, we will have a gathering space for like-minded people, organizations and businesses to meet and forge the beginning of an ecosystem.

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Not knowing exactly how it will play out is the essence of entrepreneurship. Yes, some of us may not be able to enjoy the fruit of this tree, but we enjoyed the one from previous plantings and we owe this to the next generation.

Rajiv Tandon is an entrepreneur, educator and mentor. He facilitates peer groups for CEOs of fast-growing companies in Minnesota, and as executive fellow at the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, University of St. Thomas, he runs the Rocket Network (