In nature, an ecosystem is defined as an interconnected community. Controlled by many factors, ecosystems are only as healthy as the sum of their parts.
The same can be said for an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Success doesn’t depend on just one thing. It can only succeed when every element of the system is working together to give great ideas the opportunity to thrive.
Entrepreneurship is key in building a vibrant economy. Regions with stronger entrepreneurial ecosystems see faster employment growth. Young firms and small businesses support the work of our larger businesses. They expand good career options for residents from all backgrounds. Ultimately, a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem creates a diverse economy. This ensures a region's long-term economic vitality.
In Northwest Arkansas, the Walton Family Foundation is working to grow and expand the entrepreneurial ecosystem. As part of that vision, we are supporting community partners as they build a pipeline for diverse entrepreneurial talent. We are also removing barriers for underserved entrepreneurs.
We support programs that help startups and small businesses succeed and grow alongside large, established companies. This ensures everyone can participate in the region’s growth and opportunity.
Just like a natural ecosystem, a number of elements support the health and growth of our region’s entrepreneurs.
First of all, how do you get started? Initiatives such as the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center at the University of Arkansas offer technical assistance and business support. This helps current and aspiring entrepreneurs with tasks like financial management, marketing and business regulations.
Have an idea but not sure it will take off? Builders + Backers Idea Accelerator powered by Heartland Forward enables you to experiment, validate and develop your concepts further with mentorship and seed funding. Other initiatives such as Entrepreneurship for All Northwest Arkansas, Canopy Northwest Arkansas, StitchCrew’s FemHealth Accelerator and Diva and Dude’s JumpstartNWA facilitate cohort-based entrepreneurial training to the region’s underserved entrepreneurs. They focus on Hispanic, refugee, female and formerly incarcerated communities.
For startups to grow and thrive, they need access to capital. But for many entrepreneurs in Northwest Arkansas, particularly entrepreneurs of color, the barriers to entry can be steep. Through projects like Kiva Hub Northwest Arkansas and Communities Unlimited, to Winrock’s Science Venture Studio and Validation Fund, the foundation is creating more equitable access to startup capital. Options include micro-loans, specialized assistance for federal grants and equity investments. In partnership with the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation supports the the work of Northwest Arkansas Council Foundation and 412 Angels to educate potential investors in this part of the Heartland on startups as an asset class. The goal? Build a critical mass of angel investors who are knowledgeable and comfortable with investing in young firms.
A well-trained workforce is also key as new businesses start up and grow. It encourages existing businesses to consider relocating to Northwest Arkansas. The Venture Internship Program at the University of Arkansas equips regional startups with accessible student talent. And, it provides students with exposure to startup-stage companies.
Like all thriving ecosystems, atmosphere matters. From local regulations to government support, how a community responds to entrepreneurs can make or break a great idea. Organizations like Right to Start Northwest Arkansas are advancing equitable entrepreneurship as a community priority. They do so by connecting entrepreneurs with policymakers and improving conditions for small and growing businesses.
Recognizing the boldness of every neighbor willing to take a chance on a great idea cultivates excitement. This is true whether they succeed, fail or break even. It’s why we support community events like the Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce’s TechSummit, and collegiate competitions like the Arkansas’s Governor’s Cup and the University of Arkansas’s Heartland Challenge.
Resources like Endeavor Heartland, Northwest Arkansas Council Foundation’s Plug and Play Supply Chain, the University of Arkansas’s HealthTech Accelerator, FORGE’s Cureate and Startup Junkie Foundation’s Fuel Accelerator can help recruit and scale young firms to and in the region. Each raises the profile of participants and connects them to potential customers and markets. At the same time, Winrock’s Cartwheel Venture Studio ensures the region continues to develop its own high-potential startups to ensure a robust pipeline of innovative young firms.
In total, the Walton Family Foundation engages in seven ecosystem-building fundamentals across Northwest Arkansas. We invite you to learn more about this work we have collaboratively built with the community: