Tom Tom Takeaways for the Rural Ecosystem Builder


Written by: Allison Wolfe

Last week, theCO was invited to attend the inaugural Entrepreneurial Ecosystems Summit at the Tom Tom Festival hosted by the Kauffman Foundation, Rural Rise, CO.STARTERS and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Our program, Driving Innovation, brings mobile labs to rural communities across Tennessee for economic, workforce and community development. The summit included many sessions on rural entrepreneurial ecosystems that we just couldn’t pass up, so we hopped on a plane and took lots of notes.

Here are our top 6 TomTom Takeaways for our fellow rural ecosystem builders:

Update your resume, there’s a new field emerging!

Communities that support startups well take a holistic approach and have strong “entrepreneurial ecosystems.” We’ve known that an ecosystem needs to include entrepreneurs, mentors, investors, connectors, students and more to really thrive. Now, we’re realizing that you also need an “ecosystem builder” to keep all of that momentum and energy going. The Ecosystem Builder brings people and resources together, while tirelessly championing entrepreneurship.

Interested in learning more about this emerging field? Attend the ESHIP Summit hosted by the Kauffman Foundation. Developing a plan for your ecosystem? CO.STARTERS’ matching making program can help with that.

It’s all about the people. ALL the people.


Diversity and inclusion has to be in the foundation of everything you do. You can’t build a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem without listening to your neighbors, learning their needs, and including them at the table. Good entrepreneurial support is about removing and overcoming barriers, and everyone has different barriers. Just like an entrepreneur’s need to listen to their customers, an ecosystem builder needs to listen to the needs of their community and let that feedback inform what’s being built.

Driving innovation serves 55 rural counties across Tennessee. That’s a lot of ecosystem builders! Connect with Rural Rise to meet other rural ecosystem builders and hear what’s worked for them.

Coworking spaces are community beacons.

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In rural areas, coworking spaces are much more than just a place to work. They can become the hub for the areas’ entrepreneurial activity and help create excitement around entrepreneurship. And, as the gathering place for entrepreneurs, coworking spaces can create density in an otherwise rural area.

Okay, so this news wasn’t exactly new to us, but we loved it. In addition to our mobile labs, we operate a coworking and makerspace in Jackson, TN and have seen the impact of coworking spaces in action.

Think of the children!

Education is one of the most important ways to impact economic development. It’s also one way to easily reach a large number of rural residents.  Rural ecosystem builders should start the entrepreneurial training early. Work with area universities, community colleges and k-12 schools to host events, teach classes and get the next generation excited about entrepreneurship.

Okay, okay, we liked this one too... In the past year, Our STEM mobile lab has seen over 12k rural students, and our Dev Catalyst coding program is in over 20 Tennessee schools. Interested in bringing these programs to your area? Let us know. LaunchTN’s Discover Entrepreneurship program may be able to help.


Opportunity abounds in rural areas.

And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! Rural areas are brimming with opportunity, and not just in the traditional industries like agriculture, outdoor recreation and manufacturing (but those are booming too). All types of businesses can be found in rural areas and some studies show that when compared to businesses in urban areas, rural businesses are less likely than to fail.

Some of our favorite startups in rural Tennessee include Southerly Flower Farm, BetterFi, and Retro Coffee Bar. Oh yeah, and maybe you’ve heard of Jack Daniels, Lodge Cast Iron and Cracker Barrel?!

You’ve got great assets. Work them!

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Communities all have unique assets. Rural ecosystem builders should identify and highlight the areas that their community excels in and build a brand around that. Don’t think you have a community asset? One speaker let us know that his community was one of the leading producers of chicken poop. Yes, he saw a lot of chicken poop as a community asset. The community built partnerships for research studies and created businesses around it. If that can work for them, you officially have no excuses.

Tennessee communities do a great job highlighting their local assets. One of our favorites is Dayton, TN’s renaissance as a bass fishing capital. Stay in touch with Driving Innovation for some exciting placemaking news later this year.