The First Year of Ecosphere

In an age when startups, business incubators, and the tech world of Silicon Valley are trendy and highly visible, it can be easy to forget what entrepreneurship actually means. We often see entrepreneurs only through a veneer of magazine polish, as hip and photogenic people being honored for "40 Under 40"-type awards.

In reality, being an entrepreneur can be isolating, terrifyingly unpredictable, and full of arduous tasks that are hard to see from the outside. It takes a long time for anyone to share the vision you've spent hours laboring over — even your closest loved ones might not really understand. And then there's all the work that's not really about the business: People often become entrepreneurs because of their passion for a specific cause or product or type of work, but then have to spend all their time worrying about things like bookkeeping, taxes, legal issues, or even just getting the Internet set up in their new office.

As Connect the Grey was taking shape in the spring of 2015, it was clear to us how often entrepreneurs often struggle alone through the first steps of a new venture. Working with Impact Hub MSP, a coworking space and resource for social enterprises, we began talking about creating a place for these early-stage entrepreneurs to connect and openly discuss the ups and downs of starting something new. That idea became creativEcosphere.

The name creativEcosphere — Ecosphere for short — refers to the level of the atmosphere where air is breathable. This accelerator would offer a safe space for entrepreneurs, where they could stop holding their breath and be honest about their goals and challenges. 

Ecosphere’s cohort model allows participants to compare notes, sharing helpful information and contacts. Sessions spark new ideas as each participant is exposed to their fellow entrepreneurs’ suggestions and feedback. Our goal is to break down the myth of the “lone genius,” the idea that innovation happens in a vacuum. The exchange of ideas, cross-pollinating and making connections across different fields — that’s where creativity happens.

Besides the collaborative exchange of ideas, Ecosphere is structured around curriculum that speaks to the business needs entrepreneurs struggle with: operations and cost structure, marketing, financing, consumer research, and more. All of these concerns can feel impossible to navigate for someone who's on their own, so the information and resources offered in Ecosphere empower participants to keep moving.

Over the course of the Ecosphere program, everyone gets time “in the hot seat,” fielding questions about their own business. Each person has the chance to step away from the grind of their work and apply what they’ve learned to help other entrepreneurs. Through the hot seat and critique process, Ecosphere participants are able to build confidence as they recognize their own growth and see how much they can offer to their peers. (For more on how this works, read Rachel’s reflection on sitting in the hot seat at an Ecosphere session!)

Ecosphere is also designed to help people develop the skills of mentoring and offering helpful feedback. Participants learn to both give and receive criticism respectfully and productively. As Ecosphere expands, it will become a training ground for mentors, too, allowing established leaders and people growing in their careers to practice mentoring over time.

The first creativEcosphere pilot, in which two cohorts met monthly at Impact Hub MSP, wraps up this month. We’re proud to work with people whose startups include a food truck for healthy juices, grief recovery counseling, social impact reporting for companies, and more.

Though the program is rooted in offering connections to entrepreneurs, our plan is to expand it beyond early-stage ventures. But each iteration of Ecosphere will center on having that space for trust and vulnerability — not only for people to vent about struggles, but also for them to feel safe being creative, throwing out and building on ideas, and growing as they learn from one another’s experiences.

We’ll be sharing more stories from the Ecosphere pilot later this month. Check back to hear from our fellow entrepreneurs!