Urban Innovator of the Week: Leslie Smith

By Nicole Rupersburg

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and editor who covers business development & entrepreneurship, arts & culture, and food & travel for national audiences. She is the project editor and lead writer of Urban Innovation Exchange and Creative Exchange.

Feb 23, 2016 | Smart Cities | 0 comments

This profile was originally published by Urban Innovation Exchange in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, visit UIXCities.com and follow @UIXCities.

leslie_lynn_smithLeslie Smith, President and CEO of EPIcenter Memphis, lived in Detroit her whole life. She previously worked with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and was actively involved in an advisory role with the Living CitiesIntegration Initiative in Detroit, the Detroit Innovation District initiative launched by the New Economy Initiative of Southeast Michigan (NEI) and the Brookings Institute, and NEI’s NEIdeas business development grant program.

As President and CEO of TechTown Detroit, the city’s most established business incubator and accelerator, Smith was a key player in ushering in a new era for entrepreneurship in Detroit.

TechTown has been at the forefront of small- and large-scale business and economic development efforts, launching bootcamp-style entrepreneurship programs and innovative programs targeting the communities and populations too often left in the dust of economic expansion.

One of those programs, SWOT City, combined economic development and start-up acceleration strategies to transform historically underserved neighborhoods into vibrant and dense communities. Under Smith’s leadership, SWOT City was the first economic development program in Detroit to focus on marginalized communities and has come to define inclusive economic development efforts in the city, setting the standard for all other such programs to follow.

“SWOT City was the benchmark program in carrying out economic development to marginalized communities,” Smith says. “After seeing the bulk of the enthusiasm focused on the city center, we thought to carry those opportunities to the neighborhoods.”

Then, almost exactly one year ago, Smith was lured away from the city she helped reshape to Memphis, where she has taken all that she learned from Detroit and is implementing it as President and CEO of Entrepreneurship-Powered Innovation Center (EPIcenter) Memphis.

“The role of EPIcenter is catalyzing an entrepreneurship movement in Memphis that has been underway in the last decade or so but has not necessarily been connected in a networked fashion, or in a way that Memphians saw themselves as being part of the movement,” says Smith. “I can apply the things I’ve learned in Detroit to a very similarly situated city with some different conditions and opportunities than in Detroit, in particular in inclusive economic expansion.”

She laughs, “When you do something for a number of years learn what you should and shouldn’t do!”

With TechTown’s SWOT City, she says, they were “the first ones in” – “When we entered Brightmoor,” a divested community far outside the focus areas of investment in a rapidly redeveloping Detroit, “it was a pretty provocative move. In Memphis we’ve already sort of crossed those hurdles. We’re now finding programs that are working here and scaling them across the city. There is already real intentional investment in entrepreneurship within communities in Memphis that will allow us to accelerate those activities even faster than in Detroit.”

Smith says Memphis shares many of its more challenging circumstances in common with Detroit – high unemployment, high poverty rates, low education attainment, high crime rates. “But just like Detroit, that’s not necessarily the most productive national narrative – it’s not all the scary things you see on TV. I firmly believe the antidote is entrepreneurship and economic development,” she says.

EPIcenter Memphis is a program of the Greater Memphis Chamber’s Chairman’s Circle. It is a collaborative and community-wide strategic initiative coordinating resources from various organizations such as accelerators, incubators, mentors, investors, networking and technical assistance programs to help entrepreneurs conceive, launch, and scale businesses in the Memphis region.

Much of this work is being done by coordinating the efforts and resources of organizations already doing such work, and connecting all of them together as part of a single entrepreneurial ecosystem. Funding for this initiative is a cross-sector blend of corporate sponsorship, city and federal funding, philanthropic support, as well as seed funding from the founding agency, the Greater Memphis Chamber. The goal of EPIcenter is to create 500 companies and 1,000 entrepreneurs by 2024 through four areas of support: idea creation, development, funding, and growth.

“There were singular entrepreneurship assets or programs in Memphis already, but there was no sort of organizing hub for those activities,” Smith explains. “EPIcenter was created to be the key visioning and strategist effort for the entire entrepreneurial movement. It is responsible for the health and well being of the entire network. We’re working with over 65 partners across the city to make sure the entire network is functioning.”

Smith and her colleagues spent the first year understanding the people and players in the Memphis entrepreneurial ecosystem, identifying what the strong programs were and some of the gaps in the landscape so as to really map out the strategies that tied to the current conditions in Memphis. From there they focused on hiring their startup team, activating some new programs, and aggressively fundraising.

Although the first year was primarily a “year of discovery” for EPIcenter, it has already led to some new collaborations that hadn’t previously existed, including acitywide joint demo day, a “super accelerate” with seven accelerators from across the city hosting a joint event with breakout sessions, and it is also already scaling some established neighborhood-based entrepreneurship programs, like LAUNCH in Chattanooga which focuses on underrepresented and under-resourced communities.

“We have found some really active partners in the communities to help us double down on their work so they’re touching more people within their communities and helping us scale into communities that aren’t being touched,” Smith says. “As in Detroit, there are communities that receive a disproportionate amount of investment and other communities are always left out. We’re trying to make sure they’re not left out through the formation of a couple of tables through which we’ve started to talk about this portfolio of opportunities that are available in the community.”

The community partners already doing the on-the-ground work are invaluable to the success of EPIcenter, as are focused community engagement efforts. “You always have to build a program like this from the ground up; you can’t swoop in and try to prescribe for folks what strategies are best going to help them achieve their goals, and these tables will really help us to draw that out.”

The year of discovery is over, says Smith; this is the year of execution.

“In April we’re launching a $100 million fundraising campaign to really bring in capital and programmatic support over these next several years. We have added some talent programs that help us attack both ends of talent spectrum; we have expanded our tech acceleration programs; and we’re launching a new angel investment fund for the gaps that we identified. Now we can start having an impact.”

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

Engaging Historically Marginalized Communities During COVID-19

Engaging Historically Marginalized Communities During COVID-19

Since historically marginalized communities are already being disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I am frustrated to see these communities also negatively impacted by the lack of on-the-ground public engagement. While I realize the threat of COVID-19 and the associated restrictions make conducting on-the-ground public engagement challenging, I want to encourage fellow planners to think more creatively. I will admit that I struggled to think creatively when I first heard that Clackamas Community College (CCC) would continue having mostly online classes in Spring Term 2021. CCC has had mostly online classes since the end of Winter Term 2020 when COVID-19 first started impacting Oregon. CCC’s decision about Spring Term 2021 became more stressful when Clackamas County staff told me that public outreach for their new shuttles could not be delayed until next summer.

If Companies Want a Diverse Workforce, They Need to Pay Attention to Transportation

If Companies Want a Diverse Workforce, They Need to Pay Attention to Transportation

A new toolkit has been developed to help businesses think through strategies to decrease mobility barriers to the workplace, which reduces turnover. When workers can reliably get to work regardless of their personal circumstances, it provides employment stability and the opportunity to build wealth. It’s a win-win. Developed through a partnership between Metropolitan Planning Council and a pro bono Boston Consulting Group team, the toolkit includes slide decks, an overview report, customizable templates, a cost calculator, and instructional videos walking a company through the thought process of establishing a baseline situation, evaluating and selecting a solution, and standing up a program.

Depending on the employer’s location and employees’ needs, solutions may range from helping with last-mile transportation to the transit system, to developing on-demand vanpools, to establishing in-house carpool matching systems. The ROI calculator gives employers the ability to determine the break-even cost—the subsidy amount a company can manage without hurting the bottom line.

How Affordable Green Housing Enhances Cities

How Affordable Green Housing Enhances Cities

Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.  

The Future of Cities

Mayors, planners, futurists, technologists, executives and advocates — hundreds of urban thought leaders publish on Meeting of the Minds. Sign up below to follow the future of cities.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This