NLC’s National Peer Network Shares Big Ideas for Small Business at Kansas City Summit

Big Ideas for Small Business Peer Network tours the Kansas City Crossroads Arts District. Photo Credit: Rick Usher.
Big Ideas for Small Business Peer Network tours the Kansas City Crossroads Arts District. Photo Credit: Rick Usher.
Big Ideas for Small Business Peer Network tours the Kansas City Crossroads Arts District. Photo Credit: Rick Usher.

“Entrepreneurs often describe their interactions with city government as basically licensing and regulatory, but that does need to change. We need to be more expansive than that, we need to be the creative driver " - Kansas City Mayor Sly James

Earlier this month members of NLC’s Big Ideas for Small Business peer network convened in Kansas City, Mo., for a second annual peer learning summit. Local government staff from 15 of the nation’s largest cities engaged in conversations about how to support traditional small business owners and encourage entrepreneurship in their communities. The summit provided a platform for peer network members to share their own city’s proven practices, discover innovative programs from other cities, and develop connections with peer city colleagues.

“Through this network we’re learning from our peer cities different ways of handling similar problems,” said Rick Usher, Assistant City Manager in Kansas City. “We’re gaining a lot of insight on this, and over the last two years all of these cities have come a long way in sharing ideas and implementing programs from their peer cities.”

During the summit, peer network members presented on city programs including those that provide online support resources, eliminate regulatory barriers, make city contracts accessible to local businesses, and deliver targeted support to minority, immigrant, and female small business owners. (Watch a video on the summit.)

Several peer network cities are already making plans to adopt programs they learned about at the summit.

“It’s important to engage with your peers working on similar issues because it fosters innovation and also validates some of your assumptions,” said Gregg Bishop, Deputy Commissioner of the Business Development Division at NYC Small Business Services. “Many of us are tackling the same issues in our cities and I’m thrilled that we have a vehicle to trade ideas and make connections to solutions.”

Herman Nyamunga from the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians in Philadelphia shared, “As a technical assistance provider I am going to start adopting the Boston model of providing technical assistance, which is based on covering the entire spectrum of entrepreneurs needs. I think their long term approach makes sense and is good for accountability.”

“[We were] especially appreciative of all the information on the support of entrepreneurship,” said Tracey Nichols, Director of Economic Development in Cleveland. “We are working to bring in a new collaborative workspace to Cleveland. Seeing actual spaces in Kansas City was very helpful.”

Other local researchers and policy influencers also joined the peer network to share resources related to small business growth and entrepreneurship. Maria Meyers from KCSourceLink discussed effective ways to measure a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem, and Jennifer Vey from the Brookings Institution shared research on the emerging role of innovation districts in supporting entrepreneurship. Jason Wiens from the Kauffman Foundation also presented to the group on entrepreneurship trends, as well as potential opportunities for cities to get involved in the growing maker movement. 

Bill Dietrich, President and CEO of the Downtown Council of Kansas City, provided a history of the rebirth of the Kansas City Crossroads Arts District before the peer networked toured the area and connected with the owners of three entrepreneur support organizations located in the district - Sprint Accelerator, Think Big Partners, and OfficePort. The summit also included a visit to the 1 Million Cups program, where entrepreneurs give a six-minute business plan pitch and receive immediate feedback from mentors and advisors.

Jason Rittenberg from the Council of Development Finance Agencies (CDFA) delivered an intensive training on providing small business with access to capital. The training delivered a high-level overview of common access to capital strategies and how they are implemented effectively. To highlight how these programs can work successfully on-the-ground, peer network cities discussed their relevant programs on microlending and providing grants to shop owners.

Kansas City proved to be a fitting co-host for the three-day convening. As Mayor Sly James discussed in his keynote address, the city has proactively “planted seeds” to grow a thriving entrepreneurship community by building more downtown housing, reducing red tape for new businesses, creating an open data portal, bringing Google Fiber to the city, and working in partnership with entrepreneurs and local partners to develop support programs like Launch KC and 1 Million Cups at the Kauffman Foundation.

“Entrepreneurs often describe their interactions with city government as basically licensing and regulatory, but that does need to change. We need to be more expansive than that, we need to be the creative driver,” said Mayor James. “We don’t just talk the talk and walk the walk, we’re trying to lead the way.”

The Big Ideas for Small Business project at the National League of Cities has supported peer-to-peer learning among city staff on small business development issues since 2012. The first annual summit was co-hosted last year by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago. For more information, please contact Emily Robbins at robbins@nlc.org.

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