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Fostering innovation in times of crisis

Leslie Smith, Founding CEO of Epicenter Memphis and current national director for Gender Equality in Tech Cities, explains why entrepreneurial communities are uniquely suited to rise to the occasion in the midst of setbacks.

Even as COVID-19 has had devastating economic impact, Leslie Smith recognizes that sometimes a crisis is exactly what entrepreneurs need to find new motivation and purpose. She’s spent the last five years building an entrepreneurial community in Memphis, and throughout 2020 she’s seen those efforts pay off in a new way.

“I think crisis breeds an extraordinary level of risk-taking that doesn’t necessarily exist in normal times,” she explained. “Now that doesn’t mean we haven’t been successful over the last five years in creating change and catalytic partnerships, but I do think that we wake up every day encouraging and incenting those behavior changes, and in a crisis, they occur more naturally.”

In this episode of Disrupt the Continuum, Smith offers an inside look at the ways Epicenter is supporting economic growth in Memphis, and she shares how Launch Tennessee’s network is helping to encourage collaboration over competition all across the state.

Building a Community to Catalyze Growth

When a group of local CEOs decided to create Epicenter, they set a goal of serving 1,000 entrepreneurs and helping to create or grow 500 companies within a decade. In its first five years, Epicenter has already worked with 500 companies and will most likely pass the 1,000 entrepreneur mark before the end of 2020.

Epicenter’s success is largely due to Smith’s ability to create an “entrepreneurial movement,” which engages individuals in the mission of building a better Memphis.

“An entrepreneurial community and/or culture can really add vibrancy to a community, not only through its economic expansion but just the cultural and community creativity and engagement that occurs as the result of entrepreneurial activities,” Smith explained.

Epicenter works to connect entrepreneurs to the ideas, talent, customers, capital and culture they need to succeed, and that focus on connection has also helped build an environment of collaboration among business leaders.

And since Epicenter is a partner in the LaunchTN network, they’ve also been able to connect entrepreneurs to resources and relationships all across the state.

“I think what’s really beautiful about Tennessee and the entrepreneurship centers is the way we’ve come together across the state to come to know each other and be in relationship with one another,” Smith said. “We’ve created an expanded network upon which we can rely as professionals when we hit a snag or a challenge that we need help guiding our way through.”

The Importance of Entrepreneurship in a Crisis

That statewide network is especially important during crises like COVID-19. Smith believes entrepreneurs are vital because they are wired to solve problems.

“When we feel crisis, they feel a challenge to solve around that crisis. And so our entrepreneurs, even in this moment, continue to be creative and innovative,” she explained. “Every challenge is an opportunity to create a solution.”

She’s been impressed to see how Epicenter’s entrepreneurs are staying calm in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and she’s especially encouraged by the way community members have been able to lean on the relationships they’d already built with each other.

“Our entrepreneurs have really demonstrated great patience and critical thinking in a time that is fraught with a lot of stressful situations and a lot of chaotic information,” Smith said. “They’ve been very stably navigating through the waters of this moment in ways that have even surprised me. It’s just been remarkable to experience.”

Note: At the time of recording this episode, Leslie Smith was still the President of Epicenter Memphis. She is now the national director for Gender Equality in Tech (GET) Cities.

Please subscribe, rate, and review Disrupt the Continuum wherever you listen to podcasts. This season we’re sharing Tennessee’s entrepreneurial ecosystem story. It’s about how, as a statewide community, we collaborate and provide resources founders need to build, scale, and execute their businesses. It’s the power of our statewide network and the boots-on-the-ground startups that #BuildTN.

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