UNM, city join to spur NM entrepreneurship - Albuquerque Journal

UNM, city join to spur NM entrepreneurship

From left, Lisa Kuuttila, Victor Hwang and Cara Michaliszyn at UNM Rainforest Innovations. (Courtesy of UNM Rainforest Innovations)

The University of New Mexico and the City of Albuquerque are partnering on a new “Right to Start” initiative to help boost entrepreneurship among local communities.

UNM Rainforest Innovations and the city’s Economic Development Department are jointly financing a new $100,000, yearlong contract with the Missouri-based Right to Start organization to advance entrepreneurial creativity and business development in New Mexico as a motor force for economic development.

The city contributed $10,000, and UNM $90,000.

The initiative promotes entrepreneurship as a fundamental right that needs to be encouraged and supported among everybody everywhere, said Lisa Kuuttila, CEO and chief economic development officer for Rainforest Innovations, which leads UNM’s technology transfer, entrepreneurship and economic development programs. That includes marginalized rural and urban communities that often struggle for equal access to needed resources and assistance.

“We want to reach folks across the board,” Kuuttila told the Journal. “This will be an inclusive project that really draws local entrepreneurs in from all communities.”

New Mexico is the latest of six states and 18 communities across the country to embrace the initiative, which aims to rebuild the U.S. economy by making entrepreneurial opportunity a top priority for everyone, said Right to Start founder and CEO Victor Hwang.

That’s critical following the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, Hwang said, because entrepreneurship is what creates jobs, improves living standards, allows for upward mobility and acts as a driver for innovation and change.

“The pandemic has shown the inequalities, the divides, in society, which makes this movement a path of necessity,” Hwang told the Journal. “It’s vital for communities hurt by the pandemic to reopen businesses that were shut down, build new ones, and create jobs – and entrepreneurship is critical to all of that.”

The movement aims to “democratize” entrepreneurial innovation, Hwang said.

The logo for Right to Start. (Courtesy of UNM Rainforest Innovations)

“The right to be entrepreneurial – to create value in the world – is a fundamental right that should be included in public discourse and policy making, and it hasn’t been,” Hwang said. “It’s been neglected … We must advance that fundamental understanding – the human urge to create – and make it available to everybody.”

New Mexico is especially ripe for such economic democratization, given the state’s significant progress in building a flourishing startup economy in recent years, Hwang added. Those efforts have encouraged local innovators and communities to embrace entrepreneurial activity, forging new opportunities.

“But like so many other places, there are lots of people here who haven’t benefited from entrepreneurship,” Hwang said. “We want to lift the needs of those left out, such as in tribal communities. Many haven’t had a seat at the table, and we need to bring them in, to hear those voices.”

To do that, the Right to Start initiative will promote policies, programs and community-based efforts to heighten awareness about the promise of entrepreneurship among local populations, while providing more support for people to start and grow businesses.

“We’ll have special emphasis on rural populations, which haven’t been well served in supporting entrepreneurial endeavors,” Kuuttila said. “That includes all types of businesses, from Main Street and Mom-and-Pop shops to high-tech startups and everything in between.”

Under the contract, Right to Start will hire a New Mexico “advocate” to engage people at every level to discuss challenges for aspiring and existing entrepreneurs and find ways to overcome hurdles. That could mean promoting new public policies and programs, while also better connecting individuals and communities with existing resources, mentors and technical assistance, said Albuquerque’s interim economic development director, Damian Lara.

“We expect to bring meaningful, substantial support to local businesses to create a more inclusive, diverse entrepreneurial startup ecosystem,” Lara told the Journal. “We want to make sure there’s a level playing field for local entrepreneurs across the board, creating an environment where they can thrive.”

Right to Start will also highlight New Mexico’s entrepreneurial success stories in the national media, including a special broadcast through the organization’s online “Start Show” that features local communities, entrepreneurs, policymakers and civic leaders working to expand opportunities.

“We want to tell our story nationally to attract more entrepreneurial, innovative folks to New Mexico,” Kuuttila said. “That can bring more investment capital and help grow the ecosystem.”

Kuuttila will serve as a New Mexico “ambassador” in the Right to Start movement, participating in a national network of local leaders who meet monthly to share experiences and ideas, and to discuss strategies to help advance the grassroots initiative.

UNM is already playing a leadership role in building the local startup ecosystem through development of the high-tech Innovate ABQ site Downtown, which unites Rainforest Innovations with other public and private entities in joint efforts to advance entrepreneurial activity in Albuquerque and beyond, said UNM President Garnett Stokes.

“Continuing to build the entrepreneurial ecosystem is key to future job creation and economic growth in New Mexico,” Stokes said in a statement to the Journal.

Victor Hwang himself has helped inspire a lot of those local efforts in recent years. Hwang is a longtime startup investor, entrepreneur and economic growth expert who co-authored “The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley.”

That book has garnered broad national and international attention for advancing the concept that thriving business ecosystems are like “rainforests” where human creativity, business acumen, scientific discovery, investment capital and more come together to nurture budding ideas into flourishing and sustainable enterprises. That concept inspired the UNM Rainforest Innovations’ name, and its mission to “foster a rainforest in the desert.”

Hwang, who served as keynote speaker at two UNM economic summits, said the Right to Start movement builds on the rainforest concept.

“It’s a natural extension of the rainforest ideas,” Hwang told the Journal. “A rainforest of innovation and entrepreneurship only works if it’s sustainable, includes everybody, and lifts all communities.”

Kevin Robinson-Avila covers technology, energy, venture capital and utilities for the Journal. He can be reached at krobinson-avila@abqjournal.com.


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