Every year through Fahrenheit X, the team at Fahrenheit 212 applies our innovation methodology to tackling what matters most: social innovation challenges for a non-profit organization. In the past, some of the organizations we've partnered with include the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Robin Hood, the Guggenheim, Teach for America, NYC Open Data, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Fall 2020, with the ambition of joining the fight for racial justice, we partnered with Forward Cities on a 9-week journey to help them define a sustainable go-to-market strategy that will enable the organization to create long-term impact. 

With the dual pandemics of coronavirus and systemic and structural racism, the push for equitable, inclusive entrepreneurship, has never been more necessary. With a lot of cities in recovery mode, the need for longer-term resilience strategies that support small businesses in more equitable and sustainable ways, to be built and run by the local community, is top priority.

Forward Cities is a national nonprofit equipping communities and regions to grow and sustain more equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems (E3). Within the areas Forward Cities works in, entrepreneurs and the neighborhoods in which they live are largely under-connected, under-resourced, under-valued, and under-invested, which limits their potential for success. From its inception, Forward Cities has sought to create and improve wealth generation through entrepreneurship and innovation, giving communities the tools and resources that they need to thrive.

Working with the senior team, including Fay Horwitt (President & CEO) and Michelle Benham (Senior Director of Marketing & Operations), we were humbled and honored to listen and learn directly from people who do the transformational work of ecosystem building everyday.

Ecosystem building requires coordination across an extensive web of many different stakeholders, from city municipalities, to the resource-providing organizations that support entrepreneurs (ESO), with collaborators in between. The nature of Forward Cities’ work pulled us up to a birds eye view to reveal that decisions made within an ecosystem are really dominos, creating waves beyond one person, affecting a livelihood of an entire community.
To this end, we had to be flexible with our initial ambition. What started as a goal to create a go-to-market strategy quickly evolved into hitting pause during a critical and strategic transition moment for the organization, guiding Forward Cities through the process of evaluating and sharpening their mission, understanding the core needs of their target audiences, and reframing their offerings — ultimately redefining their vision and long-term strategy.

The F212 team wrapped up this project with an even deeper reverence for redesigning the very systems we live in for more equitable opportunities for all. As our generation and future generations continue the work of dismantling systems of oppression, it is critical that we have a sharp eye to how the communities we live in are built. Forward Cities teaches all of us that building flourishing cities where all citizens have a chance to thrive isn’t about bringing the outside in or injecting fanciful investments that lead to gentrification. It’s about equipping the citizens that live there already with the tools they need — and ask for — to succeed.

So the next time we think about the future of cities, how might we step up and empower citizens to take the lead?

As we wrapped up our project, Fay and Michelle joined us to reflect on our work together and understand its impact on the organization. Hear from them below:

What learning lessons do you think the average person can learn from the work that you do?

Fay: Everyone in a community has an opportunity and a responsibility to support each other. Supporting entrepreneurs has a larger impact on the economy because it helps to grow communities in equitable ways. And there’s a lot of ways the average person can help.

Michelle: Humans by nature are innovative — when we need to change we make it happen. Supporting that innovation is helpful towards everyone having equitable access to the same opportunities. We all have it within us, so we have a responsibility to do it.

In the beginning of the project, what kinds of problems were you ambitious to solve? How did those problems/goals change as the project progressed?

Fay: When we started, we all had disparate ideas on what we should get out of this. So for me, I needed a true and tangible sales funnel to meet the pressure we were facing to make immediate money. Others in the organization, like Michelle, had a larger organizational strategy mindset that I couldn’t wrap my head around at the time. I was worried that we would spend too much time going through the Discovery process, but actually, having external eyes made a huge difference. In the end, we ended up getting much more than we thought. Fahrenheit 212 helped us figure out how to think, talk, and tell our story.

Michelle: Going into this project, I wanted us to think outside of our normal vocabulary and in a new way. I knew that our organization needed to get aligned on a new strategic direction first. I was glad we could push pause and think carefully about what the next steps were going to be, especially with Fay transitioning into CEO. It was the perfect time to rethink at the organizational strategy level.

What did you hope for going into this partnership with Fahrenheit 212? What ended up surprising you about working with Fahrenheit 212?

Michelle: I hoped that we would slow down — and I’m surprised we slowed down and pressed pause. We really needed to pause and think, given the big transition and shift in our organization. 

Fay: I hoped to get a corporate perspective on this nonprofit way of thinking. Not only did we get that, but I was also surprised by how grounded you were in our mission. It wasn’t all corporate, you had these mission-focused minds. 

Michelle: We also didn’t realize that we’d reap so many insights through the stakeholder interviews that the team conducted. Not only did we learn new insights, but you helped us act on it.

How do you feel the work that came out of this project impacted Forward Cities (in big or small ways)? 

Fay: The work helped us to begin to ask more questions of ourselves and each other. It helped us be more cognizant of the language we use — and instead of using language that went over people’s heads, to instead meet them where they are. I think back to the things we were doing before this project...we were blindly doing things, even though I knew in my gut that there was a disconnect in why we were doing it in the first place. People just accepted it because it was what they were handed. The work with F212 invited us to question what we were doing! It was a tough jump for me to question it, but realized that every time you do something new, there is always a question of “Why.”

Michelle: This work gave us the confidence to lean into our new strategic direction knowing that we had put in the work to make it make sense. Because we had done the work of considering different approaches, we could confidently write the chosen one into grants, present it to the team, and move forward with our re-structured offerings. I could see the bigger picture coming to life.

After going through this project, how has your perspective on your industry [ecosystem building] shifted if at all? Anything you've changed your mind about? 

Fay: During the process, a key moment for us was understanding that entrepreneurs were not our main, target audience. Although they are beneficiaries, it is the Entrepreneur Support Organizations that should be our main focus. This helped us shift the way we tell our story, what type of language we use to communicate with our stakeholders, and how we prioritize our offerings.  

Michelle: During my earliest days at Forward Cities, we [as an organization] always talked about how our unique value proposition is equitable ecosystem building, but this process helped me truly believe and see that we are the premier organization doing this work. So we should own that in this industry.

What are your goals for the future of Forward Cities?

Fay: We become Apple — just kidding! Short term, it’s having a validated narrative for this work that we can utilize in multiple spaces that saves us a ton of time. I see us about to take off. If we were to do the work we were doing before this project, it would be unsustainable. Long term, I want Forward Cities to be the beautiful “vanishing” advocate for communities and ecosystems. What I mean is, I want us to be well known in our ecosystem building circles, but in each community we work with, I want people to think about their own community members as the ones who built it up. Not Forward Cities. It’s about making space for the local leaders and local ecosystems to shine. Forward Cities should maintain a low profile under the radar in communities, but a leader in our industry community.

Michelle: I would love to see us continue being the thought leaders and first organization that people think about when thinking about equitable entrepreneurship ecosystems and helping them to create opportunities for everyone to lean into their vision. I also want Forward Cities to always be an excellent place to work. To live into our values of authenticity and grace. Working here is a unique employment situation and I want to see that honored and grown. We can attract the people who share our values and have a huge impact on the world.

How can people help, get informed, or get involved with Forward Cities?

Fay: Visit our website to learn about the work we do. Think about how you can support your local ecosystem. Who do you know in your community that needs to know us?

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