Our next bet on Miami

Less than two years ago we made a new bet on Miami. We decided to widen our lens on the city’s creative community, focusing not only on artists but entrepreneurs.

The idea: invest in Miami’s emerging and increasingly innovative entrepreneurs as a tool to build community in an effort to bind people to each other and to our rapidly evolving city.

It’s a focus that seeks to build on our ongoing work at Knight Foundation in the arts. Over the past 18 months we have made more than 50 investments in entrepreneurship in South Florida; our biggest grant resulted in Endeavor – a global leader in building entrepreneurial ecosystems – launching its first U.S. outpost in Miami.

Our aim is to connect, support and inspire Miami’s emerging community of entrepreneurs, startups, makers and doers of all kinds.

The goal is to help make Miami more of a place where ideas are built.

The bet is that, if done well, it will ultimately lead to greater talent retention, a stronger sense of place and possibility, and a more determined, enabled community of problem solvers.

At Knight Foundation our belief is that informed and engaged communities are essential in a robust democracy. Across the country, our Community and National Initiatives program invests in places that accelerate talent and advance opportunity. In doing so, we aim to develop and aggressively execute tightly focused strategies that take advantage of unique, emerging trends specific to each community.

For Miami, we seek to take advantage of two trends that are beginning to reshape cities around the world. First, as the costs to create and connect continue to plummet, the ability for more people to act in transformative ways continues to go up. And since startup and entrepreneurial environments are increasingly centered on co-working, sharing, collision and fostering community, this presents a new way to bind people to each other and place on a larger scale.

Miami is poised to take advantage of this because, at its core, it’s highly entrepreneurial. A young city at a formative stage of growth—which sprouted up as a tourist and retiree destination—is turning an important corner due to the convergence of several shifts. 

A Kauffman Foundation study last year ranked Miami No. 1 in the country in terms of entrepreneurial activity on a per capita basis.

Meanwhile, in recent years Miami has developed many elements needed to be a center of high-impact entrepreneurship. Its population – 65 percent foreign born – is uniquely international and diverse. There is significant wealth in Miami, a necessary requirement to help give flight to ideas.

But, perhaps most importantly, within the past decade Miami has changed in three important ways. First, Miami is rapidly urbanizing, seeing an 80 percent increase in its core downtown population over the past decade, according to the Miami Downtown Development Authority.

Even more remarkable, among all large metro areas in the country, Miami clocked the fastest increase in well-educated young adults living in close-in urban neighborhoods, according to economist Joe Cortright.

Second, the city has built a vibrant arts and creative community. The opening this year of the Pérez Art Museum Miami is only the latest example of the cultural revival gripping the city.

Third, Miami is increasingly a center of higher education. A recent study found that the Miami metropolitan area now ranks seventh nationally in terms of college students per capita. Underlining the shift: A little more than four decades ago, Miami didn’t have a public research university.

A new Miami is presenting new opportunities.

And some are starting to notice, including reports in the past year in The Miami Herald, USA Today, Ocean Drive, The Atlantic and Forbes. In December readers in Paris even opened up their morning edition of Le Figaro to learn about a refocused and newly energized Miami. 

Still, as the city makes these important shifts, it’s more difficult than it should be for doers and innovators to build their ideas in Miami.

It remains a fragmented environment; barriers to resources, such as mentors, funders and other entrepreneurs, are too high. Far too many opportunities are missed. Miami is producing many startups, but not many scale-ups. It’s not nearly as innovative as it could be. And, as a result, it’s retaining too few of its most talented.        

Through our grantmaking, we aim to help fill the gaps in this nascent ecosystem. Not by investing in enterprises themselves, but in places for entrepreneurs to work and share; in mentor and investor networks; in convenings to forge better connections and learning opportunities; in better communication; and in broadening and diversifying our base of entrepreneurs through targeted educational and talent initiatives.

So far, the results have been very good.

Knight Foundation funding helped launch places such as The LAB Miami, which offers co-working space, events and educational workshops. Started in February 2013, the Wynwood facility is home to some 140 entrepreneurs and had more than 22,000 visitors to events and workshops in its first year.

Refresh Miami, the largest tech meet-up group in South Florida, grew from 3,000 members in May last year to more than 8,000 by year’s end, following Knight Foundation support.   

Countless gatherings have been funded as well.

Among them, Startup City: Miami last year with Richard Florida and The Atlantic drew more than 700 attendees and 4,000 live stream viewers; and it will return again at the end of this month. SIME, one of the biggest tech conferences in Europe, held its first U.S. conference in Miami with Knight funding. The gathering, returning in December, was recently called a “must-attend” event in TechCrunch.

The first Miami Mini-Maker Faire was held last fall with Knight Foundation support, drawing some 2,000 people on a Saturday afternoon. Knight Foundation funded the WeXchange conference, which is focused on women entrepreneurs, and MIA Music Summit, coming this month, which will fuse tech, startups and music. Knight provided founding funding to launch eMerge Americas Tech Week, which is set for May.

We helped start Endeavor Miami to provide mentor support and access to funders for high-potential entrepreneurs ready to scale-up a new idea. A board was built to lead Endeavor that collectively contributed $3 million on top of Knight Foundation’s $2 million investment. Only months after opening its doors, two Miami ventures – Kidozen and MyCeviche – have been selected as Endeavor Entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, we helped launch Enterprise Development Corp. of South Florida at the co-working site Pipeline Brickell to provide mentorship to entrepreneurs at all stages, not just high-flyers ready for Endeavor. We helped start the Venture Law Project to provide legal support for early-stage entrepreneurs. We supported Awesome Foundation Miami to offer micro-funding for creatives and entrepreneurs.    

A host of entrepreneur education and talent initiatives are all underway due to Knight funding, aiming to broaden and diversify our base of entrepreneurs. Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship launched its digital classroom initiative last fall, and Girls Who Code launches in Miami this summer. And Knight funding helped launch the New Leaders Council in Miami to help connect young doers.

And to better tell the story of Miami’s startup community, we funded national media company Tech Cocktail to launch in South Florida. So too, Knight funding helped launch Our City Thoughts, which seeks to amplify the voices of Miami’s creatives and entrepreneurs. 

With each of these investments, the goal is to build a network that presents platforms for entrepreneurs to build ideas and forums for connection. Our belief is that top-down won’t work, but multiple centers of gravity are required in which entrepreneurs follow a path that best suits their own needs. 

Of course, how will we measure success?

Our thinking is that our first measure is participation and connection. If people aren’t voting with their feet and joining in, then it’s not working. 

Second, we’ll measure new ideas launched, scaled and validated by others investing in them.

But, the ultimate measure for this work is retaining the young talent the city is creating and attracting. Whether a robust, vibrant, connected community of entrepreneurs brings important social benefit by providing a sense of place and opportunity that draws and attaches people to Miami.      

People like Brian Brackeen, co-founder of the startup Kairos. Brackeen moved to Miami from San Francisco and recently blogged about his experience navigating the nascent ecosystem that Knight Foundation is helping build. “So many people and startups have been touched by Knight that it’s incalculable,” Brackeen wrote for the Miami Herald.

That’s a sign that our bets are starting to pay off. We are still in the early stages, with much work to do. But our commitment is unwavering, and we can feel the excitement of this emerging, new Miami.

Matt Haggman, Miami program director at Knight Foundation

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