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On this episode, a Norwegian Diplomat and the Director of a Small Business Development Center discuss Building Ecosystems.
Listen to Jo Sletbak, Consul General for Norway to San Francisco and the Western United States, and Mysty Rusk, Director of the Brink SBDC, talk about influence and getting people on-board with what they’re building.
A big “thank you” to TMA BlueTech for sponsoring the production of this episode.
Katarina Jones: This episode of OtherWise Insights is brought to you by TMA BlueTech: fostering maritime business and technology innovation around the world.
I’m Katarina Jones, and this is OtherWise Insights: lessons in leadership and entrepreneurship from the intersections of life.
On today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about building ecosystems. Now, I’m not talking about tundra or grasslands, although that is where the term ecosystem comes from. We’re talking about ecosystems like interconnected communities of people, organizations, and also support structures. So they’re inhabiting the same space and really, they have the same end goal in mind.
For example, you may have heard of a tech ecosystem. That’s things like investors and business people, accelerators and innovation centers, and all those come together. They inhabit the same space and they’re creating things like technological innovation, and they’re also creating a lot of jobs. So that’s a tech ecosystem, but they’re not the only type of ecosystem out there.
There’s a lot of different types. For example, diplomats are sent around the world. Every country has been doing this for hundreds of years, and they are sending people to build ecosystems in other countries. They’re doing things like building peace and economic prosperity for their own countries.
And the longevity of that approach is something that I think we can learn a lot from. So on today’s episode, we have a diplomat. We have his honorable Jo Sletbak, Consul General for Norway to San Francisco and the Western United States.
Jo Sletbak: We have three career consulates in the U.S.: New York, Houston, San Francisco, in addition to our embassy in Washington D.C. So with that, being a career diplomat, my part is to manage the relationship between these 13 Western States and Norway’s activity here on the West coast of the U.S.
Katarina Jones: And we also have somebody from the tech ecosystem. We have Mysty Rusk, Director of the Brink. It’s a small business development center, which is like an accelerator.
Mysty Rusk: It’s an innovation center. It’s one of only a handful in the United States of SBDCs focused on innovation. We’re hosted at the University of San Diego, and we’re a community based program. So, 5% of the companies that we work with are affiliated with the university. 95% are affiliated with the community.
We have 620 companies that are part of our group. And we have helped those companies raise $42 million over the last about 18 months. So, we’re a pretty prolific job creator, about 1200 jobs, under our belt in that period of time. And our goal is to see scalable companies do things that can change the world.
Katarina Jones: And they are going to talk about their different perspectives on building ecosystems and share that with us so we can learn. Check it out.
How do you get started when you’re first building your ecosystem?
Mysty Rusk: Right. So I’m much more localized. I come in and I work in a specific community I’m fairly new to San Diego.
So, I did the same thing here I’ve done a number of other places, which is arrive in town, try and have as many meetings as possible with everybody who seems to be working in the same space. And then it’s just general fact finding. When you start with fact-finding, if you’re looking for it, you can start to quickly find out where the gaps are.
And then that’s where we really, put our efforts to fill those gaps. We’ve looked at things like outreach, acceleration, infrastructure, advocacy, funding and how all of those big picture tools work together to support an entrepreneur. And we found a handful of places where there was unmet need in the community, which we able to quickly bring things to the table and then use that, not just to serve, but also to engage partners. So to be able to say like, “Hey, we know you don’t have the ability to do this one piece. We can step in and partner with you and not take away from anything that you’re offering, but to add value to what you’re already doing.”
Jo Sletbak: I’m struck just by, one thing that you say, which is very similar, we as diplomats, we move around and you said you’ve done this before, but when you come, you have to do it new. When I’ve moved from post to post, I come into place although the consulate or the embassy is already there, I still have to get the facts, see who are going to be my players based upon what I need to do.
So where’s my network going to be? And there might be something already there, but I still have to do this over again as a person coming into the new part, seeing where can I bring my resources, my knowledge into that network there, and how can I create that even more with changing times with new perspectives and ideas.
Mysty Rusk: Right. So do you find when you go to a new post that when you meet somebody, your mind kind of does this person or this organization is a parallel to something that you already know how to work with somewhere else?
Jo Sletbak: Yes.
Mysty Rusk: Right! So same thing for me. And it feels like you know, I was able to come to San Diego and just hit the ground fast and make those parallels quickly. Every time I do it, I get better at it, and can find those resources and connections sooner and have a better understanding about all kinds of things, like how things are funded or how –
Jo Sletbak: We do exactly the same thing. As you say, you get better at it because first of all, I’m more comfortable in the role that I am playing, I’ve learned more, I also understand more those structures because you’ve done it a little bit before, so you get better at it. You know where are you not going to waste your time and where I’m going to put my effort and to really get in the door to do that?
Working with various institutions, academic or think tanks, or government local or state, I’m able to take a little step back, survey it better, and then you spend your time better as we’re getting more comfortable.
Katarina Jones: So that’s interesting. It sounds like whether or not something existed when you got there, it’s looking at what does exist, and then finding the gaps and being able to see where you can really add the most value.
Mysty Rusk: Right. And everywhere I’ve been, what I ended up delivering looks different. It’s not like I go in and I deliver the same thing again and again, because every community the gaps look a little different, or the service providers or the partners. You know, I don’t feel like I’ve got a perfect solution that I’m customizing everywhere I go. And I imagine you have the, you have the same.
Jo Sletbak: Oh, absolutely. It resonates because it’s so different, but it’s still the same way of doing it. In one of my previous positions as Deputy Chief of Mission at our embassy in Ottawa, it was an Arctic station, very focused on Arctic policies. That’s not the same here. I do cover Alaska here, but most of my time is focused around the San Francisco area, which is a different animal, but I still have to go in and look at how I use myself, where are the embassies, what can I bring to this table and this discussion?
Katarina Jones: What kind of goals do you set for your ecosystem and what’s the process you use to do it?
Mysty Rusk: We actually start with the bigger picture goals. What I’d call the lags. The lags are things that the results show up a long time after you actually do the activities.
And those are almost always set by the organizations I come into. The place where I come in and really set the goals is on what I’d call the leads. What are the process goals and what are the things that are tougher to measure, but more important to make sure that we get the right results.
And what are the things that I can measure on a daily or weekly basis that say I’m making progress in the right direction. Those can be all kinds of things like, we look at frequency between consulting sessions for companies, right? We know if it’s more than three weeks the company’s effectiveness and our participation with them goes down dramatically.
So, if we say we want to have meetings with our companies every two to three weeks, then we have much higher outcomes at the end and we can hit those lags by measuring those lead measures.
Jo Sletbak: You hit upon some things that are similar for us because we have a set of expectations.
I represent the government of Norway, so I have to take care of Norway’s foreign and security policy issues as well as value creation. That’s the bottom. How I so do that, I still have to keep looking at it and saying “do I need to adjust some things? Has this system evolved?”
Which is for our system in San Francisco, an ecosystem that constantly is revolving. That cannot be something that’s set. So I have to come in and and look at the team together with the team saying, how are we going to spend our time? What are we going to put priority on now and today?
Which was not the same two years ago. But the premises for what we do as a foreign mission in San Francisco or anywhere else in the world, well, that’s laid by the Norwegian policies, Norwegian government. So it’s a little bit of the same things I have to adjust. I have to be agile as things move.
Katarina Jones: How do you anticipate the evolving needs of your ecosystem?
Mysty Rusk: We have sort of an unusual approach about that because that’s a really important thing for me. You know, if we want to be relevant and valuable in the future, we have to be planning for that. So we’re trying to guess what companies are gonna need a little ways out.
So we start with the companies that are hitting the metrics that we’re attempting to get to. And so the companies that are making progress in that area will spend a lot more qualitative time with them and ask questions and try and get hints about what is the landscape gonna look like for you three to five years.
What are the things that will keep you up at night, you know, down the road? And how do we start to plan programming for where these companies are going to be three to five years from now? We also then take that same information about where they’re at and the companies that are three to five years behind them and saying like, what do you wish you would’ve known three to five years ago?
What would have been helpful? And so then we, when we do design , we’re designing with that success, starting with that success factor.
Katarina Jones: So you’re kind of benchmarking them against each other ?
Mysty Rusk: A little bit. Yeah.
Jo Sletbak: Would you mind coming into bureaucracy?
Mysty Rusk: I came out of bureaucracy!
Jo Sletbak: That’s where we’re not that good. In San Francisco there’s two sort of sole phrases that I like there and one is “pay it forward,” you’re expected to contribute. And the other one is “disrupt or be disrupted.”
And that last part we’re not that good at back home. Our bureaucracy is not put together that way. And I’m trying to bring that back to the ministry back home and I’m still not there.
I’m not sure if they really understand that part yet, but that’s what we need to probably be better at if we are going to survive as diplomats. What is the role of a diplomat going to be in the future? I still believe that there is a role because people are people and we need to have people in certain roles.
But there are ways of doing it using technologies or other ways we can work in order to become better, and that’s where we need part of that, what you’re asking and what you were saying, which we’re not quite there yet. Hopefully we’ll get there.
Katarina Jones: What can you do to make your ecosystem self-sustaining and less reliant on you as an individual?
People who are building ecosystems, like yourselves, often become a focal point for that ecosystem. And it can be really hard to make it self sustaining. And so one of my questions for both of you is how do you do that? Do you have ways or strategies that you try and get people to play with each other a little bit more and not always having to come to you?
Mysty Rusk: That’s a tough question. Right now, in the San Diego environment, I personally get a lot of credit for the success of our program. But it wasn’t me. It was, matter of fact, we got almost nothing done until I was able to start to put the staff together and get the help that we needed and to really understand the back of the house at USD and how to utilize that system to help make us shine, which they are an absolute powerhouse.
They’re an incredible backend supporter. It’s a troubling thing because from the moment like I arrive, you know, no matter how long I stay, I’m not staying forever. Nobody does. And so how do I make it about the program? Like that’s the first piece, right? How do I take the highlight off of me and make it about the work and the team that really makes that happen. And then the second piece is how do you make the funding sustainable? So right now, for a program like ours, yeah, we get to do some of the most interesting work. It’s super creative, we don’t have a ton of strings tied to us, but it’s also super temporary because everybody treats it like it’s a pilot and it doesn’t come with a long-term funding source.
I’ve cobbled together five different grants to make it work in the first two years, and I’m likely to do that, but I’m already realizing some of that money will eventually dry up. And how do I make this part of a sustainable piece? Well, my next step is to create an endowment where I’m become a multimillion dollar fundraiser to support a fairly small organization.
And that’s not a good use of time either. But it is what will be necessary to create that kind of stability, and that’s a question like, I’m going to walk out of here still wondering, like, how do we, in organizations like this, or in policy positions start to solve that? Cause we can’t give up road and bridge work, we can’t give up water and wastewater treatment systems. We, you know, we can’t, there’s no place in the infrastructure that we can give up those public services to be able to support these new kinds of things. At least not. No, that’s not where I’m at.
Jo Sletbak: It is difficult because none of us are indispensable when it comes to the cause.
Mysty Rusk: Right.
Jo Sletbak: And the work. I’m sure you put in your time and effort, you put in your energy. When I come to someone, I give of me as a person to create a relationship and that’s based on, yes, the institution I represent, but it’s also me. And my successors might be a different person and there going to continue this work, but, there’s still this personal, it’s the chemistry that’s also there, which is difficult. So the more we are able to make it about the program or the institution, or the goal as such, the better it is. But there’s something about that personality, that chemistry that’s also there. You build a trust, right?
So a new person comes in. Well, you come from the good organization. We know that you’re a Norwegian. We kind of trust you and we’ve worked with you. But who are you? So that one is tough. It is difficult. It depends on what you’re building, but you also have to remember that you’re not indispensable.
Katarina Jones: How do you get people bought into the vision of what you’re trying to build?
And one of the reasons I was excited to have you, Jo, as as a diplomat to talk about this topic is diplomacy and persuasion and influence. And I think given what you do in building ecosystems, those skills are so valuable and so important.
And so I’d be curious to hear a little bit about how do you get people excited about your vision of what you’re trying to build? How do you get people bought into what you’re working on and be a part of the ecosystem?
Mysty Rusk: Yeah, that’s a really great question. I think for me, part of it is about risk, right?
I came to San Diego and I said, I’m here to help, like, we’re going to change the world. Like, we’re going to save the world maybe. Like we’re going to do really big, important things. And to say those words out loud, like I said it alone a lot of times, and I felt it for a really long time before I was ever willing to say it out loud.
And this environment actually encouraged me. USD really has this heart for that. It was an idea that was embraced there. And as we started to work with the companies, we were like, this actually changes the world. We’re doing things in water technology that, we actually could stop some of the things that are happening.
We could invent our way out of some of the big problems that we face. Stuff we’re not going to work ourselves out of, we might innovate our way out.
Jo Sletbak: It’s what is our role going to be in this whole tech to techplomacy, economic diplomacy. Well, we need to take risks too.
We need to go in, try out various things to see, does this attract people to what we want to have? The, the type of discussions that we want to have and we create some series of panel discussion series, fireside chat discussions. “Norway Talks Future Today” is something that we just launched in order to be relevant for that ecosystem and then for our ecosystem so that we can put the right people together and talk.
I don’t have all the answers. You don’t have all the answers. But if we put the two of us, the three of us, more of us, and the right people together, then something’s going to happen. When I go out there, and I’m not a tech person, I don’t have the finances, but we need to facilitate these things and try to make those facilitations.
Sometimes you can fail. You can have three people in the audience, you know, you invite, and you put on all this nice catering and, and then you have three people sitting in the audience. Uh, not always that fun, but you got to constantly push.
And, I think in this part, I believe in the project. I’m very proud of the country that I do represent. I’m very comfortable with the policies that we have, in particular on the blue economy part, which is something that we believe strongly in. I believe in that and I have to go in and I have to contribute and give of myself into that because if not, people are not going to believe it.
People are not going to go for the stuff that I want to do, and we want to do, if I just send out an email, I have to be there. I have to be there and contribute to that discussion myself.
Katarina Jones: So really believing in changing the world, really believing in your mission, your vision, and, and that is helping to actually convince other people.
Jo Sletbak: And you gotta have fun doing it, too. You have to, there’s something about people and meeting people that’s fun.
Mysty Rusk: Right? [High Five]
Jo Sletbak: Yes. I mean, come on.
Katarina Jones: And you know, even a conversation with three people, it can be pretty fun. So if only three people show up, then it’s fine.
Jo Sletbak: It is. And there are so many people that, have ideas.
And how about lifting that up? How about seeing those people and letting them have a chance at that discussion? I think part of why Norway has been successful in our peace diplomacy, in conflicts around the world as well, is because we believe in that.
And you’ve got to let people have that chance of coming forward with solutions, not just pushing solutions onto them, but be part of that conversation too.
Katarina Jones: Listening. Listening to what other people have to say.
Mysty Rusk: Right? Trust. Trust is central and it’s everything. And I think we brought that to the table when we try and build partnerships.
So we had this idea last year about this angel conference thing, and it’s 25 events that build up to this big one day finale, and we needed more than 20 partners in the community to make it work. And I was brand new to town. I didn’t even know anyone, right? Like that’s a really tough thing.
So when I’d approached those other organizations, I would say, I’m going to be the best partner you ever had. Like, I’m going to get in behind this and do like all of the work. And all I want you to do is just put your name on it. And if at the end, if it blows up and there’s just a pile of ashes, I will stand in the ashes alone and take all the blame. And if it goes well, I will share all the credit.
And I’m basically, you know, selling myself, I’m making this promise at a personal level and then delivering like, sincerely delivering on it.
Jo Sletbak: And if you don’t deliver on it, it’s going to follow you, you know.
Mysty Rusk: Oh, sure. A lot of sleepless nights, half of this gray hair came out of that project, you know, like just things that I worried about.
Jo Sletbak: What am I going to say though?
Mysty Rusk: Right? I’m supposed to be grateful I still have hair.
Jo Sletbak: But, there’s a reward for that too. Because when you do give of yourself and you do get that back, the relationships and that honesty and that trust that that is built, you can go through war with that.
Katarina Jones: That’s really powerful.
Jo Sletbak: So there’s something really fun about that part too. And you have to love being with people. You know, if you’re going to do it. Cause if not, it’s not going to work. So if my part, I’m extremely privileged that I don’t have anything to sell, but I have something to facilitate and putting people together.
Mysty Rusk: Yeah. And I would imagine you’re seeing too, like the same way we are, the world gets more and more complicated every day, but the multidisciplinary approaches where we start to see people across industries or across different like academic environments start to cross the lines and work together and all of a sudden we’re actually coming up with solutions that that no one group, or no two or three groups could come, you know, that it’s taken everybody to solve. Technology is like really leveling the playing field and giving diplomats and people like me the tools to really put it all together.
Katarina Jones: So there you have it. Some tips on building ecosystems from the experts. Some key takeaways for me were:
A huge thank you to Mysty and Jo for sharing their wise insights with others.
I’m Katarina Jones and this has been OtherWise Insights.
Adventures by A Himitsu
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