During this unprecedented global economic downturn caused by COVID-19, accelerators, incubators, and other entrepreneurship support organizations have a valuable role to play in helping entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in emerging and frontier markets. Over the past two months supporting the Shell LiveWIRE global entrepreneurship program and the Kosmos Innovation Center, DAI’s Sustainable Business Group has worked closely with the Global Accelerator Network (GAN) and the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) to leverage technology in support of global entrepreneurship in emerging economies. For corporates, foundations, donors, and development banks that support similar entrepreneurship ecosystems, we offer some learning here from our projects and global networks.

oscar-nilsson-1BHYZFVyGaw-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Oscar Nilsson on Unsplash.

Here are five ways the entrepreneurship ecosystem is adapting to COVID-19:

  1. Modifying the Boot Camp Model: Entrepreneur and SME “boot camps” tend to be intense multiday or multiweek courses. As pre-accelerators and accelerators go virtual to ensure social distancing, eLearning practices are reshaping this camp model. For example, pre-recorded trainings—complemented by Q&A sessions with technical advisors and guest lecturers—offer flexibility and the possibility of including participants who have less bandwidth or unstable networks. Bootcamps are prioritizing new training courses, such as e-commerce and social media marketing, even among programs with cohorts of more traditional brick-and-mortar SMEs that now must urgently explore ways to sell online. For example, at a recent training with the ABC Incubator based at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, instead of the planned three-day boot camp, the DAI LiveWIRE team restructured the training and hosted four two-hour trainings over the course of two weeks. Participants submitted their “home tasks” to trainers before the start of each class, in place of the breakout group format of face-to-face workshops.

  2. Using Online Design-Thinking Tools to Foster Peer Learning: Human-centered design tools such as the Business Model Canvas work well to demonstrate a collaborative process of visualizing a business plan with a group. Such tools were initially designed for face-to-face ideation sessions, where colorful sticky notes could be used to foster the creative process with teams of founders. Innovators at organizations such as Miro are recreating the ideation process for support entrepreneurship planning.

  3. Hosting Virtual Pitch Events to Access COVID-19 Small Business Funds: Duke University has crowdsourced a list of 500 global capital relief funds worth over $1 trillion (including 22 funds in Africa, 28 in Asia, and five in Central and South America). To leverage these funds quickly, dynamic entrepreneurship support organizations are moving online to host virtual pitch events. Pitch events for entrepreneurs and SMEs are an opportunity to engage with funders. GAN members such as the Canopy accelerator have found success using virtual event platforms such as Engagez, which gives each entrepreneur a landing page for event attendees to explore, and offers invite-only access to smaller groups of investors for more personalized discussions around investment opportunities. Other online platforms gaining popularity include Crowdcast (to host business summits), 6connex (virtual trade shows and job fairs), and Induct (innovation challenges).

  4. Building Virtual Mentorship Networks: Many entrepreneurship support organizations have a face-to-face mentor-mentee component. Some are now exploring how to build a virtual mentorship network, while maintaining the positive attributes of face-to-face relationships. ANDE members such as the National Mentorship Movement (NMM)—which has mobilized over 1,000 South African CEOs, executives, and senior managers to volunteer as mentors for young entrepreneurs—are successfully moving online. After extensive research, NMM now runs its virtual mentorship program on the Everwise platform, which allows mentors and mentees to register their offerings and expectations, onboard, match, and manage their relationships over the course of a year. At the first online mentor-mentee meetings, trained facilitators help build rapport in ways that help reduce power imbalances, build trust, nurture friendship, and open communication.

  5. Sharing Business Model Pivots in the Low-Touch Economy: Ecosystem builders such as the Board of Innovation have begun documenting business model pivots showing how entrepreneurs are moving toward the “low-touch economy.” Entrepreneurship support organizations can serve as a sounding board for their cohorts by sharing COVID-related business pivots from around the world. For example, at a recent Kosmos Innovation Center virtual meetup, agritech startup ProFish—which offers an “Uber Eats for Fish” model in Ghana—shared three recent pivots: shifting from tilapia to seafood due to supply chain disruptions; moving from restaurant delivery to home deliveries; and investing in high-quality photos to document the protective gear its staff are using, as a way of reassuring customers. Similarly, the YBTT accelerator in Trinidad and Tobago has been sharing its learnings on how alumni in the agribusiness sector have been thriving by offering curbside food deliveries.

The post-COVID era will be shaped by new consumer habits, modes of engagement, industry dynamics, regulations, and geopolitical landscapes. Helping entrepreneurs and SMEs to design and implement strategies that address immediate needs will instill the adaptability tools and resiliency mindset required to thrive in this new world.