Editor’s note: This content was sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation but independently produced by Startland News.
When it comes to developing a startup, there’s no better training ground than a political campaign, Philip Gaskin said.
“You’re building movements of people to do extraordinary things,” said Gaskin, director of entrepreneurial communities and chief of staff for entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. “It’s the upside down pyramid, with the volunteers at the top of the pyramid. You’re listening to them, understanding what they’re interested in and how they want to help around an aligned mission to do amazing things — the amazing thing being the outcome of an election. … Each neighborhood is its own team and its own entrepreneurial being that grows and grows.”
The growth of an entrepreneurial or political movement is analogous to a phenomenon in nature, said Gaskin, who previously led campaign field offices for former President Obama in Southern California and Philadelphia, and served as deputy director for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s campaign in New Jersey.
Consider the creation of a snowflake: It yields something entirely unique by branching into new, different directions that multiply off its six main arms. Ultimately, a single water droplet transforms into something bigger and more beautiful than the initiating force, Gaskin said.
“You start with a neighborhood team, which starts with a team leader and then you get different volunteers to help. You could have a team of five and that team recruits more volunteers that then turns into other teams,” said Gaskin, who also served as the chief operating officer of Mission Hub, a global organization that fuels social operations. “Eventually, it just grows and grows. Each team is the snowflake, which spawns another and another. Before you know it, you have many, many neighborhood teams that are recruiting more volunteers that have been talking to more voters. They are ecosystems. Each team is an ecosystem, building a larger ecosystem within a neighborhood and a community and a city and the state and a nation when it comes to the mission and movement.”
Such an outlook is directly relatable to Gaskin’s work at the Kauffman Foundation. As director of entrepreneurial communities, Gaskin manages the portfolio of grants and initiatives that relate to the foundation’s goal of creating more effective entrepreneurial ecosystems. The grants and programs aim to boost new business formation, emerging business growth and overall entrepreneurial success in cities across the world.
Ultimately, he and his team aim to foster supportive communities that empower more successful entrepreneurs, Gaskin said. And an import aspect of that work entails the removal of obstacles — especially for underrepresented groups, he added.
“What we’re looking to do is create a new model of economic development inspired through entrepreneurship and to reduce barriers that get in the way of entrepreneurs starting businesses and succeeding in them,” said Gaskin. “So what are the specific systemic barriers that are getting in the way of aspiring entrepreneurs specifically women, people of color and other overlooked demographics?”
Through the “Zero Barriers” campaign, Gaskin and the foundation’s entrepreneurship team is focused on researching and eliminating the obstacles to pave the way for more prosperity. For instance, if minorities started and owned companies at the same rate as whites, the U.S. would have more than one million more businesses and up to an extra 9.5 million jobs, according to Kauffman Foundation data.
Startland News sat down with Gaskin at the foundation to learn more about him and his work. Here are some excerpts from that conversation:
What’s an influential book in your life?
“The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama. It’s about being in service to others. If you look at our strategy in entrepreneurship here at the foundation, it is about how can we provide tools and resources for individuals and communities to grow their ecosystems, and for them to start businesses and to succeed in them toward their economic independence. It’s not about the Kauffman Foundation being at the front of it. How can we provide the tools to collaboratively support that? And that’s where “The Art of Happiness” comes through. I’ll reread snippets of it once a year to make sure I’m being in service with selflessness.
What do you like doing for fun?
Traveling is my favorite thing overall. … I go every summer to see my friends in Germany. They’re 40 minutes north of Stuttgart in a town of 1,500 people and there’s nothing but fields. The first time I went to visit him, we took the dog for a walk down the street. An hour and a half later, we’ve gone through forests, through castle ruins and all these other things. … In the middle of the summer, the sun on that part of the Earth, the greens of the hills, the fields and the prairies — you’d think you’re on another planet.
Tell me about your enthusiasm around cars.
I like buying cars and keeping cars up, so I like vintage cars. And I love seeing the new technology in cars and the new styles, comparing notes with people and just being able to see a car go down the street and say ‘Oh yeah, that car has 4.0 (liter engine), and this and that. It’s a little bit on the geeky side, but it’s all right.
What’s been a favorite car of yours to drive?
Probably my friend’s Audi A6 on the Autobahn at 260 kilometers per hour (about 161 miles per hour). … He was like ‘Philip, you’re not going fast enough.’ German cars, the way they’re engineered, they settle down into the road the faster they go, so you don’t really know how fast you’re going until you actually see it.
You were previously the chief operating officer at Mission Hub. What was it like leading an organization with such a broad impact?
It was inspiring because as COO, what I was doing was coming up with systems and procedures that would enable and remove barriers for our social entrepreneurs that were in our impact hubs on a daily basis. How do we have better engagement platforms? Better communication platforms? How are our spaces designed that forced the best collisions and collaboration? … I loved that work and because I was also on the global strategic development team of Impact Hub, we were able to take best practices that we had and then open up impact hubs in developing areas in Africa and Latin America. It was very exciting work.
What did you learn from Mission Hub that you’re applying to your work at the Kauffman Foundation?
Understanding what the entrepreneur needs from a resource perspective and a support perspective to move from the idea phase all the way through to the operations and scale phase. It’s the understanding of the entrepreneur and what we do here obviously is ask how do we work to reduce barriers for entrepreneurs on a daily basis? Having that experience of thousands of social entrepreneurs from whom we’d get input all around the world about what are the barriers they are going through, how do we work to remove those. … That inspires the work here to just keep that flame on every day, knowing there’s that need.
Kauffman Foundation data shows that if minorities owned companies at the same rate as whites, the U.S. would have over one million more businesses and up to an extra 9.5 million jobs. What are your thoughts on addressing that challenge?
I’ve always been about challenges, and the bigger the challenge, the more I get excited. I moved to Philadelphia and started a movement from scratch to re-elect the president of the United States. I moved to Kansas City to help work on a model for inspiring new economic development. So that stat is daunting — it is. But that’s why the work in the market gaps area is so important. What’s inspiring is reducing the barriers that are getting in the way of those demographics so that they can start more employer businesses to employ people. That stat verifies and verifies the inspiration.