Editor’s note: This content was sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation but independently produced by Startland News.
Curiosity took Erin Jenkins to Japan. Curiosity brought her home.
In between, she embedded herself in the worlds of intercultural entrepreneurism and startup life — her journey aligning itself with an opportunity to serve as a program officer at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Jenkins said.
“I was lucky to arrive in the ecosystem at the time I did because there’s so much infrastructure, community and civic support already built,” she said of joining Kauffman’s efforts in 2017. “We’re now trying to uncover gaps in the market. Who’s not getting served? How can we find the best programs to serve those individuals? How well is the ecosystem working together?”
Jenkins’ own background helps inform her challenging role within grant making and programs at Kauffman, as the philanthropic foundation’s strategy is applied to its Kansas City portfolio via local organizations, she said.
“You gain valuable insight when you’ve been in it yourself,” Jenkins said, referencing her time as CEO of Nimblebot in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s helpful to understand the programs necessary for the entrepreneur, as well as the larger ecosystem and the entrepreneur support organizations. We’re serving so many end users. At different points of the entrepreneur’s journey — from starting up to really scaling — there is a lot of information needed. The more we can get entrepreneurs the right programming and the right content at the right time, the healthier our ecosystem is and the more entrepreneurs we can get to thrive in Kansas City.”
A passport to understanding
A Springfield, Missouri, native, Jenkins followed family tradition and moved to Kansas City in 1999 for college. But she had yearned since her teenage years to travel abroad.
“My granny went to William Jewell, my cousins went to William Jewell, and I played basketball there,” she said, noting college athletics kept her too busy for global adventures during her early 20s. “But then basketball actually took me to Japan.”
An opportunity after she graduated shifted Jenkins’ life, she said, as she took a three-year stint teaching and coaching in the land of the rising sun.
“Japan was culturally very different, but I was working in a field I knew very well,” Jenkins said. “I coached boys high school basketball, and that was an interesting experience in and of itself. But we won the prefectural title in 2005, and went to the national tournament. There were a lot of successes — but now that I’m in the entrepreneurial world, I realize there were also a lot of failures, a lot of trial and error too.”
A new language and seemingly simple tasks like going to the grocery store in Nagasaki and even getting on a bus proved humbling, she said.
“There were a lot of moments of small failure for me personally that ended up being big successes,” she said. “I think developmentally, it formed in me a really good mindset that those experiences are valuable for creating a life in the world — especially one that’s different from where you’re from.”
She found intense contrasts in culture as well, Jenkins said.
“I learned a lot about the expression of cultural values in Kansas City versus Japan. It’s not better; it’s not worse; it’s just different,” she said. “I use this example a lot: We have an idiom that ‘The squeaky wheel gets the oil,’ but there’s an idiom in Japan that ‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.’’
Accessing the strengths of both cultures opened her eyes to greater understanding and potential for personal and professional growth, Jenkins said.
“I was really fascinated by the human story being similar, but told through different cultural expressions, languages and approaches,” she said. “There’s always a little bit of inherent tension, but if you have any sort of curiosity, there’s so much potential in exploring those avenues. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”
A new lens
Returning to the United States for graduate school in 2009, Jenkins studied intercultural relations at Lesley University in Boston. She joined a nonprofit specializing in teacher training institutes for educators in North Africa and the Middle East. She traveled to such locales as Morocco and Jordan to continue exploring mindsets and cultural orientations previously unknown to her.
But when the U.S. State Department-backed program lost its funding, Jenkins found herself facing a new path.
A program manager position at Babson College opened the door to learning about entrepreneurism, she said, noting that among her duties was establishing programming with faculty to take students and MBA undergrads to other countries to study entrepreneurship and ecosystems across the globe.
“So I got to go back to Japan, which was really cool because I was seeing it through the entrepreneurship lens, rather than my view as a 23-year-old teaching English and coaching basketball,” she said.
It was a business scene that diverged from what she’d seen at home, Jenkins said.
“Japan is not very risk-tolerant, so entrepreneurism looks very different. There’s higher regulation, there’s barriers to entry that look different than ours. There’s a societal pressure to get a job, stay at a safe company and rise up through the ranks,” she said. “They have a burgeoning entrepreneur community right now, but there’s less acceptance for taking risks.”
“I’m proud that in the States we’ve developed a culture where tolerance is higher — not the highest, but higher — for going out on a limb, having an idea and putting it all on the line, and figuring out how to make it a reality,” Jenkins added.
A risk and return home
Back in Boston, she was presented with a risky opportunity of her own, Jenkins said.
“I was on the edge of getting my MBA when a good friend of mine said, ‘Hey. I have these two companies. I don’t have time to run both, but if you really want to learn what it’s like in startup land, come help me run one of my startups,’” she recalled.
Jenkins made the leap, taking the helm of Nimblebot, a design and animation company that made explainer videos for nonprofits, startups, and government contracts, until 2017.
“Running a startup sparked more passion and an interest in understanding how this opportunity for entrepreneurship is given,” she said, reflecting on her own serendipity-rich journey. “My life had to line up in a very specific way to get the opportunity at Nimblebot. The economic impact of more people having this kind of opportunity — where they can build wealth and opportunity for others in this country — is amazing.’”
The Kauffman Foundation provides Jenkins an outlet to explore such issues of curiosity, opportunity and access, she said, as well as providing her with a way to help.
“There’s a narrative in entrepreneurship that you just need capital. Of course, you need that, but you also need a lot of other things,” Jenkins said. “Entrepreneurs are at different phases, in different industries. There’s so much variation between tech and Main Street. When you say ‘entrepreneurship,’ everyone has a different definition and orientation for the word because of their own background and experience.”
“It’s like coaching in another country,” she added. “Language, cultural orientation, even drawing up and executing a play … It’s all different in different contexts.”