The Building Blocks of a Creative Economy

Alice Loy, Margaret Collins in downtown Winston-Salem.

Margaret Collins is as focused as they come. She’s known for connecting entrepreneurs, investors, governmental leaders, and businesses, and putting together workshops and seminars designed to support folks who create their own companies. And lucky for Winston-Salem, because, like many cities, it’s working to redefine itself.

Nearly halfway between Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, Winston-Salem is a city of around 240,000, with another 240,000 residents plus an international airport in neighboring Greensboro. Both are about halfway between the larger metropolises of Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, but their economic paths are fast diverging from other parts of the state.

After decades of being home to Big Tobacco and industrial manufacturing, Winston-Salem is creating a different path. They’re positioned to write a new chapter in their economic story. And Margaret Collins may well turn out to be one of the heroes of that story.

But to understand the transition you also have to know a little bit of history. With a deep tradition in both agricultural and industrial economies, by the 1940’s over 60% of Winston-Salem’s population was employed by RJ Reynolds (tobacco) or Hanes (textiles manufacturing). Things have changed significantly since then, and today that number is less than 10%.

Instead, the majority of the city’s 240,000 now work in health and human services.  The city has shifted from agriculture and manufacturing into the creative industries - dubbing itself the “City of the Arts and Innovation,” with a lively downtown area bustling with locally owned coffee shops, restaurants and art galleries.

Regional economic development leaders, university department chairs, and philanthropic organizations know that building the jobs for the future requires investing in an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Which can be a daunting process - and one that requires patience and persistence.  Sometimes regions turn to us for guidance in shaping their creative economy ecosystem.  And the first thing we say is: invest in entrepreneurs and the people who support them.

Which is how we came to know Margaret Collins.  Margaret is the founder of the Center for Creative Economy, based in Winston-Salem.  She reached out to Creative Startups to explore the idea of launching a startup accelerator in “the Dash” that would serve the southeastern US.  Over several months Margaret met with city leaders, gained the support of the Kenan Institute for the Arts, made inroads across UNC’s campus, and by the first of the year was ready to move forward with Creative Startups.  Throughout it all, her Board of Directors rallied by her side and together they have created a vision for city leaders that both inspires and offers practical approaches.

Though they might not have known it, the team at Center for Creative Economy was already following the advice of someone halfway across the country - Brad Feld, an entrepreneur and investor who’s been developing an ecosystem for startups in Boulder for nearly 20 years.

Feld is a founder and managing director at the Foundry Group. A successful venture capitalist, Brad is perhaps most well known for his successes in helping Boulder becomes a startup hotspot.  Brad describes his approach with his “Boulder Thesis”, which has proven useful to multiple regions developing entrepreneurial ecosystems, and has been studied by the Kauffman Foundation.

At the heart of the Boulder Thesis, there are four core tenets:

1) Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community;

2) The leaders must have a long-term commitment;

3) The startup community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it;

4) The startup community must have continual activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.

While there is naturally some variation in different regions, the Boulder Thesis shows up in a strong way in North Carolina where Margaret is doing her work, and there are many roles to play…


The main focus of an entrepreneur is growth. Building a team and culture that drives innovation and grows the capabilities and revenue of the company is what it’s all about. Or as Adam Breckler, cofounder of San Francisco-based design marketplace Visually, points out: growth is a team sport.

Margaret is one of those entrepreneurs who is focused on growth, building a new endeavor that will in turn support other  entrepreneurs. Importantly, in her region the universities and economic development leaders recognize that they can only do so much; regional leaders are investing in an entrepreneur who will multiply the effect through her direct work with other, growth  focused creative entrepreneurs.

Part of her work involves being inclusive of a range of creative entrepreneurs whose backgrounds, ethnicities, educational  attainment, and startup experience vary. And, the Center for Creative Economy also hosts and coordinates a number of regular events: Swerve, Triad Design Leadershop, Innovation Workshops, and more. Now that she’s bringing the Creative Startups Accelerator to Winston-Salem, she’ll be able to more strongly highlight the job creation potential of the creative industries, and help to celebrate the role of entrepreneurs as economic catalysts.

Local and Regional Level Economic Development

The mayor of Winston-Salem, leading philanthropic funders, corporate sponsors and higher education are also making multi-year  commitments to support the Center for Creative Economy’s new initiatives.

Part of the role of economic development leaders is to physically and financially support growth via enterprises like the Center for  Creative Economy. For government, there’s an additional role that involves being willing to act quickly to do things like facilitate zoning changes, and transportation upgrades. The British Creative Council is another example of an organization that works across regions to support the building of a creative economy.


Another important group is investors. Investors help to feed the ecosystem, and ideally have a supportive relationship with the  creative community, and should be looking for the creativity and ideas to turn into companies.

Focusing on finding the best, most viable businesses that are already using their creativity to drive economic growth (and make money) is the most critical part of the investor’s role.

Service providers

Service providers can help give creative entrepreneurs the basics, and get started. This can include people who provide law, accounting, recruiting, and marketing assistance. This can include fee based services but may also focus on trade value or equity that are more valuable as creative companies grow.

Large companies

While large companies aren’t always directly involved with startups in the creative economy, they can help provide convening space and resources for entrepreneurs.

Sponsoring design challenges, workshops, and customer development workshops are all examples of things that give large companies access to talent over time, and increase their innovation capabilities. Dell’s PowerMore program provides a good example of how to do this well.

As cities and regions across the world adapt to a global, and more creative, economy where talent flows across borders and industries become bygones almost overnight, entrepreneurs remain a strong asset in which to invest your resources.  Endowed with uncommon drive, market aptitude, and an adaptive reflex at every juncture, entrepreneurs stay ahead of the game.

And just as compelling is that creative entrepreneurs may be an even smarter investment than investing in entrepreneurs in other sectors.  With the creative economy growing by leaps and bounds, startups that focus on creative industries are leading economic revitalization in regions like North Carolina. Though she’s modest about her own contributions, that’s what makes someone like Margaret Collins such a huge force in and around Winston-Salem.

Who are the heroes in your community?  And, how can we help them build a creative entrepreneur ecosystem?  

Alice Loy is a Co-founder of Creative Startups, and has researched the creative industries for 15+ years. She has lived and worked in Europe, Mexico, Central America, and Native America, designed and taught university level courses ranging from Social Entrepreneurship to Environmental Ethics, and holds an MBA and PhD in Strategic Communication and Entrepreneurship.