Charting a Path Forward: reflections on initial steps toward advancing equity in innovation & entrepreneurship


Welcome! We’re glad you’re here.

For the past 25 years, VentureWell has been working to support creative, early-stage innovators on their journeys to take bold ideas from concept to scalable impact.

This publication is a step toward digging deeper into both the innovator’s journey and our own. It focuses on lessons learned, struggles, and ongoing opportunities to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in three areas of VentureWell’s work: 

  • programmatic activities within our flagship Entrepreneur Team (E-Team) program, which provides support for teams of early-stage, US-based student innovators through grants, training, coaching, and networking;
  • organizational culture and practices, including our “messy chapter one” efforts to take on this work, as well as our staff-driven engagement and learning activities, short- and longer-term organizational commitments, and enhancements to internal policies and practices; and 
  • field-building, including defining our role as a “convener-participant” in this work and seeking frequent feedback from and collaboration with experts in the field who bring equity work to life in many different contexts and communities. 

We see this as the beginning of a conversation, and welcome your perspectives on what we’ve shared.

Author's Note

In early 2019, VentureWell embarked on a journey to build more equitable and inclusive pathways to innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) for students in science and technology (S&T). Since 1995, we have been working on the leading edge of I&E to cultivate and support inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs who are driven to solve the world’s biggest challenges and to create lasting impact in fields such as biotechnology, healthcare, energy, and materials. In providing grants and training to thousands of student innovators and higher education faculty members, VentureWell has supported thousands of individuals across the US and has helped to bring groundbreaking technological advancements to millions of people in more than 90 countries.

Yet when it came to equity and inclusion, VentureWell’s efforts were not initially comprehensive, closely coordinated, or grounded in a cohesive theory of action at the organizational level. We were also aware of our own limitations—as a small, US-based, white-led, nonprofit organization and with staff located primarily in a majority white, semi-rural region, we knew that this work would require significant learning and co-creation. With the support of The Lemelson Foundation, our long-term partner in cultivating and supporting student inventors in higher education, VentureWell set forth to increase its ability to implement more equitable and inclusive program opportunities, with a particular focus on piloting strategies within our E-Team program for early-stage innovators. The work also focused on identifying, synthesizing, and sharing strategies and solutions to advance equity within the field of higher education I&E. Over time, it further evolved to include a focus on identifying strengths, gaps, and opportunities for improvement within our organizational culture, including new actions to enable collective staff learning and development.

This publication aims to distill and share key lessons and recommendations borne from VentureWell’s past two years of tests, trials, failures, and successes in striving to advance equity and inclusion. Like many other organizations that have taken on this work, we have encountered stumbling blocks and stopping points in these efforts—sometimes self-generated, sometimes due to externalities—and have worked to lean into the principles of I&E to fail quickly, to engage in frequent customer discovery, and to rapidly pivot and iterate. We have dedicated intentional capacity to this work, have dug deep into our organizational norms and ways of being, and have done a whole lot of listening.

We have dedicated intentional capacity to this work, have dug deep into our organizational norms and ways of being, and have done a whole lot of listening.

We are proud of the progress that has been made and equally humbled by the opportunities that lie ahead. We hope this content will resonate with our peers, our colleagues, and members of our I&E network—whether you are beginning, expanding, or scaling diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in your own organization or community. We are also deeply grateful to the many field experts and collaborators who have shared their time, insights, and lived experiences to help us learn, improve, and grow. Finally, we welcome feedback, questions, and ideas; please reach out to me and my colleagues at to share your perspectives.

In collaboration,
Shaheen Mamawala
Director, Planning & Partnerships

Background and Framing Assets

This publication is informed by two primary assets, the first of which is VentureWell’s 2020 report, Advancing Equity: Dynamic Strategies for Authentic Engagement in Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Advancing Equity report). In 2019, VentureWell engaged the firm Quality Evaluation Designs (QED) to conduct a study focused on identifying promising practices and existing efforts to broaden participation in higher education S&T I&E. The study was grounded in the reality that the current composition of students in STEM programs is not representative of the diversity of our society, and that this is due to entrenched systemic inequities that constrain innovation, denying and silencing the ideas and voices of some groups of people while simultaneously accelerating others from majority groups. At VentureWell, we work to amplify the voices and access of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people; individuals from all backgrounds who identify as female; individuals from low-income backgrounds, and people who are otherwise stereotyped or marginalized based on aspects of their identity.

At VentureWell, we work to amplify the voices and access of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people; individuals from all backgrounds who identify as female; individuals from low-income backgrounds, and people who are otherwise stereotyped or marginalized based on aspects of their identity.

The QED team collected field data by conducting an environmental scan, reviewing with an equity lens the websites of 100 I&E programs that had been recognized as promoting equity and inclusion, and interviewing 65 student innovators and 24 I&E program directors from across both higher education and national nonprofit organizations. The vast majority of people interviewed identified as being from one or more underrepresented groups in S&T I&E; further details on QED’s data collection can be found in Appendix B of the Advancing Equity report.

Based on these inputs, the report presented a set of six interrelated action areas— collectively, a blueprint for university-based I&E centers and programs that are working to broaden participation among underrepresented groups. Since summer 2020, VentureWell has presented the report at I&E conferences and has partnered with equity and inclusion field experts on a series of blog articles and online Community Conversations to dig deeper into individual action areas. Further, the report created an opportunity for VentureWell to reflect on its own efforts to live out the action areas, both within our programmatic work to support early-stage innovators, as well as in the context of action area six, which focuses on developing a holistic organizational approach to equity and inclusion. 

Additionally, beginning in fall 2020 as part of a broader strategic planning process, we began to articulate the ways in which our organizational equity and inclusion activities are interconnected, both by codifying our current and near-term activities and by clarifying our intended outcomes over time. This publication therefore focuses on three interrelated areas: programmatic activities, organizational culture and practices, and field-building. In order to capture lessons, reflections, and opportunities within each of these focus areas, in early 2021 we held three facilitated conversations with 13 stakeholders from across five different internal teams at VentureWell. The conversations were guided by Fourth Quadrant Partners, LLC’s Emergent Learning framework, which aims to illuminate important stories, defining moments, data, patterns, and insights within a given body of work, in order to generate hypotheses, opportunities, goals, and future actions. These rich conversations enabled our staff to reflect deeply and holistically in order to identify the themes and recommendations detailed in this publication. 

¹Institute of Medicine (2015). Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science & Technology Talent at the Crossroads. Available at: 

Programmatic Activities

One of the primary opportunities for VentureWell to test and iterate strategies and solutions for advancing equity was within its Entrepreneur Team (E-Team) grant program, which provides support for teams of early-stage, US-based student innovators through staged grants, training, one-on-one coaching, and peer networking. These grants have existed since VentureWell’s inception in the mid-1990s and have supported more than 650 student teams. Our staff who deliver and support the E-Team program identified multiple areas of learning and opportunity for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion; these were grounded in experience, E-Team program participant feedback, and the Advancing Equity report’s six action areas.

Conducting Authentic Outreach

Action area one in the Advancing Equity report frames the question “why would I go if I’m not invited?” Using this question as a guidepost, along with existing internal knowledge and conducting customer discovery with higher education faculty and staff to identify challenges, needs, and goals with regard to I&E, VentureWell developed individual archetypes to inform tailored outreach. Objectives for this approach included raising awareness of VentureWell programming at institutions and populations we aim to serve more effectively—including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), and students from underrepresented groups who attend predominantly white institutions (PWIs)—and to invite a more diverse pool of E-Team grant applicants and workshop participants.

VentureWell staff reflected that there had not yet been a “seismic shift” in the pipeline of teams applying and that another key strategy for meaningfully changing the range of identities represented by E-Team workshop participants must come from forming partnerships that help to increase the reach and scope of more authentic outreach. Two such collaborations launched in early 2021: a Social Innovation Challenge with Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) and Verizon to support innovators with technology solutions for immersive education, health equity, and climate justice; and a partnership with Black Tech Ventures to promote entrepreneurial leadership and accelerate venture formation among Black technology innovators. We anticipate that these emergent partnerships will soon provide additional data, lessons, and opportunities. 

VentureWell also seeks to ensure that we are not inadvertently perpetuating closed loops in our own program outreach. We plan to conduct further analysis to better understand the limitations of our current outreach efforts and who is and is not opting into our communications, and to identify additional mechanisms and tools for driving program awareness and interest at scale. Staff also expressed the value of “being honest with ourselves about when we are and are not the best messenger” for reaching a given population or community—having learned from our Advancing Equity report that authentic outreach grounded in shared identities and lived experiences is often most compelling to students.

Programmatic and Curricular Enhancements

A second testing and learning area for VentureWell has been programmatic and curricular enhancements within the E-Team program. In 2019, the program introduced a new Qualification Phase which offers students a low-barrier path to pre-apply with a short executive summary application and without an institutional VentureWell membership requirement. This approach may have impacted the total number of applications for our Stage 1 E-Team grants: compared with an average of 130 per year from 2017 to 2019, we received 199 Stage 1 applications in 2020 and 163 in 2021. Through systematic collection of insights from Qualification Phase applications—over 50% of which came from teams that identified as minority-led—we learned that the opportunity to receive feedback from VentureWell through this phase often supported an ensuing Stage 1 application.

Over 50% of Qualification Phase proposals came from teams that identified as minority-led.

VentureWell also experimented with enhancements to E-Team training program content, including updated workshop pre-work readings about diversity, equity, and inclusion and team values, and an introductory session that articulates our commitment to advancing equity. During the workshop, program participants have also been invited to consider and share their values, from both an individual and a team perspective. Additionally, the online workshop format necessitated by COVID-19 travel restrictions enabled both a higher volume and a more diverse, more geographically distributed set of guest mentors participating in the program. These shifts have allowed VentureWell staff to create more participant alignment at the start of the workshop and additional opportunities for participants to see themselves in the people at the front of the room, tactics that can be replicated when in-person programming resumes. Still, VentureWell staff said they see an opportunity to “think a bit bigger.” Looking forward, they plan to test modifications in more aspects of the curriculum and to think more about ways to support teams whose innovations specifically address inequity in the context of a particular policy area and/or community.

Staff also highlighted participant feedback as a way to continue making rapid improvements, expressing gratitude to an E-Team cohort member who offered direct critique about ways in which the pre-work did not resonate with them as a person of color. This feedback led to internal VentureWell discussion and quick action to make that content more inclusive in the next workshop. “We stumbled and we tried to learn from that and do better,” one staff member said, “and were able to follow up with the participant to…show that we were taking that [feedback] really seriously.” In a follow up exchange, the participant expressed appreciation for the changes, sharing that they had provided similar feedback in other spaces and it had not always been well received.

Evaluation and Data Collection

Two additional areas of reflection focused on enhancements to program evaluation tools and to the collection of demographic data. Recently, VentureWell updated its E-Team participant survey to focus on “deeper insights to inform what course corrections we need to take.” Staff reflected that there may be additional value in coupling the post-workshop survey with the offer of a conversation to account for different participant preferences and to capture more voices and perspectives. Staff also noted that using VentureWell’s internal Action Planning Tool, a resource used by VentureWell programs and teams to engage in intentional, regular conversations about how to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion into their work, had successfully created “the space to evaluate [both our] intentions and impact.” However, they noted that the number of rapid, simultaneous program enhancements had also made it hard to isolate the benefits—and the shortcomings—of individual strategies.

VentureWell has been collecting demographic data on the individuals participating in E-Team workshops since 2016. Staff reflected on challenges regarding how to report on these data with the appropriate context, and how to accurately present a full picture of a given team and its members during the inherently dynamic and evolving startup phase. Specifically, they noted that workshop participants and team members often change as the venture develops and grows, and that teams persist through the different stages of the E-Team program at varying paces and with varying rates of success. Another challenge is in the current approach to collecting applicant-level data. Typically, one person submits information on the team’s behalf, which can make it difficult to assure accuracy in capturing and assessing data at this stage.

VentureWell has also grappled with how to aggregate and present comprehensive, program-level metrics. For example, women are traditionally underrepresented in S&T; therefore, stating an overall metric around participation of underrepresented groups in the program may be overinflated when high levels of women participate, and may simultaneously mask a low rate of underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities among the same group of participants. We also recognize that socio-economic status is an important intersectional identity marker; however, we do not yet have an approach for collecting data on this area. VentureWell is actively working to update its systems to more accurately collect and report both applicant and participant data, and to use these data effectively in program monitoring and evaluation efforts; we recognize that this remains a limitation and is an opportunity area for advancing equity and inclusion. 

Further Opportunity Areas

A number of other programmatic opportunity areas emerged from the discussion. These include: 

  • further connecting equity and inclusion strategies being tested within the E-Team program to efforts in VentureWell’s Faculty Grants program area, given the role that faculty members frequently play in recommending and mentoring E-Teams;
  • identifying and testing I&E support activities at the higher education institution level to raise awareness of the E-Team program and encourage more student teams from underrepresented groups to consider applying, and 
  • piloting affinity groups for program participants and alumni to come together around shared identities and interests.

² Note: VentureWell also found that the vast majority of stakeholders who provided feedback on our Advancing Equity report in 2020 provided rich insights when offered space for a conversation, but shared limited responses when asked to send written feedback.

Organizational Culture and Practices

A second area of opportunity for VentureWell to advance equity and inclusion was a deeper and more intentional focus on organizational practices and culture change. Staff noted that while some of these efforts had begun prior to the start of The Lemelson Foundation’s award, they were also inextricably linked to the other aspects of VentureWell’s equity work. We appreciate the Foundation’s interest in and support of organizational efforts alongside our programmatic and field-building work; this has provided the opportunity for VentureWell to truly ‘develop a holistic organizational approach,’ as framed in action area six in our Advancing Equity report.

“Messy Chapter One”

In reflecting on its still very much in process organizational journey, VentureWell staff first discussed initial efforts to take on diversity, equity, and inclusion work beginning in mid-2018. They described this period as “the recognition that we were a majority white organization with a lot of work we needed to do,” a time of “best intentions [and] unintended stumbles…that set us back for a while,” and a set of periodic activities that both “broke the ice” and signaled for some staff that “it’s going to be scary and uncomfortable” to do this work. The engagement of an external consultant in 2018 was named as both an important first organizational commitment and as an approach that was ultimately challenging because all-staff engagements with the consultant felt “intense and scattershot,” and because VentureWell lacked the internal mechanisms and capacity to support staff in between these dedicated activities.

These dynamics led to unforeseen and unintentional challenges, including many staff feeling ill-equipped to “understand what [the consultant] was trying to help us see and navigate through as an organization,” and the fact that early conversations would often “veer away from race and tackle other things” such as ways to improve collaboration or interpersonal dynamics. The group also noted that these challenges created points of lost credibility among leadership in taking on this work. One staff member said that, in retrospect, presenting this time period as a true “messy Chapter One” might have enabled the staff to feel more prepared and comfortable to dwell in uncertainty as opposed to looking for clear guidance and plans that did not yet exist. 

Related to the above, VentureWell staff also reflected on the organizational hesitancy at times to charge forward into a body of work that felt inherently dynamic and messy. “With this work comes this feeling of wanting to do it right the first time,” one staff member noted, “and it’s hard to experiment and pilot things when it feels like such a heavy topic.” Staff also reflected on aspects of organizational culture that created additional barriers, including an “often self-imposed perfectionism that…can lead to over-thinking and over-questioning,” and an “urgency to get it right and move fast” that was a hallmark of “swimming in our own white culture.” These undercurrents led to misalignment in tactical activities, such as creating organizational definitions around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and resulted in a wide spectrum of internal interpretations around VentureWell’s overall intentions and efforts. One staff member summarized this dichotomy by saying, “if for one person, this work [to advance equity] means ‘let’s blow up the whole system’ and for someone else it means, ‘let’s translate this flyer into Spanish,’ it isn’t surprising that we struggled for a while.”

Staff-Driven Engagement and Learning

Despite these difficulties, VentureWell staff agreed that a number of successes and bright spots had also emerged from early cross-organizational efforts. One such moment was the launch of VentureWell’s first affinity group in early 2019, for staff members who identify as people of color. Staff noted that this group was quickly recognized and supported by leadership, and that it enabled a shared, brave space for its eight founding members to come together, identify common goals, and engage directly with different areas of the organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. In late 2020, a second affinity group for staff members who identify as LGBTQIA+ launched; descriptions of both groups, which have continued to expand their membership over time, are now highlighted on VentureWell’s “Join our Team” page.

Another significant “pivot point” was the introduction of regular, opt-in staff conversations on race and racism, which began in June 2020 and have continued at least once per month since. Multiple staff members identified the first shared staff experience, which took place shortly after the murder of George Floyd, as a particularly important turning point. This virtual conversation was hosted by a Black staff member who spoke to his lived experience and the impacts of systemic racism, both in the context of VentureWell’s work and across the county. Participants then viewed a video that showed a black screen with a timer and the transcript of the few words spoken during the eight minutes and 46 seconds in which Officer Derek Chauvin murdered Mr. Floyd. Afterward, the group transitioned to virtual breakout rooms for shared space and small group discussion. One staff member commented that “the conversations that began in those breakout rooms were wildly different, much more authentic…than we had experienced in the past year and a half of doing intentional work;” another commented that in this setting, “people actually started to open up and talk and take action.”

Following this first conversation, a bi-monthly, staff-led series launched to explore different topics related to race and racism; these topics included intersectionality, white fragility, race and gender, empathy, and the role of the media and popular culture in shaping public opinion. VentureWell staff identified a number of ways in which these conversations had worked well, including by enabling individuals to connect both personally and professionally to equity and inclusion work. The conversations were also hosted by an array of staff members who had different roles, lived experiences, and perspectives; there was designated space created for these conversations to take place within the work day, and there was a low threshold to participate that was enhanced by a virtual format. While staff noted there was hesitation from some people to opt in at the beginning of the series, particularly among staff members from dominant identity groups who expressed they “wanted to come and wanted to listen but didn’t want their quietness to unsettle anyone [or to] take up air time,” this shifted noticeably by late 2020 as the series became a normalized part of organizational culture.

Active Commitment and Support From Leadership

A third identified pivot point was a deepened level of engagement from the VentureWell executive team, both individually and collectively, in having challenging conversations about internal culture issues and ways to address diversity, equity, and inclusion gaps. Specifically, after remarks from leadership during an All-Staff meeting about “the indirect connection between systemic racism and VentureWell’s work” landed with multiple staff members as “somewhat tone deaf and inauthentic,” the executive team was both receptive to that feedback and recognized that this reaction meant “[we] have to figure out what’s happening here.” Beginning in summer 2020, VentureWell leadership also met multiple times with representatives of the affinity group for staff members of color—an engagement that has continued and become a regularly scheduled touchpoint. During summer 2020, the executive team also made new immediate commitments, such as recognizing Juneteenth as a VentureWell holiday, and have named longer term goals such as enabling staff to have the capacity to pursue equity and inclusion work as part of their roles. Staff described these efforts as validating, both in the midst of the collective racial reckoning of 2020 and as a signal of forward momentum, ongoing organizational commitment, and “a sense of safety.”

Staff described these efforts as validating, both in the midst of the collective racial reckoning of 2020 and as a signal of forward momentum, ongoing organizational commitment, and “a sense of safety.”

Recruitment and Hiring

A final, more tactical area of organizational learning and improvement at VentureWell was in a series of enhancements made to recruitment and hiring. A first success was the early recognition of the need for an internal People and Culture position, which one staff member described as a critical step toward “creating the opportunity for diversity, equity, and inclusion work to happen transformationally from within the organization.” Starting in 2020, VentureWell took on a number of additional enhancements, such as including updated equity language in all job descriptions, highlighting more flexible work locations, refreshing the Join our Team web page with more inclusive images and content, and including questions about advancing equity at each stage of the interview process. As part of the People and Culture function, we are also in the process of reviewing and updating our employee handbook through an equity lens, and continue to engage in an annual pay equity analysis conducted by an external consultant.

Future Opportunities

Staff identified additional opportunity areas in which to deepen organizational culture and practice efforts. These include: 

  • building upon current recruitment and hiring enhancements to focus on additional strategies at the staff onboarding stage, through enhanced training and support for managers, and in performance management processes, and 
  • making changes to policies and practices to remove barriers and center equity: one recent shift included a new approach to award organization-wide bonuses equally, based on the average salary of all VentureWell staff as opposed to individuals’ salaries.

Looking Ahead

In coming to the conclusion of a key phase in our ongoing journey to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, VentureWell is poised to continue momentum in a way that is grounded in both the challenges and accomplishments of our past. The opportunity provided by The Lemelson Foundation to explore, test, fail, and iterate has been deeply impactful, helping us both to crystallize the ways in which this work intertwines across multiple strategic areas of organizational focus and to spot and pursue opportunities for new and deepened partnership and collaboration. Such collaboration has indeed been sparked—both within VentureWell itself and with others in the field who bring their passion, energy, and expertise to equity and inclusion work.

A further, particularly resonant theme across our internal reflections on all three interrelated areas was the concept of “committing to imperfection”—to recognize that we have both accomplished things and still have much work to do; that this work is “alive” and will continue to be influenced by externalities in the world as well as the culture and dynamics at play within our own, often virtual, walls. One staff member expressed that at this point, “it feels like we have enough evidence and examples and real testimonials…[so] how do we capitalize upon that, give space for others to engage with it, and then how do we just continue to build?”

With that in mind, we hope the recounting of our stories, reflections, and struggles is helpful, resonant, and perhaps validating. Whether you are beginning, evolving, expanding, or scaling your efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, we look forward to your feedback, your questions, and your partnership! Please get in touch with us at—we’re excited to connect and learn alongside you.

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