Taking Action for Equity: Accelerating Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship

A message from Phil Weilerstein, CEO and President of VentureWell

inclusive innovation photo collage

June 9, 2022

Though great strides have been made in the last year to raise awareness of the need to advance racial equity, there remains much work to do. Black communities, Latinx communities, Asian communities, and other communities of color in the United States continue to face the compounding effects of escalating racial violence, the COVID-19 epidemic, and the increasingly pronounced impacts of environmental racism.

We believe that positive change can and will happen—and we are committed to continuing the work needed to achieve transformational change. We reaffirm our ongoing commitment to advancing equity: Inclusive innovation is crucial if we are to solve the world’s greatest challenges. Equity in the pathway to becoming a STEM innovator remains elusive, with rates of STEM participation of Black students remaining low at many institutions despite bright spots at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). Research has shown that in 2012, Black graduates only made up 4.2% of STEM degrees, a 66% underrepresentation. HBCUs and MSIs are critical to expanding STEM access and participation in communities of color: From 1995-2004, HBCUs graduated 46% of Black women with STEM degrees, and overall, 25% of Black innovators with STEM degrees graduated from HBCUs. By integrating equity into our work at the foundational level, we are hoping not only to provide an inclusive experience but to better able support student innovators who are developing solutions to issues that disproportionately impact communities of color.

Take Danielle Boyer, the founder and CEO of The STEAM Connection and the winner of the 2022 Sustainable Practice Impact Award. Boyer, an E-Team program alum, won the award for her exceptional work increasing access to STEM and robotics education opportunities for minority students, particularly Indigenous girls—with a mission of making technical education more accessible for this group. E-Team Hydronomy is also developing an innovation at the intersection of racial equity and environmental justice. They’ve created a solar-powered device that generates water from the air for use in homes that produces no carbon emissions. They are determined to help mitigate the drinking water crisis in predominantly Black cities like Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi, with broad applications beyond.

Over the past few years, we’ve also taken the time to deeply reflect on our progress, evaluate our efforts, and learn from our successes and mistakes. As in 2020 and 2021, we’ve collaborated with field experts to increase the accessibility of our programming to innovators from groups historically underrepresented in science and technology innovation and entrepreneurship, provide opportunities and resources to innovation ecosystem builders, and strengthen equity internally at VentureWell.

This is a long-term, ongoing journey: We will continue working towards achieving inclusivity and equity at VentureWell, in our programming, and in the broader innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Racial equity is at the core of VentureWell’s mission, and we remain committed to advancing equity across our organization, programs, and the wider I&E ecosystem.

Increasing access and lowering barriers in our programming

In 2021, we worked to evaluate our progress restructuring our programming and pursued new strategies to create equitable and inclusive opportunities for student innovators from underrepresented groups, including the development of the new Access pre-accelerator program and the launch of the Innovator Stipend Program, sponsored by Qualcomm.

  • Throughout the stages of the E-Team Grant program, we help students advance their inventions through a powerful combination of funding, training, mentorship, and networking with peers and industry experts. In 2019, we began offering the Qualification Phase, a pre-application step, with the objective of lowering barriers and increasing access of underrepresented students to the E-Team program—but the demographics we observed for accepted teams were not changing in the way we hoped. In response to these insights, we’ve designed the Access program, an introductory entrepreneurship program and curriculum that will be available both online and in-person. The core program includes courses, community, and coaching that help student innovators from underrepresented groups validate their concept, build a team, and prepare a competitive proposal for entrepreneurship programs and funding. This earliest stage of innovator programming is ideal for those just beginning to explore the commercial potential of a discovery or invention, who need both a practical overview of the commercialization process and focused guidance on key early steps in that process, such as developing a compelling value proposition and identifying the most appropriate market(s) for their innovation.
  • We launched the Innovator Stipend Program, sponsored by Qualcomm, to provide funding to innovators from low-income backgrounds so they have the resources they need to pursue their innovations. The program helped enable greater participation of students from low-income backgrounds by alleviating some of the financial burdens that often deter these students from pursuing their innovations. In the Fall 2021 pilot cycle, 19 innovators were selected to receive stipends of $1,500 to $4,000.
  • We have also integrated sustainable design principles in the workshop curricula for our Course & Program Grants and E-Team Grants programs. As we’ve seen in the work done by E-Teams Hydronomy and The STEAM Connection, racial equity and environmental sustainability are deeply linked. Interweaving innovation and entrepreneurial curriculum with the values of sustainable design is vital in ensuring that the solutions being designed today respect and protect people and the planet.

System-wide listening, learning, and sharing

In addition to the programmatic changes we’ve made to increase opportunities and access to innovators from underrepresented groups, we’ve developed new resources and shared learning spaces for the broader innovation ecosystem that engage the principles of equity and inclusion.

  • In August 2021, we developed the three-part Advancing Equity: Navigating New Terrain series in collaboration with innovation and equity experts from across the country. Navigating New Terrain included two assessment tools designed to facilitate deep and thoughtful conversations among staff about how to integrate equity into programmatic work, three essays from entrepreneurial educators centered on a pivotal moment that propelled each author into deeper engagement around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a student innovator pathway chart for faculty and other ecosystem builders.
  • We hosted the second round of our Community Conversations for Advancing Equity series, an interactive webinar series gathering equity leaders and the I&E education community for discussions on best practices to bolster equity initiatives in higher ed. These sessions were focused on the Navigating New Terrain series, welcoming 57 participants from across the country for dynamic conversations.
  • We partnered with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship to produce a webinar on our Advancing Equity: Navigating New Terrain series for their National Entrepreneurship Week conference in February. The webinar featured authors from Navigating New Terrain discussing strategies, resources, and promising practices for advancing equity in higher education.
  • The Beall Applied Innovation team at University of California, Irvine adapted our Advancing Equity: Dynamic Strategies for Authentic Engagement in Innovation and Entrepreneurship report as a framework to guide their efforts incorporating equity into their programming and structure. We published a profile of the Beall Applied Innovation team and they joined us at OPEN 2022 for a panel session on how they utilized our report to transform equity in their organization.
  • Equity was a major theme at the 2022 OPEN conference. We see our role in the I&E community as a “convener-participant”—gathering the I&E community for dynamic conversations and collaborations, synthesizing the learnings, and sharing insights and strategies with our network. At OPEN this year, we focused on providing space for the most exciting and urgent ideas, projects, and initiatives to transform equity in the innovation ecosystem.

Centering racial equity and inclusion and building our capacity

We’ve reimagined and restructured internal policies and workplace culture towards equity and learning.

  • Our themed monthly staff discussions on race are ongoing, and we’ve officially made Juneteenth a company holiday.
  • Equity and inclusion is a priority in our hiring process: Every VentureWell job description and interview process includes multiple touchpoints and space for discussion about lived experiences as well as the centering of diversity, equity, and inclusion into our work.
  • We have dramatically increased the reach of our job postings, and have intentionally built space into Vice President and Director level searches for role finalists to meet with members of VentureWell’s Staff of Color and LGBTQIA affinity groups.
  • We have recently hired our new Director of Inclusive Innovation, who joins VentureWell this summer. This role will build upon existing and create new programs and partnerships that center innovators who have been historically marginalized or excluded. This new role will lead VentureWell’s efforts to create a cohesive body of inclusive programmatic and field-leading work through leveraging existing programs, and developing partnerships with Minority Serving Institutions.
  • VentureWell’s executive team is currently working with an external consultant on the work needed to lead the organization through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The executive team as well as a group of staff members have engaged in a “Whiteness @ Work” series, leading to additional nuance and conviction around centering equity and unpacking issues of power and privilege.
  • VentureWell board members are actively engaged in equity-related initiatives. In March, we interviewed board member Dr. Gilda Barabino on her plans to expand access to scientific knowledge to under-resourced communities as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In January, we were thrilled to welcome Dr. Monica Dean to our board, and she was pivotal to our efforts to convene HBCU colleagues and stakeholders during OPEN 2022.

We have done this work in collaboration with a growing number of essential partners, including The Lemelson Foundation, Qualcomm, and the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship. We are deeply grateful to these partners for their support and engagement as we refined and worked towards our vision for an innovation ecosystem that is inclusive and sustainable.

As I said in my letter last year, we remain committed to owning our imperfection—acknowledging both the growth and success we’ve had in our equity work thus far and recognizing that there is still much work to do. We hope to share more about our process and learnings more frequently: In the next year, we will spotlight the work and thought leadership of VentureWell staff who are at the core of the transformational change we are enacting internally and beyond.

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