The students who participate in STEM innovation and entrepreneurship programs today do not represent the diversity in our society, due to entrenched systemic inequities that silence the ideas and voices of students from underrepresented groups (URGs) while amplifying those from majority groups. In this article series, we focus on the six areas for action presented in our report Advancing Equity: Dynamic Strategies for Authentic Engagement in Innovation and Entrepreneurship to address inequities in the field of science and technology (S&T) and innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E). In our second installment, we offer insights into creating inclusive spaces and building confidence. Read the first article and watch our community conversation on authentic outreach and mentorship.
why create inclusive spaces and build confidence?
As noted in our report, creating inclusive spaces and building confidence are twin strategies that can help bridge participation gaps in STEM I&E. Innovators from URGs do not assume that professional development environments will support them, and know that fewer people in a program will look like them than their mainly white, economically privileged, and male counterparts, or fully understand their experiences and perspectives, and respect their knowledge.
Self-efficacy—the belief one has in one’s ability to accomplish a task—is a powerful predictor of behavior. Early-stage innovators need confidence to participate in an entrepreneurship program, but students from URGs talked about having or needing confidence more frequently than those in the majority group because failure on the majority groups’ part reinforced stereotypes based on sexism, racism, and classism.
For insight into solutions, we spoke with experts in the field, including Meghna Mahadevan, tech equity and inclusion engineer with United We Dream; Danny Rojas, executive director at All Star Code; and Andres Wydler, executive director at StartOut. Please note that Mahadevan was with Kapor Center at the time of our interview, and also that while the recommendations in the report center on in-person interactions, many can be adapted to the current reality of online learning.
creating inclusive spaces: listen to students’ needs, promote story sharing, and cultivate safety
All early-stage entrepreneurs seek physical and psychological spaces where they feel safe and validated and can flourish. Our report highlights several ways to ensure innovators from URGs feel welcomed and supported in an entrepreneurship program.
Every marginalized community has slightly different needs, even if their end goal is similar: to learn about entrepreneurship. It’s important for institutions to be open to all perspectives and cater to different layers of identity. In our report, we note that programs can consider what hopes, concerns, or struggles students might be bringing with them to the experience. This can be done by paying attention to whether those struggles are voiced, and identifying ways to broadly name them and reinforce that they are normal and welcomed. At StartOut, Wydler pays attention to where participants are in their journey—in entrepreneurship and life. “There are different paths for different groups, for different geographies, for different industries. Listen to what they have to say,” he says. Listening for concerns or struggles can help program leaders tailor resources. Wydler suggests connecting participants with additional networks or resources they need to be successful. For example, StartOut launched an online platform to provide program participants with access to a strong support system of other LGBTQ entrepreneurs.
“There are different paths for different groups, for different geographies, for different industries. Listen to what they have to say.”Andres Wydler, executive director at StartOut
To further demonstrate that everyone’s experience is welcome, it’s useful for program instructors to share their own stories about personal hopes and struggles. Instructors who bring their “full self” encourage students to open up and bring their authentic self to the program experience. Sharing stories and providing time and space for full introductions and opportunities for students and instructors to share backgrounds and experiences creates an atmosphere of inclusion. Instructors can also motivate sharing by integrating students’ backgrounds into the curriculum. “At All Star Code, we want the kids to be really proud and unapologetic about telling their stories,” says Rojas. “The students that take advantage of the opportunity to build relationships and not be shy, to tell their story, to be forthright, are crushing it.”
Developing an inclusive program includes creating a safe space where people feel comfortable and supported when sharing their ideas, assumptions, and positions. Students who express concerns about the safety of I&E spaces are referring to their ability to participate fully—to express doubt, vulnerability, and ignorance—without being judged. Cultivating these safe spaces can particularly help students with intersecting identities unleash their hidden potential. “When we think about our programming, we know that there are other intersecting identities beyond black or brown, like being a woman or queer or trans or differently abled, which bring with them additional vulnerabilities,” says Mahadevan. Considering and planning to accommodate a broad range of identities will ensure all participants feel included.
building confidence: increase representation, promote individual development, and create low-risk environments
All early-stage innovators and entrepreneurs need confidence to flourish, but, as our report notes, students from URGs more frequently talked about having or needing confidence than their white peers. They worry that exhibiting inexperience or lack of knowledge may reinforce negative stereotypes about them based on systemic racism, sexism, and classism.
One of the most important ways to build students’ confidence is through representation. That means having program staff, facilitators, and trainers represent a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. If the staff is not yet diverse, invite consultants, guest speakers, and volunteers who more closely reflect the identities of the participants to share their experiences and expertise. Students from URGs will feel more confident in their own potential when they are represented in a position of power.
“It’s not just about seeing someone who’s checking you in or serving drinks,” says Mahadevan. “It’s the person who’s leading the event. It’s the person who’s the president or the director.”Meghna Mahadevan, tech equity and inclusion engineer with United We Dream
She adds that the Kapor Center is committed to addressing obstacles and barriers that URG communities face in terms of representation in the tech industry. “You will always see someone who looks like you in our programs,” Mahadevan says.
Promoting individual development is another significant factor in building confidence. In addition to learning about business practices and building startups, students can be instructed on how to approach problem-solving and given room to take risks. Instructors can affirm students’ questions as demonstrating curiosity and a thirst for learning, rather than as a lack of knowledge. At All Star Code, they actively identify areas or moments where students fail as a learning opportunity. “We’re just getting them ready to be persistent and to cultivate grit so they’re celebrating failure and aren’t afraid of it,” Rojas says. A mantra in All Star Code’s summer intensive coding program is to “dare greatly” in order to help students become more comfortable with taking risks. If they succeed, Rojas believes the reward and the payoff of taking risks can create new pathways that student-innovators feel they’ve created on their own.
We found that creating lower-risk environments through small groups, peer-to-peer learning, and individual instruction can also help bolster confidence and encourage student contributions. Institutions can seek continual feedback from students and adapt programming to their needs and suggestions. This can be facilitated by “anchoring the curriculum in the culture and the identity of, for example, what it means to be a young man of color in tech,” Rojas says. In his experience, he believes this builds confidence by creating awareness of and exposure to what it means and feels like to be in tech, especially as a professional of color navigating these spaces. To that end, at the Kapor Center, Mahadevan helped facilitate a workshop that focused on empowering student-innovators from URGs by “giving priority and time for hard conversations and opinions,” she says. When program leaders demonstrate empathy and create an atmosphere of psychological safety, student confidence can be raised.
Our report and interviews suggest that using strategies such as listening to audience needs, creating safe spaces, increasing representation, providing a platform for students to share stories, and promoting individual development, STEM innovation and entrepreneurship programs can create inclusive spaces for and build confidence in student-innovators from underrepresented groups.
As Wydler emphasizes, integration, acceptance, and equal opportunity can help remove barriers to growth for URG student-innovators. “Success happens when you provide the tools that are needed the most to succeed,” he says. These practices can go a long way toward fighting systemic inequities in the I&E field.
Our panel discussion, Strategies for Advancing Equity in Higher Education Innovation & Entrepreneurship, explores the six areas of action outlined in our Advancing Equity report. Watch the recording.