advancing equity: validating multiple pathways and developing a holistic organizational approach

multiple pathways

Despite rapidly changing demographics within our increasingly diverse society, systemic racism and inequities in America remain entrenched and pernicious. This is especially a problem in STEM innovation and entrepreneurship programs, where, for too long, the voices and ideas of students from underrepresented groups (URGs) have been silenced in favor of those from majority groups. In this article series, we focus on the six areas for action presented in our 2020 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 third installment, we offer insights into validating multiple pathways to success for innovators and developing a holistic organizational approach to advancing equity. We invite you to explore the resources, tools, and opportunities we have assembled—featuring the voices and perspectives of a range of experts from the field—to help you advance equity at your institution and in your program. Read the first and second installments in our series. 

why validate multiple pathways to success and develop a holistic organizational approach?

As described in our Advancing Equity report, student innovators thrive when their diverse motivations and personal measures of success are validated, including by validating the language they use to describe their work and their identities within the innovation space. Our report, for which 65 students were interviewed to discover their motivations and influences for innovating, showed that students from URGs were more likely than their peers from dominant groups to self-identify as something other than “entrepreneur”—often associating that term with avarice and/or privilege—and favored identifiers such as “mission-driven.” 

In addition, to boost accessibility and inclusivity for students and mentors from URGs, I&E centers need to develop more holistic organizational approaches to diversity, equity, and inclusion in areas including hiring and staff development, designing and refining programming and physical spaces, and tracking and reporting on metrics. 

For insight into solutions to advance these areas for action, we spoke with field experts Juan Barraza, director of student innovation at the Portland State University (PSU) Center for Entrepreneurship, and Onyeka Obiocha, managing director at Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking (CITY) at Yale University.

validating multiple pathways to success: broadening language and building unconventional connections

broadening inclusive language

All early-stage innovators need to feel supported and confident in their identities, especially those from URGs, who may already feel excluded and underestimated in innovation and entrepreneurship. Our report showed that many students from these groups prefer terms such as social activist, innovator, or changemaker to entrepreneur as they are more inclusive of the varying measures students from URGs use to define individual goals and successes. Therefore, it’s important for I&E programs to provide strategic pathways for these students to engage in the ecosystem in a way they’re most comfortable, says Obiocha. At Tsai CITY, students often say they want to “serve as a connector, or want to be an artist—or they want to be a freelancer and understand how to develop their personal brand,” he adds.

“We found a lot of our underrepresented students are taking frameworks and practices from different sectors and applying it to their population and they don’t necessarily see that as a form of entrepreneurship or innovation.” 

Therefore, intentional efforts from I&E programs to broaden language can help to support underrepresented students’ needs and to better elucidate answers to the question: “Who gets to define or measure my identity or my idea?” Offering more than just a narrowly defined version of entrepreneurship can also increase student engagement. “We want to emphasize where students think beyond the traditional constraints around innovation, entrepreneurship, and how it’s all part of the whole ecosystem,” says Barraza. “It’s not just making money or just helping people—it has to be an in-between.” 

Barraza says PSU’s school of business has focused on social innovation and uses the term “changemaker” to create a narrative and show students that being an innovator or entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily always translate to commercializing a product or service when it’s out in the world. “They could’ve created a new process to solve a societal problem or developed a new technology, and we help establish their journey to entrepreneurship.” 

To that end, interviews with 65 students showed that the desire to improve their community or make social impact motivates many students from URGs. Barraza recommends accelerating students’ learning process by integrating experimental, experiential opportunities to which the students can apply their knowledge. For example, they could try to create new housing opportunities to eliminate homelessness or food deserts. “They could find pockets in metropolitan areas where people don’t have access to fresh fruit and vegetables and utilize tools like vertical farming to bring fresh produce to the community,” he says.

Further, students feel empowered when they can solve real-world problems by practicing what they learn. Obiocha says Tsai CITY helps students “widen the lens, engage with different articles or media or conversations that people might not normally engage with.” Part of this effort—an element of Tsai CITY’s holistic approach to equity and inclusion—includes encouraging program managers to work both on their own, and together, on real-world problems so they can build and refine programs to which the current and incoming generation of students can relate. 

build unconventional connections

Building and nurturing unconventional connections and opportunities, and introducing students to new concepts and ways of thinking through strategic partnerships with on-campus and off-campus institutions, can further validate diverse perspectives. This can be done by facilitating relationships, hosting skill-building sessions, and creating experiences for students who haven’t yet self-identified as entrepreneurs or innovators. 

A big additional step in this direction would be “going deeper into the pipeline and seeing how we can influence high school-age students, or even younger kids, and start collaborating with organizations that help kids develop those skills early on for being inventors and entrepreneurs,” says Barraza. He cited a successful program PSU has with Oregon Mesa, which equips teachers to help underserved middle and high school students excel in STEM through hands-on invention education. 

develop a holistic organizational approach: signal in word and deed, encourage exploration and inquiry, and collect and publish data

STEM I&E programs need to develop a holistic organizational approach that increases diversity and creates inclusive spaces through their hiring practices, staff development and training sessions, programming, and tracking and reporting on metrics.

signal in word and deed

America’s demographics are changing quickly, and by 2040 a majority of university students will be nonwhite, Barraza says. “These students need to see somebody like them in a position of success, who can understand the cultural nuances,” because this diversity brings deeper understanding to the different circumstances, backgrounds, and lived experiences of students, all of whom need a safe and nurturing space to thrive. “Remember, just because these students make it to college, it doesn’t mean they have a car or a driver’s license. Educators have to be able to address any issues that come up in empathetic and humane ways.” He added that PSU has an emergency fund to help students in need, no questions asked. “They are allowed to keep their dignity and humanity—our goal is to keep them in school.”

Early-stage innovators also need to see and experience consistent acts of inclusion in order to build and maintain the confidence to flourish. Our report showed that institutions can proactively demonstrate their commitment to equity and inclusion through public statements of support from leadership and messaging on their website. “To engage these students with the industry, you have to make sure that there is more visual representation,” Barraza says. Institutions can also forge intentional partnerships with organizations that support people across many facets of identity, and by writing or revising policies to broaden participation. 

Additionally, both Barraza and Obiocha emphasize that for public statements to be effective, they need to be grounded in an inclusive ecosystem—as demonstrated by staff and faculty who represent the diversity of the student body and the nation, an understanding of the campus culture, and the ability to address any issues in ways that continue to create and sustain a safe environment.

Obiocha spoke about when Tsai CITY had organized an I&E expo for students but there was a protest scheduled to take place at the same time in downtown New Haven, after a police officer had shot a young woman of color in her car. He says they canceled the expo to express solidarity with the protesters, not because they didn’t want to talk about the shooting with their students, but because “we wanted to free our students to engage in this conversation as innovators, as entrepreneurs, and as leaders on campus.”

encourage exploration and inquiry

Organizations can further cultivate a holistic approach by creating safe spaces for staff learning, exploration, and inquiry. Our report showed that program centers that emphasize a holistic approach to equity and inclusion hold frequent, voluntary training sessions for staff to learn and grow together on topics ranging from anti-bias training to accessibility to increasing diversity in hiring.

Yale’s Tsai CITY holds monthly staff training sessions that aren’t just about diversity and equity. “This is professional development that happens to engage in bias and anti-bias. It’s about active listening,” says Obiocha. “We make the time for people to do the individual work of understanding why it’s important. We don’t want the [organizational] statements to be empty.” 

For these strategies to work, intentionality is also key, especially for those who are in senior positions and when conducting interviews or building a hiring pipeline. “Somebody needs to say, well there’s no ethnic or gender diversity in the conversation—you need to allow room for your staff to call you on it and say this doesn’t look good, it’s not right, and we need to add more candidates,” says Barraza. 

collect and publish data

Another key factor in developing a holistic organizational approach is transparency. Institutions that are committed to advancing equity collect data wherever possible—and then publish it. Our report showed that an essential starting point for enhanced learning and evaluation is to measure, prototype, and iterate; a further, equally important accountability step is to share those measures and metrics with program participants and external stakeholders and to invite feedback. 

“If you can’t name it, you can’t tame it,” says Obiocha. At Tsai CITY, reports break down demographics by gender and race. “They can see information like how many African American men applied and then how many African American men were accepted to get whatever funding they applied for…same thing for Asian American women,” he adds. Detailed transparency helps programs locate biases and focus on forward-looking strategies to expand equity, inclusion, and organizational learning.

Using strategies such as broadening language, building new and unconventional connections and partnerships, promoting inclusivity, enabling staff exploration and inquiry, and staying transparent can help STEM I&E programs to validate multiple pathways to success and develop a holistic organization approach to support students from URGs. Barraza emphasizes the importance of increasing access to help break down barriers and create multiple access pathways for innovators’ success: “The goal is to get these students to a school that will have the landing place for them to continue excelling and growing as individuals,” he says.

Join us for the next Community Conversation for Advancing Equity on February 25 at 3:00pm ET. We’ll focus on strategies and solutions for addressing barriers in two action areas: validating multiple pathways to success and developing a holistic organization approach. Register today!

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