Six Ways to Advance Equity for Inventive Changemakers

A Working Blueprint for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Programs in Higher Education

By Shaheen Mamawala and Kristen Golden, VentureWell

Fostering brave spaces that welcome a diversity of perspectives, ideas, and lived experiences is essential in any field. In STEM innovation and entrepreneurship, it is vital.

Increasingly, entrepreneurship centers and science and technology programs in higher education have recognized a need for more authentic outreach and engagement strategies to support early-stage innovators in their campus communities. This is especially true for innovators from underrepresented groups — those who identify as Black, Latinx, and Indigenous, women of all backgrounds, and individuals from low-income backgrounds — whose voices and ideas are often silenced while the contributions of their peers from dominant groups are elevated and amplified.

In the midst of a national reckoning on systemic racism and an ever-growing urgency to address equity issues across societal systems and structures, the demand for strategies and solutions is more acute than ever.

“I think you have to get into the mind of the most scared person to enter your space…operating with that person in mind, what would make them feel safe or what would make them take their interest towards action.”
— African American female student, private university

VentureWell has been working for 25 years to support early-stage innovators, their ventures, and the ecosystems that are critical to their success. We recently commissioned a national study to identify promising practices and existing efforts to advance equity in the field of higher education innovation and entrepreneurship.

As a relatively small organization with staff located primarily in a single U.S. location, we also recognize our own limitations and perspectives around these topics and therefore were excited to embrace the study and ensuing report as a starting point to co-create efforts to advance equity. The study was inspired by a number of identified gaps, including the ways in which our current education system creates roadblocks that consistently constrain innovation for some groups of people while simultaneously clearing pathways for others.

Similarly, while entrepreneurship programs and centers are eager for strategies and solutions to increase equity and inclusion, few are tested or proven, and proactive sharing between institutions is limited.

Our resulting report, Advancing Equity: Dynamic Strategies for Authentic Engagement in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, was based on dozens of interviews as well as several focus groups with U.S.-based program leaders and early-stage innovators.

Student voices were critical, providing key insights into lived experiences, honest perspectives on implicit bias, and recommendations on effective strategies for authentic inclusion. Their words, ideas, and stories are reflected throughout the report’s six action areas and the strategies and recommendations that follow, providing a working blueprint forprograms — whether they are beginning, expanding, or scaling their equity efforts.

1) Conduct Authentic Outreach:

Why would I go if I’m not invited?

Authentic outreach creates a personal connection that makes early-stage innovators feel validated, safe, and confident that they are entering a welcoming space. Building reciprocal relationships takes time; as one program director commented, “It’s not about just tossing a pamphlet on a desk or sending one email.” Program directors and peer leaders need to show up consistently, seek and meet underrepresented students where they are, over-invite them to events, and understand that many students may be more attracted to a program that also emphasizes social or community impact.

Stories and testimonials from peers are impactful, and representation matters. Seeing relevant role models and students through content and videos shared on social media can help them envision themselves as innovators and entrepreneurs. In particular, program leaders who created authentic partnerships with organizations that serve students from underrepresented groups sought value propositions that would make potential partnerships and participation mutually beneficial and sustainable. Discerning the motivations and skills of individuals from different communities and lived experiences creates opportunities for partnerships that strengthen both organizations.

2) Create Inclusive Spaces

Will I feel safe sharing my voice and ideas?

All early-stage entrepreneurs seek physical and psychological spaces where they feel safe and validated and can flourish, yet some underrepresented students expressed inherent concerns about whether innovation spaces were safe for them. Safety often referred to the ability to participate fully — to express doubt, vulnerability, and ignorance — without being judged or seen as perpetuating negative stereotypes. Many emphasized the importance of “being known” by program facilitators and other participants, instead of having assumptions about their identity define them.

Creating a safe space starts with acknowledging that entrepreneurship spaces have typically been white and male-dominated, which can exclude and silence people from historically marginalized groups. Demonstrating empathy for all participants requires program staff to get to know them, listen to their unique stories, and validate their motivations for showing up to an innovation space.

3) Build Confidence

Am I good enough?

Confidence is a potent accelerator. While all early-stage innovators and entrepreneurs need confidence to pursue an innovation pathway, the study found that students from underrepresented groups more frequently talked about having or needing confidence than their majority group peers. In entrepreneurship training programs, confidence among these students may revolve less around whether or not they can do the work than whether they feel they have permission to reflect inexperience, especially when doing so could risk reinforcing stereotypes of inadequacy commonly held against people most likely to experience systemic racism, sexism, and classism.

When program leaders demonstrate empathy and create an atmosphere of psychological safety, such concerns can be minimized and student confidence can be raised. Program leaders can further build students’ confidence by putting their personal development ahead of the success of their innovations. This helps to turn students’ perceived or actual failures into opportunities for pivots that reflect growth and resilience, rather than inability.

4) Engage More Faculty as Mentors

Where can I find a mentor who understands my experiences?

Engaging greater numbers of faculty mentors with diverse skill sets and perspectives is key to student innovators’ success. In comparison with their white peers, students of color placed particular emphasis on the value of having a mentor or role model whose background and identities were similar to their own.

Key opportunities for entrepreneurship centers and programs included embracing the value of curiosity — especially important for mentors from dominant groups — about the lived experiences and varied motivations of their mentees. Equally critical was identifying a range of faculty, alumni, and peers to serve as a network of mentors to support students along their innovation pathways. Finally, experienced faculty mentors have an added opportunity to help expand the mentor pool, by engaging and training their peers in best practices for coaching and mentoring student innovators.

5) Validate Multiple Pathways to Success

Who gets to define or measure my identity — or my idea?

Early-stage innovators thrive when their diverse motivations and individualized measures of success are honored and validated. We heard from many students who said they did not self-identify with the term “entrepreneur or actively rejected it, in favor of more mission-focused identity terms such as social activist, innovator, or changemaker.

To increase equity and inclusion, entrepreneurship centers must evolve and broaden the language they use to describe their program content and resources, be willing to unlearn previous assumptions about who represents and drives innovation in their campus ecosystem, and seed invitations and connections to new groups of students through strategic partnerships with other departments on campus.

6) Develop a Holistic Organizational Approach

Are equity and inclusion in our DNA?

Entrepreneurship centers that had equity and inclusion practices “in their DNA” at a more holistic, organizational or institutional level most commonly focused on three operational areas — hiring and staff development, programming and physical spaces, and tracking and reporting on metrics. The study also found that they treated these areas as ongoing priorities that require continual commitment and intentionality, an approach that one program director described as “going into it by design.”

Entities that are committed to equity and inclusion must signal their commitments in both word — such as public statements of support, inclusive imagery in program and marketing materials — and deed — such as writing or revising organizational policies, seeking new partnerships, and transparently sharing metrics with stakeholders to invite feedback and collaboration on areas of improvement. Additionally, the creation of frequent, voluntary staff learning and inquiry opportunities are critical to organizational cohesion and skill-based growth.

“You can’t just say, “We’ll build it and they will come”…because you need to meet the students where they are…you do need to be really purposeful in your communications.”
— Program Director, private university

In spite of the many barriers to access and opportunity we heard about in the study, none of the early-stage innovators who were interviewed said they regretted participating in an entrepreneurship program. Rather, students spoke enthusiastically about the value of their experiences, which demonstrates the great potential of these programs to enrich the lives of those who have the opportunity to participate — and serves as a clarion call for collective learning and action.

We’re also excited to see that the ideas expressed in this working blueprint may have broader applications beyond STEM, innovation, and entrepreneurship and can be further explored across additional disciplines.

Later this month, we are launching an online series — Community Conversations for Advancing Equity — to provide space and opportunity for participants to dig into the action areas more deeply. To sign up to join the first of these dialogues on October 28, visit https://bit.ly/3nhpUzf.

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