Innovation is Impossible Without Diversity

And So Is Our Mission

Innovation is a popular topic in the business world, especially in Silicon Valley, and while many understand the importance of innovating, some still underestimate the role diversity plays in doing so successfully.

There have been studies on it, papers written about it, and it’s been proven to be true time and time again for classroom education and innovation ecosystems alike. Diversity leads to better outcomes.

At Singularity University (SU), our mission is to educate, inspire, and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to solve Global Grand Challenges, but we know that in order to actualize that mission, fostering a diverse community is a must.

For that reason, inclusive community has been one of our company values since the beginning — long before it became a tech buzzword. Since our inception in 2008, SU has empowered over 15,000 individuals representing more than 95 countries to leverage cutting-edge technologies to positively impact billions of people throughout the world. Luckily, the diversity of our international community has been fairly organic over the last seven and a half years, but simply saying “everyone is welcome” isn’t enough. Continually asking ourselves, “Whose voice is missing from this discussion?” and “How can we create space for those voices?” is the key difference between intentionality and passive acceptance.

So in 2014, we made the conscious choice to be more intentional. Teams across the organization collaborated to address those questions, which led to the creation of a new role, and the development of a diversity and inclusion strategy aimed at identifying opportunities to bridge the gaps.

Simply saying “everyone is welcome” isn’t enough. We continually ask ourselves, “Whose voice is missing from this discussion?”

Today, we want to share part one of a two-part series that will cover what we’ve been working on, what we’ve learned (including some of our diversity data), and how it has shaped our philosophy on the significance of building inclusive communities.

This is one of our internal Diversity & Inclusion videos. We believe our value of inclusive community reflects our commitment to cultivating the most impactful innovation possible. We start the conversation with our staff members to help them understand how this value directly impacts our mission.

What we’ve been working on

In 2014, we began working to expand our programs globally and realized there was a lot of work ahead if we wanted to motivate and empower some of the most talented people to solve the world’s biggest problems. We had to make our programs more accessible to a more diverse array of people, become engaged in the diversity discussion and build rapport with like-minded organizations, as well as develop the internal systems, tools, and metrics necessary to support our goals, create consistency, and keep us accountable. Our strategy is centered around those three components: Access, Engagement, and Infrastructure.

Access is all about who’s sitting at the table, and we want to provide everyone an opportunity regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic background, and ability. To increase access, we are addressing barriers to entry that impact our learning spaces: program cost, gender disparity in various industries, and varying levels of access to technology globally. In spring of 2015, we announced a multi-year, multi-million dollar agreement with Google that allowed us to make our flagship Global Solutions Program (GSP) available free of charge to direct applicants.

Engagement is about being an active voice in the conversation and member of the diversity community. At SU, we have found that communities that allow for a variety of professional, academic, and cultural backgrounds spark conversations at unexpected intersections of interests — and from those intersections emerge ideas that can change the world. We’ve begun to engage new partners, new audiences, and our community in conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion over the past several years with amazing effect. A Singularity Hub and live event series of ours called Which Way Next? highlighted leaders from underrepresented backgrounds doing incredible work in technology and innovation. We discussed the Future of Work, Future of Virtual Reality, and Future of Learning, with on-campus events featuring 10 women leaders and reaching nearly 1,000 viewers.

Infrastructure is about creating a system of processes and policies that prioritize diversity in order to keep ourselves accountable. To build up our infrastructure we have begun the process of re-evaluating all of our operational infrastructure, from recruiting staff and faculty from diverse backgrounds to utilizing the right tools to help us measure our progress. We recently revamped our EP and GSP applications to express our value on community diversity and began displaying diversity data on internal dashboards to help program managers identify opportunities for inclusivity.

Here’s some of what we’ve accomplished so far:

  • Made some of our diversity public
  • Partnered with like-minded organizations who are also working on empowering leaders from diverse backgrounds, including Astra’s STEAM Summit, Buildup.vc, Women 2.0, Women in Automotive Tech, SpeedUpAfrica, CrowdfundxWomen, and others
  • Targeted outreach to audiences that are underrepresented in our classrooms, including leaders from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, people of color communities in the US, as well as from nonprofits and NGOs
  • Provided internal resources to educate and inform staff of best practices including videos, workshops, wiki resources, etc.
  • Developed of our first employee resource group, the Women’s Impact Network
  • Began modifying job descriptions to incorporate more inclusive language
  • Started tracking diversity data in our core educational programs — see a snapshot of what we’ve collected below!

Some of our diversity data

Top row: Gender representation in our core programs. Second row: Countries represented in our core programs.

What we’ve learned

Building a diverse community isn’t easy. Diversity expands beyond the plurality of race and gender, and creating an inclusive community requires that we expand the conversation. In our conversations about inclusion, we discuss various kinds of diversity — inherent and acquired, visible and invisible. Our initiatives are aimed at enabling entry and participation in technological innovation by creating opportunities for a more diverse group of entrepreneurs from around the world.

We should actively work against the status quo. Statistically, the number of women in leadership diminishes significantly as you reach the executive level. While we see this reflected in our Executive Program, we believe the status quo is inadequate, which is why we strive for equitable gender representation. As a result of restructured, holistic application processes, we were able to increase representation in our 2016 Executive Programs to 20% women; a marked improvement from past years. And we’ll keep pushing! We’re inspired by the change we’ve experienced in GSP, where last year’s class was 53% women with representatives of 45 different countries.

Data matters. One of our biggest challenges has been consistent data collection and tracking. We’ve had to work hard to implement a basic level of analytics and reporting, and we still have a long way to go. While we have begun to track gender, national origin, race/ethnicity, age, organization type, and professional background for participants in our Executive Program and Global Solutions Program, in the future, we plan to expand diversity reporting throughout all our programs and collected additional information in an effort to improve inclusivity in our community and increase transparency through aggregate public reporting.

Prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion is a way of life. A single program or campaign isn’t enough. This is a long-term project focused on systemic change. Along the way, we hope to continue to provide context for the communities we’re building and invite more voices into the discussion. We will continually strive to:

  • Increase access to our educational programs to underrepresented communities both in terms of participants and faculty members
  • Engage partners in our community that help us increase opportunities for diverse audiences
  • Take a data-driven approach to measuring and tracking diversity and related impact metrics, including data collection, standardization, and third party assessments (e.g., B Corp Assessment, DiversityInc Assessment)

How diversity has shaped our philosophy

At SU, we are passionate about the power technology has to change people’s realities and solve some of the biggest issues that keep people from living free, prosperous, and healthy lives. Many of us work here because we believe in the power of technology to change the world for the better. We work here because the people around us inspire us to believe that a future of abundance is possible. If we really want people to come out of our programs capable of positively impacting the lives of a billion people and solving Global Grand Challenges, then our community must reflect the world we wish to impact.

Signed,

Rob Nail, CEO & Associate Founder
Lajuanda M. Asemota, Director of Diversity & Inclusion