Lessons Learned from CREATE Lab & AlphaLab Gear’s Ethics MVP Program
By Jessica Pachuta & Dror Yaron, CREATE Lab
“The wisdom that I gathered proved to be more important than I initially anticipated. I didn’t know what to expect, but I am so glad I buckled down and really delved deep into what it truly meant for me as well as for my company’s foundational code of ethics,” shares Gabrielle Haywood, Founder and CVO of Virginia Dere, LLC and a Designer in Residence at AlphaLab Gear. Haywood participated in CREATE Lab’s Ethics MVP program during AlphaLab Gear’s 6th cycle, exploring the importance of centering ethics in building a new business.
As emerging technologies enter public and private spaces and reshape the way we think of work, data, power, and privacy, it is critical for startups to be poised to face ethical challenges as they mature.
Technology development rapidly outpaces regulation, with companies and consumers left to make the ethical and moral decisions.
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At the April 2019 Cafe Innovation, CREATE Lab and AlphaLab Gear kicked off the first pilot of Ethics MVP (Minimum Viable Product), a program to support entrepreneurs in articulating their values and corresponding ethical business practices at an early stage.
Zach Malone, Principal at Draper Triangle Venture Capital, succinctly captured the ethos of the program during the kickoff event. He shared, “to build a successful company founders must infuse ethical decision-making into every aspect of their business from day one.”
Startup accelerators and investors, such as AlphaLab Gear, are concerned about the range of uncertainties and want to poise their startup founders to be ready to tackle ethical challenges.
When Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab was approached by AlphaLab Gear with this real need, we stepped up to consider concrete solutions. For over a decade, the CMU CREATE Lab has been partnering with communities of practice to explore — through participatory action research principles — questions of technology ethics, power relationships, social impact, and community engagement.
Combined with AlphaLab Gear’s expertise as an accelerator, we worked to develop ways to help founders in the 2019 Cycle identify the purpose of their companies, or their “Why.” With ALG Cycle 6 founders, we co-designed a program that aimed to make ethics less esoteric and more accessible.
Ethics MVP participants investigated case studies and ethical issues in their industry and considered unique challenges and vulnerabilities that their company may face. Each company developed adaptable draft plans (Ethics Minimum Viable Product) for addressing those and other key ethical tech issues like trust, transparency, privacy, explainability, sustainability, and accountability.
Cohort companies also developed plans for integrating conversations about ethics into their practice, day to day processes, and project development benchmarks.
Eight companies working out of the AlphaLab Gear space opted-in to weekly one-on-one office hours for deeper work and monthly group workshops tailored to their shared needs and interests.
The program wrapped up in October 2019.
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On December 12, four founders working out of AlphaLab Gear and who participated in the Ethics MVP pilot program will convene to share out at Cafe Innovation. Founders Gabrielle Haywood (Virginia Dere), Jennifer Sydeski Hurd (ConnectWolf), Brad Factor (EKTO VR), and Collin Wolf (Cassian Solutions) will circle back to share their Ethics MVP journey, challenges, and lessons-learned.
“This program gave us space and structure to explore how our values could and should play out as we face ethical dilemmas,” reflects Sydeski Hurd. “[Ethics MVP] helped us normalize discussions of ethics as part of what we do as a company.”
Factor and his team had a similar revelation when considering moral values in their company culture. EKTO VR states in its draft Ethics MVP, “as an effectively unregulated industry without historical precedent, it is up to developers of VR content and technology to establish a definition of ethical standards regarding ultra-realism, freedom of choice, and physical safety.”
Wolf now views ethics as a competitive advantage for his company, Cassian Solutions. “It allows us to surpass our competitors and legacy incumbents through articulating a clear vision of what we offer to our customers, patients, and colleagues.”
Scott Tobe, CEO of Signature Financial Planning and Blue Tree angel investor, agrees that a clear ethical foundation sets companies apart. “I’ve been pitched by countless entrepreneurs who could recite every decimal of their cap tables and funding milestones in excruciating detail.
The only ones who actually impress me, however, are those who can articulate a clear moral vision for their company, its mission, and the change they seek to make in the world.”
“Ethics is your moral fiber or philosophy as to how you will conduct yourself and your business. It is the essence of your core foundation. Ethics reflect your belief system of right and wrong and ultimately your personal integrity as a Business owner,” concludes Haywood. “Because of this acquired thought-process, the knowledge gained in the Ethics program proved to be priceless.”
We agree that ethics are crucial to the success and health of startups. In continuing collaboration with AlphaLab Gear, the project is gearing up for round two in the spring, working with a new cohort of companies to validate this framework.
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Generous support from The Henry L. Hillman Foundation allows for documentation of the first iteration of Ethics MVP and the development of a replicable framework to guide other accelerators and startup support environments (to be published this spring, sign up for updates at EthicsMVP.org).