Diversity

How to Widen Participation Among Incubators

By Barbara Finer

It isn’t often that we are jolted into a new world paradigm – one that both forces and affords us the opportunity to do things differently and better – as is the case with the COVID-19 pandemic and humanity’s needs.

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For those of us whose businesses are entwined in the world of startups, this is an opportunity to reassess in order to determine what our stakeholders need and if there is opportunity to shift the balance of support for a much wider demographic.

Minority demographic groups are also now finding their own voice and organizing, leading to the rise of gender- and minority-focused incubators, investors, accelerators and mentoring groups.

Historic obstacles of diversity and inclusion

Much has been written about why there is a lack of diversity in startups in terms of both leadership and funding, even when organizations in power are not inherently or intentionally prejudiced. If we are serious about the benefits of diversity, this is the time to walk the walk. Change is through intention. And action.

  • Recognize that different groups have different life situations including personal support systems like caretakers, ability to have a home office, or challenges of financially supporting an extended family.
  • Understand that the language of finance, business and law are not common dinner table discussions for everyone; mentors and role models are often scarce.
  • Be conscious of the fact that your own professional and personal networks are not likely to be diverse, so when filling a role, your default will be to reach out to and choose people like you.

Getting unstuck

For the past 15 years, the range and depth of support for startups and entrepreneurs has been vast. Organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, have arisen in recognition of the fact that no one of us had all the experience to create a successful company.

Guest Contributor Barbara Finer

Formal classes in entrepreneurship began at universities and new professional associations. Coworking spaces sprang up in densely populated and, often, expensive neighborhoods. Makerspaces and shared labs supported development of products. And investor pitch training, panels and seminars were abundant in certain city centers.

The fallacy is and was the assumption that everyone who wants to learn and participate could. That is where inequity began.

  • Investors continue to be largely comprised of successful white men who funded people who networked their way to them – Catch-22.
  • Well-intentioned professional associations reached out to like organizations to partner, most of which were also not well-placed with community leaders where racial and ethnic minorities gather – the old boys network continued to persist and expand as it related to gender diversity.
  • Programming and content were oblivious to the needs and differences in background, style, work-life balance challenges and awareness/access as is reflected by the lack of diversity of speakers and panelists at events and inflexibility in when and where.

A golden opportunity for incubators and accelerators

This pandemic and associated upheaval has helped us to reflect on what is important. We have been offered the opportunity to be more considerate, flexible and thoughtful. These values can contribute to serving and supporting diversity. When applied to the startup ecosystem:

  • Not everything has to happen 9-5.
  • We can start, grow, run, manage and have productive meetings and events remotely – even more intimate/smaller, higher-value meetings.
  • We can reach out very effectively to other groups and expand our geographic and demographic reach.
  • Short, focused exchanges have value –  “# butts in seats” may not apply as a success metric.
  • With lower overhead (ex. no commuting), mentoring and advising can come from a larger geography and a more diverse population; opportunities to collaborate abound.

Those who see the new normal and seize the opportunity will re-imagine classic physical incubators and accelerators paradigms and offer self-serve and flexible content, and spend time identifying the information that will bridge the opportunity gaps.

Barbara Finer is an instructor for MIT EF Cambridge’s Start Smart Seminar and a technology startup leader with a focus on operations, marketing, channels and product-market fit.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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