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Increasing Diversity and Inclusion in Incubators and Accelerators—the Search for Effective Strategies

Last month, following the announcement of the latest cohort of companies selected for Techstars Seattle, Managing Director Chris DeVore penned a very public plea for help. In a blog post entitled “Techstars Seattle Diversity Update: Failing, Frustrated + Asking for Help,” DeVore writes: “While I am proud and excited about the companies we selected for this year’s class, I’m ashamed of my failure as Managing Director to attract a more diverse mix of founders to the program I run.”

“I am failing in this work. And I’m asking for your help.”

Although the highly-competitive accelerator has made a public commitment to increasing entrepreneur diversity, DeVore’s testimony clearly demonstrates how challenging it can be to achieve these goals. Incubator and accelerator managers across all sectors are looking for effective strategies to increase the diversity of the entrepreneurs they support and the inclusivity of their organizations.

This theme emerged again in Seattle last week, this time at the 31st annual International Conference on Business Incubation.

The demand for new strategies and best practices was evident at the International Business Innovation Association’s (InBIA) annual conference held last week in Seattle. ICIC’s Kim Zeuli kicked off a panel discussion on “Catalyzing Inclusivity in Incubators and Accelerators” with a presentation of ICIC’s recent research on the topic. Released last spring, Creating Inclusive High-Tech Incubators and Accelerators identified barriers for the participation of underrepresented entrepreneurs in these organizations, and laid out strategies that incubators and accelerators can implement to overcome these challenges.

Bringing a practical perspective to the conversation, leaders from four organizations working to increase the diversity and inclusion of entrepreneurs they support shared some of their successful strategies as well as ongoing challenges.

Paul Riser, Managing Director for Technology-Based Entrepreneurship at TechTown Detroit, said his incubator was motivated by ICIC’s research and has implemented new strategies to tailor programming to underrepresented entrepreneurs. TechTown is working to establish a greater presence and outreach into Detroit’s neighborhoods as well as improve its efforts to engage women and entrepreneurs of color in their high-tech, high-growth venture development programs. With this in mind, TechTown Detroit recently hired an Entrepreneur in Residence focused entirely on recruiting, educating and supporting diverse entrepreneurs. As Riser indicated, “This is not a check the box initiative…it’s about intentionality and authenticity.”

Targeted outreach through diverse partnerships is an effective strategy. As Brittney Riley, US Director at Village Capital (a global entrepreneurial support and investment organization based in Washington, D.C.) noted, “for most tech accelerators, if their staff stays behind their desks in their office in San Francisco or New York, they are going to continue to get white, male entrepreneurs.”

Henry Rock, founder of City Startup Labs (a Charlotte-based entrepreneurial education organization focused on young, black entrepreneurs that will soon also serve the formerly incarcerated), highlighted the important role of inclusive organizational culture. “It is not a lack of resources [for diverse entrepreneurs],” he stated. “Diverse entrepreneurs think ‘this isn’t for me.’” He seeks to instill in these entrepreneurs the understanding that “they’re part of a long legacy of business creation and ownership.”

Herman Nyamunga, who runs the Global Enterprise Hub out of the Center for New Pennsylvanians in Philadelphia, echoed the challenge of building an inclusive culture, noting the importance of creating spaces that feel “familiar” for the immigrant entrepreneurs his organization supports. His organization is also meeting entrepreneurs where they live through a neighborhood-based micro-incubation program that places kiosks in different communities.

Founders of AccelerateHER, a women’s business development firm, led an additional panel, “Attracting and Accelerating Women Owned Businesses,” which included a conversation about the unique needs of female founders and how entrepreneurial support organizations can make their programming and resources more attractive to women. Their recommendations included lengthening the time period for the program (e.g., spreading it across one year instead of an intensive eight-week period) and forgoing any equity plays.

John Gavigan, Executive Director of 43North—a $5 million startup competition in Buffalo, New York—said sharing images of successful, diverse entrepreneurs is critical. 43North has launched a networking series entitled Think Big, which is intended to inform local female and minority entrepreneurs about the competition and to showcase recent women and minority-led winners.

InBIA’s conference highlighted innovative new strategies for supporting underrepresented entrepreneurs, but also confirmed a critical need for more learning platforms on diversity and inclusion for leaders of incubators, accelerators, and other entrepreneurial support organizations. Although an organizational commitment to diversity and inclusion is an important first step, it is not enough to get women and minorities in the door and fully participating in programming.

In all facets of the entrepreneurial support ecosystem, there is an unmistakable hunger for actionable strategies to this end, and leaders want all the help they can get. Investing in new forums for information sharing and peer-to-peer learning among incubators and accelerators offers an important opportunity to truly move the needle with regards to diversity and inclusion in entrepreneurship.

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