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How Universities Can Encourage Future Minority Entrepreneurs

Part 2 in a 2-part series

American innovation has made the United States one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Our entrepreneurial attitude has helped create breakthroughs in medicine, science, and technology, with universities often playing a pivotal role in encouraging and funding research. In fact, many successful companies and products evolved from research conducted at universities, of which there are numerous examples. From Gatorade, invented at the University of Florida, to Google, which began at Stanford; to web browsers and plasma screens, both created at the University of Illinois, to the drug that became the allergy medicine Allegra, developed at Georgetown University. Academic institutions need to continue to encourage this kind of innovative thinking.

However, as a shift happens in American demographics, are universities keeping up? African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Latinos— who have historically comprised a minority of the U.S. population are growing in size and influence. Currently, they constitute 30 percent of the U.S. population, but by 2050, it is estimated that more than 50% of the country will be non-white. Yet, these groups are sorely underrepresented at universities as a whole, with far fewer graduating, especially in the STEM fields. As Mark Deguzman, research project coordinator for the Rutgers I-Corps Site, states, “Minorities are particularly underrepresented in STEM fields. For example, minorities earned only 12.5% of all bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 2011. Experts say this gap poses an alarming problem not only to universities but also to the nation as a whole.”

So, what are some of the steps that universities can take to build a more diverse and inclusive environment? In part one of BCT Partners’ series on ways to improve successful outcomes for minority entrepreneurs, we explored the need for our government to actively seek out diverse vendors and significantly increase the number of contracts awarded to underrepresented minorities (URMs). In part two, we look at how universities can take a more active role in encouraging minority entrepreneurship and innovation.

As Jeffrey Robinson, Ph.D., states, professor and academic director of The Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development at Rutgers Business School, as well as a co-founder at BCT Partners, "Diversity is about representation and who is at the table or in the room. But equity and inclusion are just as significant, and these concepts should be discussed at the same time as diversity. Equity is about fairness for those in the room. Inclusion is about the climate in the room or organization. Inclusion addresses the question, ‘does everyone feel that they belong here?” He emphasizes the need for proactive outreach to encourage more diversity at the university level. Robinson and other researchers, including Todd M. Inouye from the University of Hawaii and Amol M. Joshi from Oregon State University, have reported that federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health have found that insufficient outreach exacerbates the problem of lower participation of women and minorities in STEM fields. And it affects the number of grant applications for research and development for underrepresented groups and their potential steps towards entrepreneurship.

However, proactive outreach is just the beginning. As Dr. Robinson stated, “ensuring inclusion is crucial” in keeping minority students engaged and empowered to complete their degree. For example, 31% of black students drop out of a four-year university compared to 18% of whites. Dr. Robinson explains that some universities have been successful in using “on-ramp” programs. They often involve mentorship components and link the participants with successful URM innovators. Dr. Robinson says, “this makes a big difference because often STEM spaces aren’t as welcoming to minorities and women as they could be.” In general, most people feel more comfortable when they see other people who look like them, so it becomes essential to encourage that sense of belonging.

Some universities like Brown have actively recruited URM students to seek their advice on how best to evolve their D&I recruitment efforts, especially in STEM programs. Andrew G. Campbell, Dean of the Graduate School at Brown University who develops and studies programs to recruit and retain URM students, took a group of 50 on a weekend retreat. Eight major themes were identified as opportunities for increasing minority representation. One idea was to include a social justice component in STEM education. For example, considering biomedical research in the context of health disparities. Another thought was to train students to explain science to nonscientists, including family members, who may be generally supportive but aren't always familiar with the research.

Of course, there are additional hurdles that minorities must overcome to attend any University, including financial barriers. Many URM students are the first generation in their family to attend college and do not have the luxury of their parents paying for their studies. Universities must provide more financial aid, including scholarship programs earmarked explicitly for those students. Offering more flexible study programs could also help accommodate older students who may already have a family and need to balance work and study. The bottom line is that there is no magic bullet in increasing diversity and inclusion at the university level. It requires a combination of efforts from many to provide encouragement and information, including high schools, parents, community leaders, corporations, and mentors. And, of course, the most important thing--the will to make real change.

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