‘Inclusive innovation’ the topic of Rox HubWeek panel
The Bolling Municipal Building in Dudley Square was transformed Monday evening into a marketplace for local entrepreneurs and a site for thoughtful discussions on creating an inclusive innovation ecosystem and supporting local entrepreneurs who have already taken the leap.
In the spacious lobby, youth-run businesses displayed wares from candles to bow ties, while on the second floor savory and sweet food offerings from local vendors tempted attendees in advance of panel discussions and a networking hour.
On the web
HUBWeek info and schedule: https://hubweek.org
Epicenter Community: www.epicentercomm.org
CommonWealth Kitchen: www.commonwealthkitchen.org
Roxbury Innovation Center: http://roxburyinnovationcenter.org
BUILD Boston: www.buildinboston.org
Smarter in the City: www.smarterinthecity.com
The Roxbury Innovation Showcase event was part of HUBWeek, the second annual weeklong festival of discussions and presentations in Boston and Cambridge exploring the nexus of innovation, art, society and technology.
An “Impact to Innovation” panel was moderated by Malia Lazu. Lazu, who has fostered entrepreneurship and civic participation in roles such as president of Epicenter Community and executive director of Future Boston Alliance, asked panelists to talk about the goal of inclusion in innovation — and how they are showing innovation in pursuit of that goal in Roxbury.
“Why do young people have to go to work for older people?” offered Cody Chamberlain of The Youth Innovation Project, a new program that helps startups build the capacity to create internships. “Why not have young people doing the startups and other young people working for their peers? There are so many youth creating fantastic business ideas.”
Also addressing the youth realm was Ayele Shakur, regional executive director of BUILD, a nonprofit that offers a four-year entrepreneurship and college readiness program to disengaged high school students.
“When a 14- or 15-year-old can say ‘I’m the CEO of a company I created’ — that’s when you redefine what’s possible,” Shakur said.
Jen Faigel, executive director of CommonWealth Kitchen, spoke of the work the food business incubator has done to help launch 45 companies so far and nurture another 45 currently operating in its Dorchester kitchen facilities. Nearly 80 percent of CommonWealth Kitchen businesses are owned by people of color and women, she said.
Before leading CommonWealth Kitchen, Faigel said, she spent 25 years in nonprofit affordable housing development. She grew to believe cultivating entrepreneurship is a better way to lift people out of poverty.
“Assets are wealth,” she said. “All those people I helped with affordable housing — they’re still poor. Our work [now] is about figuring out what can we do to help people build a real, true business.”
Moderator Lazu told a West African fable about a giraffe and an elephant to illustrate the challenge of inclusion. In the tale, a giraffe invites an elephant to his home. He prepares to welcome his new friend with peanuts and other offerings — then faces the reality that the elephant cannot fit through the door.
“A lot of times, people in power are the giraffes; they are well-intentioned, but don’t understand that what they have built is not for the elephants they’ve invited,” she said.
Lazu pushed the white panelists to share how they try to understand their own privilege and biases as they work with aspiring entrepreneurs or students of color.
“How do you self-reflect,” she asked them, “on doing this work without using your privilege to keep the house being built for the giraffes?”
Liora Beer, an artist/entrepreneur and director of the Fairmount Innovation Lab in Uphams Corner, spoke of an early awareness that not everyone was included in some of the mainstream business accelerator opportunities she had, and the importance of listening and paying attention.
“If you start with the idea that you have to ‘help’ people, it’s the wrong idea,” Beer said. “You constantly need to recalibrate and understand the incredible talent and initiative and ideas people bring.”
Gilad Rosenzweig, founder of the tech accelerator Smarter in the City, recalled the eye-opening experience of being the only white person among African American tech entrepreneurs at a Tech808 conference, and keeps that in mind as he works with budding entrepreneurs in Roxbury.
“[Ultimately] what matters to participants in our accelerator program is that they get the best connections to help their companies do as well as they can,” he said.
The two women of color on the panel — Shakur and Alessandra Brown, director of the Roxbury Innovation Center — emphasized that mentors from outside the community can’t come in with the aim of being saviors, and often have as much to learn from their mentees as to teach to them.
“We don’t need people to bring innovation to Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan. The innovation is here already here. It’s about shining a light on it,” Shakur said.
Brown said the mission of the Roxbury Innovation Center, a Venture Cafe Foundation program housed in the Bolling Building, is to support local entrepreneurship and innovation.
Inclusion is embedded in Brown’s approach.
“You don’t attempt to reach out to people — you actually reach out to them,” she stressed. “We ask, ‘Where are you stuck? What can I do to destroy that roadblock?’ We spend time with them. We make them feel welcome. Our community members deserve this, and they want this.”
Brown said she frequently finds herself addressing the surprise expressed by newcomers to Roxbury. Echoing Shakur, she reminded the audience that plenty of talent and ambition exists already in the community.
“When you come here, don’t be surprised. Our students learn. Our community members own businesses,” she said. “My center is not here to reinvent a wheel. We’re here to build the roads for it to keep running.”