“Now is the accepted moment, not tomorrow, not a more suitable season. It is today that our best work can be done and not a future day or year.” – WEB Du Bois
With this quote, Dr. George T. French, Jr., president of Clark Atlanta University, a historically black university based in Atlanta, delivered the endnote of Empower 2021, a Princeton University lecture celebrating the black college entrepreneurship. Her mandate for attendees to Get Out and Make an Impact concluded two days of practical advice on how to propel academic research into new ventures beyond academia, and candid conversation about the challenges to success faced. black university entrepreneurs.
This year’s Empower 2021 is the first in a series of events that will focus on the obstacles faced by university entrepreneurs from historically under-represented groups.
During the event, Princeton announced three new initiatives that the Office of the Dean of Research has designed to increase the participation and leadership of groups historically under-represented in research, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Rodney Priestley, Associate Dean of Innovation at Princeton and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith, heads Princeton Innovation, which hosted the event.
“We launched this first conference to address the inequalities facing black entrepreneurs in academia,” Priestley said. “Princeton Innovation’s goal is to advance innovation and entrepreneurship for the benefit of society. We want to provide more opportunities for black academics in the region, country and around the world to translate their research into innovations and businesses that create benefits for society. “
Empower 2021 attracted over 900 registrants from across the country and abroad and featured speakers who brought knowledge and perspectives from finance and industry, in addition to academia.
In addition, the University, along with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, the Mintz law firm, the financial services firm EisnerAmper, and the Foundation for Health Advancement, also awarded a $ 100,000 prize as well as generous services. in kind to the first winner in a pitch competition that attracted research start-ups at institutions across the country. The National Urban League was also a sponsor of the conference.
“I was thrilled that this was a national conversation,” said Ita Ekpoudom, Empower Planning Committee member, partner at GingerBread Capital and Class of 2003 alumnus. “We’re really trying to push forward. black entrepreneurship, which is one of the ways to bridge the gaps in opportunity and wealth, but will require efforts across the country. “
Gaps in opportunity, governance, funding and wealth have been a recurring theme throughout Empower 2021, particularly in the opening speeches on both days. On the first day of the opening session, Gabrielle Sulzberger and Mike Froman discussed the governance gap – a shortage of blacks and other leaders of color in Fortune 500 companies. Sulzberger is co-founder of Board Diversity Action Alliance, Senior Advisor at Two Sigma Impact, Trustee of the Ford Foundation, and Princeton alumnus in 1981. Froman is Vice President and Chairman of Strategic Growth at Mastercard, Chairman of their Center for Inclusive Growth and 1985 alumnus.
In the opening session for the second day, Ken Chenault, former CEO of American Express and CEO of General Catalyst, identified several gaps that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed among communities of color.
Throughout the conference, speakers offered practical advice to black academics on overcoming these shortcomings and successfully building businesses based on their research.
Pairing the technical expertise of university entrepreneurs with business development support and training was identified as a key element in the success of the split. “A lot of us majored in engineering and science,” said Robert Long, director of research and development at Kimberly-Clark and a 1979 alumnus. “Selling ourselves is not the thing we are into. we are specialized. “
Efforts to address these gaps have been identified as critically important, although progress is gradual. On a panel on corporate partnerships, Rossie Turman, president of the International Finance group at Lowenstein Sandler, gave a vivid example of the importance of measuring success not by completion, but by progress.
“The success that I want to see for my community was not going to happen in my lifetime,” said Turman. “I was just putting bricks on the wall. You don’t measure success by having the wall done. You measure success by having more bricks on the wall and you are helping more. people putting bricks on the wall.
An immediate step in closing the funding gap was the Empower Pitch competition. Six academic research-based startups from academic institutions across the country competed for a total of $ 135,000 in cash as well as in-kind legal and financial advisory services. The winning startups:
- Grand Prize: Sonavi Labs, a medical device company from Johns Hopkins University, won $ 100,000 plus in-kind services.
- First Finalist: Moving Analytics, a digital health company spun out of Stanford University, won $ 25,000 plus in-kind services.
- Runner-up: Grid Discovery, a Stevens Institute of Technology microgrid data company, won $ 10,000 plus in-kind services.
In addition to the prizes, the 15 semi-finalists of the pitch competition had the opportunity to meet up to four fundraising groups in a series of organized meetings. Early responses indicate that many of these discussions are ongoing.
Princeton is also taking concrete steps to address these gaps for Black and other founders of under-represented college startups.
As announced by Dean of Research Pablo Debenedetti in his opening remarks, the University is launching three new initiatives designed to increase the participation and leadership of those who are historically under-represented in research, innovation and entrepreneurship, in response to a call from President Christopher L. Eisgruber to combat systemic racism:
- A new fund to support research collaborations between Princeton professors and researchers from institutions serving minorities in science, engineering, humanities and social sciences.
- The Amplifying Voices Distinguished lecture series, featuring prominent underrepresented researchers for public lectures and for smaller discussion sessions.
- Inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship, which aims to strengthen the representation of historically under-represented groups in entrepreneurship. The Empower and START Entrepreneurs lecture series are two major programs under this initiative. START Entrepreneurs is a scholarship and acceleration program that will fund and support entrepreneurs translating university research into impactful new ventures.
Empower 2021 has also included ‘Moving Forward’ roundtables to delve into key questions and share suggestions for next steps. Dr French closed his remarks and linked the themes expressed throughout the conference with a call to work together: “We remember from the Empower conference that we should partner up. Let’s all go up together. Let us strengthen each other.
Princeton Innovation will continue its work of building innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems by hosting the second annual Engage 2021 conference on December 1 and 2. The Engage conference, which largely focuses on the Tri-State of New Jersey region, features numerous sessions and presentations on the importance of collaboration between academia, industry and government in building an ecosystem robust innovation.
Recordings of the conference sessions are available on the Empower website. The Empower conference was organized by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council.
Wright Señeres and Tracy Meyer contributed to this story.