Vision 2015 urges inclusive in innovation

adminI June 18, 2015I11:49 am

African Americans make up 13 percent of the population but produce less than one percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, said Johnathan Holifield, architect of Inclusive Competitiveness and a co-founder of ScaleUp Partners LLC.

“From where will underserved Americans’ new jobs, wealth and enterprises come if underserved Americans don’t create them?” Holifield asked at the Vision 2015 symposium on Friday, June 12 held at Harris-Stowe State University.

More than 200 people attended the daylong event, which is part of the Bioscience & Entrepreneurial Inclusion Initiative intended to identify and nurture women and minority bioscience entrepreneurs in St. Louis.

Holifield, who has assisted President Barack Obama in job creation initiatives, was the keynote speaker for the event – which was organized by BioSTL, ITEN and St. Louis Makes. His consultancy ScaleUp works to connect “disconnected Americans” to the innovation economy.

While there’s a big push to establish strong innovation communities in St. Louis and across the country, he said those support networks for entrepreneurs don’t often reach minority populations.

“The innovation economy is invisible to those who are not connected to it,” he said.

In the St. Louis region, most innovation assets are concentrated in St. Louis city, where the population is almost 50 percent African-American, he said. The region is counting on the city to perform economically, he said, but that’s not going to happen unless the minority population is connected to resources that support startups and entrepreneurs.

Travis Sheridan, founding executive director of the nonprofit Venture Café Foundation-St. Louis, focused his morning speech around equality. Every Thursday, he said, the organization holds a weekly Venture Café Gathering to help innovators and entrepreneurs “find one another” and collaborate.

However, the room doesn’t always look as inclusive as he’d like and, he said, “It makes my heart hurt.”

But that’s just one way the innovation community needs to grow in inclusiveness, he said. Right now, so much of the support goes out to the tech community. It needs to expand to include the arts, food and other areas that aren’t often supported financially but are needed for a healthy community.

“Innovation is a process to improve the human condition,” Sheridan said.

While many who attended had participated in a Venture Café  Gathering, some were new faces. Sheridan said his main call to action was for everyone to “keep showing up.”

One person in the crowd was Lisette Dennis, who retired from the Regional Arts Commission last year. She recently participated in Square One – the training program designed to support first-time entrepreneurs and sponsored by the Center for Emerging Technologies. Dennis is working on designing apps, including a DIY home improvement tutorial app that’s written in “plain English” and has photos of the tools needed for each job.

Dennis once advised artists who were seeking funding from the arts commission. “Now,” she said, “I know how they feel.”

Looking around the room, she recognized many faces.

She pointed to an African-American woman and said, “She had a brilliant idea but could not get funded here in town.”

Many agreed that while efforts are being made to get minorities introduced to the innovation community, initiatives should also urge potential investors and clients to take a chance on minority entrepreneurs.

Holifield posed the question to the St. Louis region: How can we build a “similar risk tolerance” for minorities in the innovation community?