Nuzzled on the campus of Howard University, just across the street from the McDonalds on Georgia Avenue, lies an unassuming office space brandishing a vinyl banner that reads, “Inclusive Innovation Incubator.” To the untrained eye, the storefront might look indistinguishable from any number of businesses in the nation’s capital, but what’s happening inside has the potential to revolutionize the tech industry as we know it.
Photo: Photo: Wingate Hughes Architects/Anice Hoachlander, Hoachlander Davis Photography
As a joint initiative between Howard University and the District of Columbia, the Inclusive Innovation Incubator (known as “In3”) houses the first co-working space for underrepresented entrepreneurs in tech. The 8,000 square foot building offers 60 workstations, 11 private offices, five classrooms, four conference rooms and free Wi-Fi, reservable with daily and monthly membership plans.
In3, which opened on April 17th, commemorated the event with a full Week of Welcome (WOW), offering over 27 complimentary training sessions on a wide range of topics from coding, fundraising and developing business startups.
Photo: Wingate Hughes Architects/Anice Hoachlander, Hoachlander Davis Photography
Cute, but how does this promote diversity?
Glad you asked.
Given the demographics of D.C., with the right support and infrastructure, the city is uniquely positioned to become a diverse hub for tech inclusion and entrepreneurship. It’s no secret that black people are underrepresented across the tech industry, and according to a Pathways to Inclusion report compiled by the office of Mayor Muriel Bowser, 49 percent of tech workers in D.C. are white men, and 25 percent are white women. Black men occupy only nine percent of these roles, while Black women comprise eight percent. In3 represents a proactive solution to that problem.
“D.C. is changing. We all know that,” said Aaron Saunders, Founder and CEO of Clearly Innovative, Inc., the company hired to facilitate the project. “The [Pathways to Inclusion] report identified that some folks are being left behind. So the question was, ‘what are some things that we can do to make sure that everybody in the district can benefit from the district’s growth?”
How does this translate into funding, jobs and opportunities for black techies?
As the good book says, all things work together for the good of black people in tech. In3’s close proximity to Howard University, and the LeDroit Park neighborhood, is not by coincidence. In addition to providing classes, training and resources, the goal is to create an ecosystem that unites tech industry insiders and local entrepreneurs with the community and the university. “The building will serve as a meeting place where current and future business owners of color can have support from people who look like them,” says Saunders.
Photo: Washington Informer
“I want this to be a space where people can network and students can get real world validation and learn how to effectively pitch their ideas,” Saunders says. “A place where job offers are made on the spot. Where someone in the D.C. tech ecosystem can find a good intern to take their business to the next level.”
What makes Aaron Saunders the perfect leader for this project?
With well over three decades of experience in software and mobile development, Saunders is a pioneer in the tech industry. His firm, Clearly Innovative Inc., provides clients with the expertise, support and digital solutions they need to transform their ideas into viable solutions. With a range of clients that includes the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Queens Public Library and the American Red Cross, Saunders and his team has a reputation as good as gold.
When Clearly Innovative was tapped in 2012 to pilot a summer program at Howard University Middle School for Math and Science (HUMS), the outcome was a resounding success. After racking up several awards, funding and accolades, including two consecutive first place wins by HUMS students in the Verizon App Challenge, Saunders expanded his brand to include Luma Lab, Inc., the educational extension of Clearly Innovative. With his proven track record, it’s no wonder Saunders won the bid to develop In3.
What advice does he have for black millennials in tech?
If the lack of diversity in tech is a hot topic in 2017, one can only imagine what the landscape was like when Saunders, an Ohio Wesleyan University graduate, began his career in the 1980’s. “It was really hard for me back then,” he recalls.
While Saunders is encouraged by the efforts that the tech industry is making to increase diversity, he still offers three major keys for black millennials entering into STEM careers:
1. Find a Mentor
“I think the important thing to do is to find some sort of support structure even if it’s not at the actual company you work for,” he says. “If you don’t have someone you can talk to, or a shoulder to cry on, it can be really, really hard.”
2. Stay Positive
“At one point in my career, I was a Director at a large company and there were no other people of color in the entire building. It’s hard because you want to go in with a positive perspective, but you are very aware that you’re the only person of color,” he said. “And so, sometimes when things are said or done, you want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but when you’re the only one, you start to wonder and question,” he shared. “The hardest part for me was to not get to the point where I was looking at everything as some sort of attack…where I wasn’t looking for problems where they didn’t exist.”
3. Milk It!
“Wherever you are, you need to squeeze the most value out of it as you possibly can,” Saunders says. “If they have a budget for you to take training, then take the training. There’s always some way to get value out of any situation that you’re in, and even if you want to leave and start your own company, there’s nothing wrong with learning on the job at your current location.” Saunders advises the students that he interacts with to take every opportunity to learn and get the most value out of their current situation. “Every opportunity is a stepping stone to your next opportunity,” says Saunders.
To glean more words of wisdom from Aaron Saunders, check out the video below: