When communities across the country speak about supporting entrepreneurship, they refer to the health of their "entrepreneurial ecosystems." These ecosystems represent the collective of technology-based economic development organizations, entrepreneurial incubators, technology transfer programs at colleges and universities, "angel" and early stage venture funds, and a host of other related stakeholders providing resources for (and spurring the creation of) a region's entrepreneurs.
The challenge, however, is that in most communities, existing technology-based entrepreneurial support organizations fundamentally lack relationships and engagement with minority groups. Absent a meaningful inclusion strategy that further connects the historically disconnected populations to budding entrepreneurial ecosystems, current efforts will only create tighter bonds among mainstream organizations and actually accelerate the divide and disparities among minority groups, who will further struggle in underfunded attempts to create their own ecosystems.
In fact, failure to ensure that these ecosystems are deeply connected to and meaningfully engaged with ethnic minority groups will all but guarantee the demise of this country. Extreme? Only if we truly believe that the country can be competitive in a global economy with only half of its population meaningfully contributing to economic output.
In Northeast Ohio, we're taking meaningful strides to make connections, find mentors and build networks for all entrepreneurs. JumpStart has helped 1,400 minority, inner city and women entrepreneurs secure resources to accelerate company growth, and helped inclusive entrepreneurs raise $95 million. As a result of this high-impact minority business support, Northeast Ohio's investment in the companies of diverse entrepreneurs is three times the national rate.
Still, as we're smack dab in the "medical capital"—thanks to the presence of Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University and other powerhouses—we'd like to see even more of those inclusive efforts taking place in the biosciences. Developing a solid foundation in this industry is crucial: Minorities represent less than 5 percent of the growing biomedical industry workforce.
That's why I'm proud to say that Cleveland hosted the nation's first Minority Biomedical Entrepreneurship Conference (MBEC) this week. "The underrepresentation of African-Americans and Latinos in the biomedical industry undermines national economic competitiveness," said Johnathan Holifield, a co-founder of the America21 Project and co-chair of MBEC. "MBEC confronts the problem by bringing minority entrepreneurs together with industry veterans and investors for mentoring, networking and education."
Certainly a support system has been crucial to the meaningful progress being made by Zuga Medical, a 2012 Charter One Launch100 Leadership Circle honoree which recently received $100,000 from the Innovation Fund. The Beachwood-based company, which was founded by Dr. Chan Wang, developed a series of techniques, processes and components to make dental implants cost-effective. To help refine these inventions, Zuga Medical relied upon a network of advisors; specifically, dentists and Case Western Reserve University professors.
"When you're doing the entrepreneurial thing . . . there are so many issues you have to deal with," says Zuga Medical's CFO, Howard Becker. "And even though you've got strong decision-making skills, it's very important to get someone who's removed from the process, who can provide advice on a reasonable basis, who can bring a different perspective to the enterprise. That's where the advisors are very strong and very helpful to any young startup organization."
In the case of the African-American-founded RKN Corporation—a 2012 Charter One Launch100 Leadership Circle honoree which is marketing the Sani-Holder, a device that could be used by both patients and medical professionals to combat the spread of hospital-acquired infections—mentorship is as essential as vision, tenacity and old-fashioned hard work.
"More than anything, a great support system encourages entrepreneurship," says RKN's co-founder, Nina Knighton. "I had no idea at all what this journey would entail. The adaptability, the change—absolutely everything around entrepreneurship—I had no idea how much stuff went into it. My husband and I say, 'Wow, I didn’t know we should have done this' or 'Wow, I didn't know we could approach it like that.'"
But Nina and her husband (and RKN's co-founder), Robert, found that once they made one key contact, that person would open a door to another resource that has kept their forward momentum going. A word of advice from savvy veterans can often mean the difference between a good idea—or a great one. "The people we've been able to connect with have been so genuine, and just so helpful, it has been a true blessing to even be connected with these people," Robert says. "These are higher-up people with big-time positions that are looking at us and saying, 'Hey, I see your dream, I see your passion. I want to help you.'"
Here's to helping you, every day.
Darrin is Chief Economic Inclusion Officer of JumpStart and President of JumpStart Inclusion Advisors. He founded and ran his own strategic planning and management assistance firm and spent 16 years in the commercial banking and finance industry. Darrin has an MBA from Baldwin-Wallace College and an undergraduate degree from Mount Union College. He has led a series of workshops and seminars on matters of economic development and diversity.