Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are accustomed to responding to adversity by taking action. Thus, while many in the country — of all political persuasions — are still stunned over the presidential election results, leaders in our innovation sector are already making plans to answer the poignant question on everyone’s mind: “Where do we go from here?”
The innovation community faces a particular burden to address this question because of our role as disruptors. We are the ones who bear some of the blame, albeit inadvertently — for disrupting retail and suburban enclaves (by creating e-commerce companies), contributing to brain drain in rural areas (by investing in startups centered in a handful of dense, innovation-friendly cities), and eliminating working-class jobs (by building companies that deliver automation, robotics, and machine learning).
No matter what any politician tells you, those jobs are not coming back. The election revealed the existence of “two Americas” — one populated by an urban elite and the other by a rural working class under threat — and our flourishing innovation economy will only make things worse in the years ahead, disrupting more “old” industries like farming, manufacturing, services, education, and beyond. We can all work toward making America great, but America is inexorably changing, and we need to embrace those changes while being cognizant of their implications. The changes are both industrial and demographic, reflecting communities in transition. The Massachusetts economy, fueled by a strong innovation sector, benefits from these trends at an aggregate level, but — like the rest of the country — we face a looming schism and we are leaving behind whole populations that are not fully reaping the benefits of our entrepreneurial growth engine.
So where do we go from here? And what can we do to make sure that, in our local community, we are addressing the corrosive impact of inequality and the imperative to break down traditional silos?
After discussions with dozens of startup CEOs in the Boston community, one emerging theme is clear: Business leaders need to model a culture of inclusivity in our companies and create opportunities for people who were born outside this country, people of color, women, and people of different sexual orientation, and generally embrace diversity in all of its forms. It is not just the right thing to do, but it will also make for stronger companies.
That is why the New England Venture Capital Association is launching a new program, called Hack.Diversity, to bring together traditionally under-represented sources of talent with the innovation economy. The program provides engineers of color with training, coaching, and mentorship as part of an internship-to-employment pipeline, positioning both employer and employee for long-term success. Our initial focus is to link up our community colleges and schools — such as Bunker Hill Community College and UMass Boston — with our fastest-growing companies, such as Carbonite, DataXu, Hubspot, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Employers will receive training in diversity and inclusion while the students will be paired with mentors of color from the community who will help them navigate their professional journey.
For too long, employers have complained that diverse talent was inaccessible to them. And for too long, our urban schools and community colleges have felt left out of the boom in the innovation economy. That disconnect needs to be addressed, and Hack.Diversity is just one of a series of initiatives required to do so. Supporting efforts around diversity has always been important, now especially so. If we can bring the two Bostons together to address the inequality and divisiveness that has taken hold, we can create a shining example for other communities throughout the country.
Jeffrey J. Bussgang is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and a general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners. Jody Rose is executive director of the New England Venture Capital Association.