I-Corps-GEM Partnership Aims to Increase Black and Brown Entrepreneurship

Dr. Marquita Qualls, GEM Consortium

I-Corps-GEM Partnership Aims to Increase Black and Brown Entrepreneurship

Dr. Marquita Qualls, Executive Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at the National GEM Consortium.

Creating a diverse and inclusive entrepreneurship learning experience is core to the mission of NSF I-Corps and the UNY I-Corps Node. The National GEM Consortium’s Inclusion in Innovation Initiative (i4), a cooperative partnership with the National Science Foundation, is advancing that mission by developing a national diversity and inclusion infrastructure for the I-Corps program.

“We want researchers who are women, people of color, and people with disabilities to know that their innovative work can translate from the lab bench to the marketplace and benefit society. They belong, and are urgently needed, in an entrepreneurial training and funding program like I-Corps and in the field of technology entrepreneurship,” said UNY I-Corps Regional Director Shannon Ellis. “GEM are experts in this space who regularly convene I-Corps partners to share best practices around diversity and inclusion. Our whole national I-Corps network has been energized by their leadership.”

GEM enables students from underrepresented communities to pursue graduate degrees in applied science and engineering through its network of 120 of the nation’s premiere universities and its over 40 corporate members. The consortium has produced over 4,300 graduates.

Through i4, the organization established a pipeline for GEM fellows to apply to I-Corps programs and explore entrepreneurship opportunities for their academic research. To date, four GEM fellows have participated in UNY I-Corps regional courses.

Dr. Marquita Qualls, Executive Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at GEM, spoke to us about the i4 experience.

Why is it important to develop a national diversity and inclusion infrastructure for the NSF I-Corps program?

Dr. Qualls: As the global economy has become increasingly driven and dependent on technology, broadening participation in innovation pathways and ensuring a diverse STEM workforce is critical. I-Corps has an excellent track record of training academic researchers to translate laboratory research into commercially viable products. GEM i4 seeks to raise the visibility and participation of Black and Brown STEM researchers in the entrepreneurial ecosystem by transforming diversity and inclusivity in the I-Corps program at the team, instructional, leadership, and supporting function levels.

How did the i4 initiative get its start?

Dr. Qualls: The participation of women on I-Corps Teams is well documented as a result of the mandate of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA) that stipulates I-Corps should continue to promote a strong innovation system by investing in and supporting female entrepreneurs through mentorship, education, and training. NSF’s expansion of this mandate to include individuals from underrepresented groups is the impetus for the partnership with GEM i4.

What are the most impactful components of the initiative? 

Dr. Qualls: One of the main messages of i4 is ” if you see me, you can be me,” which is embedded in the first strategic goal of the initiative: Inspire a generation of scientists to pursue entrepreneurial pathways. One of the programmatic arms of i4 is a monthly panel discussion with Black and Brown tech entrepreneurs. Many of the panelists have participated in I-Corps at both the regional and national levels and share firsthand accounts of the experiences. This is a critical component because it enables our fellows to have direct interaction and ask questions in a safe and supportive environment. The other three goals of the initiative are to:

  • Integrate the GEM network into the I-Corps infrastructure;
  • Increase the number of I-Corps teams with Black and Brown scientists;
  • Impact the rate of value creation for Black and Brown entrepreneurs.

Dr. Qualls: If we’ve been able to inspire with i4, we should be able to build that infrastructure and increase the number of Black and Brown tech entrepreneurs. This program can have an impact on the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem, leading to more Black and Brown investors, angels, and access to more Black and Brown tech. Funders will start to see there are more Black and Brown people in this space and say, “I should be taking a look at their tech as well.”

What have GEM i4’s successes been to date?    

Dr. Qualls: Our main objective at GEM is to ensure that our fellows graduate with their master’s and doctoral degrees in STEM. What we also want them to embrace through i4 is the concept of “both/and”—meaning, you can be both an academic researcher AND an entrepreneur. You can both work in industry AND pursue entrepreneurial endeavors. It has been very rewarding to witness fellows who previously had not considered entrepreneurship as a pathway now participating in I-Corps regional courses. We have also had fellows apply for and be accepted to the national Teams program.

At GEM, we believe in building community, and in doing so, we build trust and credibility. We care about our fellows and they place confidence in us to guide them through the high-risk entrepreneurial pathway. But most importantly, the fellows are being exposed to and embracing an entrepreneurial mindset to problem solving which is something that has an impact on their approach to research and will be something that they can apply regardless of their career paths beyond degree completion.

Dr. Qualls moderates the “Black Entrepreneurship: Overcoming Adversity and Staying Focused” panel discussion.

Interested in learning more about the unique challenges faced by entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups? Watch “Black Entrepreneurship: Overcoming Adversity and Staying Focused” a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Qualls and organized by Cornell University’s student-led Black Entrepreneurs in Training (BET) with support from UNY I-Corps Node and eCornell.