By Tim Moore

In 2016, one of the country’s leaders in philanthropic investment in entrepreneurship –  the Kauffman Foundation – distributed a challenge to address one of the biggest issues entrepreneurial communities face: what can you do to bring more diversity and inclusion to your city’s entrepreneurial community?

More than 350 applicants applied for the Kauffman Inclusion Challenge grant, and 12 organizations were chosen as grantees. Of the 12 recipients, three were CO.STARTERS communities—Commons on Champa (Denver), CO.LAB (Chattanooga), and LAUNCH Chattanooga.

During our September community call, we discussed the importance of inclusion and had the chance to hear from these three organizations about their efforts to close the gap for the underserved.

What does it mean to bring more diversity and inclusion into entrepreneurship?

“For us, inclusion is not just gender or race, it’s also rural and urban.” said Allison, Chief Operating Officer for CO.LAB. “This is how we look at diversity and inclusion: diversity is ‘can I be at the table?’; inclusion is ‘can I speak at the table?’; and finally the third step is belonging, which asks ‘can I look the way I want to look and talk the way I want to talk?’”

When it comes to bringing diversity and inclusion into The Commons, Jacqui Dietrich, Entrepreneurship Programs Manager, said they look at the conversation very broadly. If they can support the variety of demographics found in Denver, then they can start to address the systemic challenges facing many of the city’s entrepreneurs, knowing that many of these challenges go beyond the work of The Commons.

Marco Perez, VP of Operations for LAUNCH, says to truly support the idea of an inclusive and diverse entrepreneurial community, you need to make sure everyone has a place and opportunity to learn the necessary skills.

“You don’t get home-run hitters by looking for one vertical or one industry […], you get home-run hitters by teaching everybody to bat,” said Marco. “For me, inclusion is teaching everyone to do that.”

How do we bring everyone to the table?

To continue Marco’s analogy, during the discussion the importance of having everyone play on the same team became clear. While a group focusing on a limited demographic footprint can be successful, it’s important to get all types of entrepreneurs in the same room together – or to get organizations focusing on different demographics collaborating.

At The Commons, they work to make sure they build a cohesive culture that allows them to tell the stories of all types of individuals in their community.

“We look at how to build capacity of our role models and entrepreneurial leaders in the community rather more so than continuing to build our own programs and putting our own thought leadership out there,” said Jacqui.

One of the ways CO.LAB has gotten all the players in the room is by forming the LAUNCH Fellowship, explained Alexis Willis, Director of Business Support. This new initiative recruits LAUNCH entrepreneurs and places them CO.LAB’s accelerator program to further their entrepreneurial education and growth.

What actions are being taken to encourage diversity and inclusion?

Marco shared that one of the efforts he has personally made to encourage diversity and inclusion is by bringing more of LAUNCH entrepreneurs into Chattanooga’s Innovation District. By leasing an office in the district’s flagship building, The Edney Innovation Center, he has made sure they are coming in contact with what the Innovation District has to offer, including entrepreneurial events such as 1 Million Cups and Startup Week Chattanooga.

At The Commons, Jacqui says they have worked to bring resource providers together in the community to talk about ways to address diversity and inclusion.

To reach more women who have primary responsibility for caring for children, Allison says at CO.LAB they have started providing childcare for programs. While they’ve been testing the idea with offering babysitting, they’re in the process of creating parallel programming for children through partner organizations, as well.

So what is the end goal?

Jacqui said she gets joy from what looks like small wins now, knowing they will lead to big wins in the future. For example, she’s encouraged to see a minority entrepreneur step into a leadership role and start hosting conversations in the community about diversity in entrepreneurship.

In the end, Marco summarized the panelists vision well: “the table looks like the demographic of the community you’re in.”