Earlier this week, I attended the Merrimack Valley Sandbox Summit at University of Massachusetts, Lowell. The theme of the summit was Re-Imagining Cities Through Entrepreneurship  and the event began with a short talk from Desh Deshpande  of the Deshpande Foundation , a strong model of socially conscious entrepreneurship. It was inspiring: entrepreneurs are exciting people to spend time with, and socially-conscious entrepreneurs, even more so.
I was there wearing many hats. My president at Salem State University had forwarded me information on this summit last month and suggested I check it out. Therefore, I was wearing my Salem State hat - which just happens to be a gorgeous orange and blue Viking helmet! However, I couldn't help but also be there as a community organizer. I live in Roxbury, a historically African-American neighborhood in the central city area of Boston, and while innovation has defined metro Boston for centuries, Roxbury has not always benefited from its relative proximity to MIT, Harvard, and the other area universities. While the people in Roxbury may be entrepreneurial and innovative, the infrastructure and wealth needed to support and accelerate that innovation has often been lacking.
Wearing these two hats, I was eager to explore new ways of thinking about entrepreneurship and cities and the role that universities play. I chose to focus on the following sessions: Engaging an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem and Innovative Ideas on Entrepreneurial Space and Programming.
The ecosystem model in entrepreneurship has been tough for me to wrap my head around, and I was not alone. Some in the room thought that entrepreneurs were in their own ecosystem (apart from the non-entrepreneurs). Others distinguished social entrepreneurship from traditional (non-social?) entrepreneurship. The Entrepreneurial Ecosystem seems to be a concept in flux that when conceived broadly, encompasses all of the institutions and individuals involved in building and maintaining a system within which entrepreneurialism can flourish, or accelerate, to use the term of the day.
During this session, two big questions came to mind:
1-What role do universities play in an entrepreneurialism ecosystem?
Great teaching, at its core, is about incubating and accelerating ideas. For the most part, academics are exciting to be around. They generate creative ideas and the air around them is often buzzing with animated discussions of new discoveries and insights. At Salem State, we have The Enterprise Center on campus, where acceleration is the name of the game, particularly in Entrepreneur Alley, where small businesses share space and ideas. While you may assume (like I did) that entrepreneurship is the realm of business students, you can even find Biology and History majors wandering into the Enterprise Center, learning about starting their own small businesses or participating in a video pitch contest. While universities have space, academic talent, connections to businesses/government, and the raw talent of students, they don't always have connections to the local community.
This is where I put on my Roxbury hat and try to think through my second big question:
2-How do communities partner with universities to facilitate entrepreneurship without being co-opted by universities, community development corporations, and/or local government?
Specifically, how does Roxbury - a historically underserved community of color fearing rapid gentrification do this? Building capacity and wealth that stays in the community is very much on my mind and the minds of my neighbors. To quote my local friend and community organizer, Rodney Singleton: "It's not just about who operates the crane, it's about who owns the crane company." Part of the how is also the where. Where do communities do this? What does a community owned and community-driven incubator/accelerator/maker-space look like? Where do you put it? Moreover, how do you fund it?
Space and Programming
The panelists in this second session spoke to incubator, accelerator, co-working, and maker spaces - shared, individual, loud, quiet, online, social - that they facilitate to bring ideas together. Clearly, there are great strengths in bringing creative people together to develop new ideas. Programming is a key component in making these spaces work and bringing people together. The programming ranges from pitch contests (as in pitching ideas) to mixers that bring in local residents and business owners to 8am weekly meetups over coffee.
In the context of higher education institutions, the locations of these spaces range dramatically - some are located on campus, some are near campus, and others are nowhere near campus. Often, but not always, this is related to the strength of the relationship between the “owners” of the space and any linked university or college. Does it make sense to locate these economic drivers in economically underserved neighborhoods like Roxbury? This seems obvious to me. It also seems like businesses may not do this on their own but that universities can play the key role in bringing businesses (aka wealth/power) to communities in a third space that focuses on generating wealth by the community, in the community, and for the community.
And now I’m thinking with my higher education hat for a moment...
For the past 10-15 years, I have been working with teams of academics at higher ed institutions to develop new programs - degree programs, partnerships, global programs, online programs, innovative delivery of traditional programs, etc. During this panel on space and programming, I couldn't help but think about innovation within academic programs. Wouldn't it be great if we had an incubator, maker space, and accelerator for new academic programs? They could be spaces where academics could come together with other academics, community members, local folks from nonprofits, government, business, and interested students to discuss new project, to pitch the idea for a new Master's degree program, to plan a partnership with a local nonprofit, or to create a dual degree program with a university in Brasil.
Could we create a space where we withhold judgment, at least temporarily? What would an academic pitch contest look like? Who would show up to a weekly 8am coffee meetup and what great ideas would we share?
Are there models for this? Am I being completely unrealistic? What is stopping us and how could we make this happen?
By the way, for those of you not on Twitter, this is what the best part of the higher ed community on Twitter looks like, a constant visioning towards the future of higher ed.
Salem, Massachusetts in the US.
Mary Churchill is Special Assistant to the Provost for Innovation and Partnerships at Salem State University. Find her on Twitter @mary_churchill .