(Photo by Tajha Chappellet-Lanier)
One night Aaron Saunders was working late at In3 when he noticed something beautiful happening. The brand-new space was playing host to two events that evening — one pitch and networking night for female entrepreneurs and one dinner discussion group.
The women’s pitch night, in the front of the space, was attended mainly by white women, drinking beer and eating pizza while they chatted. In a back room, meanwhile, the dinner discussion was a predominantly Black group — they’d ordered curry for dinner. At some point, attendees of the first event started making their way to the back of the space to use the bathrooms. Along the way some were intrigued by the conversation sounds and spicy smells coming from that back room — the women poked their heads in and found a friendly, welcoming group.
Soon it wasn’t so easy to tell where one event began and the other ended. This is it, Saunders thought, this is what success looks like — people interacting who might not have otherwise.
D.C.’s Inclusive Innovation Incubator (In3) opened with a week of events and celebration in mid-April. It had been a long time coming — a request for proposals for an operator for an incubator space near Howard University’s campus on Georgia Avenue had been posted in October 2015. By February 2016 Mayor Muriel Bowser and Howard announced that they’d picked Luma Lab, the STEM education arm of Saunders’ web development agency Clearly Innovative, to operate the space.
Then came the groundbreaking, in March, after which local architecture firm Wingate Hughes got to work developing the space. The government had awarded a $1 million grant for this purpose, and agreed to subsidize a three-year lease.
This isn’t the first time the D.C. government has been involved in the creation of an incubator space (hello, 1776!). But In3 is a unique project — because of the public, private and academic partnership it represents and because of the community of traditionally underrepresented entrepreneurs it targets.
The space has become, in the months since groundbreaking, a crown jewel in Mayor Bowser’s inclusive innovation agenda — proof that we’re not just talking about diversity here, we’re actually doing something about diversity.
And all this begs the question — what will success look like for In3? What’s the rubric on which the incubator’s work will be graded? And do different stakeholders (the government, the community, Luma Lab itself) have different expectations? We set about finding out.
(Editor’s note: We had hoped to talk with a representative Howard University about the project, but our contact did not return a request for comment.)
Aaron Saunders is worried about getting typecast. He’s a Black man operating a space created by the initiative of a Black mayor that’s located on the campus on a historically Black university. It’s for Black people, right?
“We’re trying to be intentional about targeting groups to let them know that this is a place for them and we want them to be included,” Saunders said. Hence the women-in-tech events and Latin@s-in-tech events and so many others.
“Inclusive is a big word,” he added.
Saunders sees In3 creating opportunities for all kinds of people — entrepreneurs of color, yes. But also, to take just a couple of examples, women and those without college degrees. Saunders wants his space to be the place where all these people feel comfortable, together.
But this isn’t the kind of thing that’s easy to quantify, easy to grade for the purposes of assessing success. So Saunders is keeping his eye on the government, looking for clues on what the Bowser administration will deem a job well done. “Our bible is the Pathways to Inclusion report,” Saunders told Technical.ly, alluding to the report Mayor Bowser published in December that outlines D.C.’s ambition to become the number one city for inclusive innovation.
This, it turns out, is smart thinking.
“Success means we are seeing moves in ‘Pathways to Inclusion,'” Joaquin McPeek, spokesman for Mayor Bowser, told Technical.ly. Specifically, as outlined in the report, this means 5,000 new tech jobs for underrepresented workers, 500 new companies founded by underrepresented entrepreneurs and the more nebulous goal of creating “the most inclusive culture among tech ecosystems on the East Coast.”
This last goal, arguably, is the one In3 is focused on to begin with. Saunders and his team are all in on community building — hosting event after event after event in an attempt to gather a density of diverse entrepreneurs. He’s also committed to providing educational programming and intentional mentoring, anything that will provide value to these entrepreneurs that they won’t find by working at, say, a WeWork.
Once the density is in place then comes the time for funding, growth, jobs and, down the line, more entrepreneurs starting new businesses of their own. It’s not an easy goal, moving the needle on inclusion in this realm, and Saunders certainly feels the time pressure of his three year lease.
“I understand what their goals are,” he said, of the government’s inclusive innovation mantra, “but from an operational standpoint it does present challenges.”
Saunders isn’t alone in wishing for measurable, concrete outcomes like numbers hired or amount of funding raised. Sibyl Edwards, cofounder of Black Female Founders and a leader in the D.C. diversity in tech community, also sees future In3 success in that light.
“I want to be able to go back five years from now and be able to say, ‘OK, out of that incubator, X number of companies were able to grow and scale,'” she told Technical.ly.
This is no simple demand — four years after launch 15th Street-based incubator 1776, for all it does have going on, has yet to produce a breakout startup success (at least not from from a big acquisition or name recognition perspective).
But it’s probably not useful to compare the two — their differences go far beyond their similar origins. The good news, for In3, is that its various stakeholders seem to hold similar dreams for the space. And at its very core that goal, as Saunders put it, is to make people think of D.C. when they think of diverse tech talent. It’s going to be a team effort.