The Inclusive Innovation Labs at Howard University was canceled. It's not clear why - Technical.ly DC

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Feb. 16, 2021 2:27 pm

The Inclusive Innovation Labs at Howard University was canceled. It’s not clear why

Inclusive Innovation Incubator CEO Aaron Saunders shared the news about the program for minority entrepreneurs after he received a termination email from HU that provided little explanation.
Inclusive Innovation Incubator CEO Aaron Saunders.

Inclusive Innovation Incubator CEO Aaron Saunders.

(Courtesy photo)

The planned Inclusive Innovation Labs at Howard University (HU) has been canceled.

Inclusive Innovation Incubator (In3) was teaming up with the prominent local HBCU and New York-based financial tech company Fiserv to launch the Inclusive Innovation Labs this spring exclusively for university students, faculty and alumni. The inaugural program was supposed to help 15 minority entrepreneurs launch and scale their business plans.

The program was announced the first week of this month, but In3 CEO Aaron Saunders has since shared the news of its cancellation through an email to the community on Friday, Feb. 12. He did so after receiving a termination email from Bruce Jones, professor and VP of research at HU, on Tuesday, Feb. 9, with whom Saunders said he was most in contact about the program. This would have been HU and In3’s first official programming partnership.

“We have not been given any reasoning,” Saunders told Technical.ly about the email from HU he received. “Basically what it said was that the university would not be working with us on any entrepreneurship-related programming. Ever.”

The plan

In3 had been tasked with running the Inclusive Innovation Labs program at HU, which would draw inspiration from previous programs the incubator has hosted. The program would have included a mix of pitch preparation, financial technology and literacy workshops led by Fiserv and other entrepreneurial courses. Fiserv was slated to sponsor the program, which was supposed to include $45,000 in cash prizes for the pitch event winners.

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“Yes, we can confirm that Howard University will not proceed with the collaboration with In3DC,” Jones told Technical.ly in an email. “The University remains committed to developing spaces for innovation associated with Howard University now and in the future.”

The university had no further comment about the partnership’s cancellation at this time.

Saunders told Technical.ly that Fiserv first came to him last summer to conduct some entrepreneurship programming with university students, but the company was adamant about HU being a part of it. Saunders said that the Fiserv representative who first reached out told him that every time he Googled HU entrepreneurship, In3 would come up.

“I told him, ‘Look, we are not part of Howard, we are a separate organization but we’re happy to figure out how to partner with you,'” Saunders said. “All along, I was like, ‘Hey, we just want to make sure that everyone understands what our role is.'”

Early troubles

From the conceptualization stage, Saunders said he expressed some concerns with Fiserv when it came to partnering with HU because he felt like In3 would able to run the program on its own without needing to go through the university to be successful. Eventually, Saunders still brought the deal to HU, and he said the university quickly got on board. Saunders said In3 had been working with HU and Fiserv officially since August, but no one from his organization was getting paid for their work.

“When the press release went out, we thought we were good — in fact, we were told to send in an invoice,” Saunders said. “And the next thing you know on Tuesday, I get the email from Bruce Jones saying it’s done.”

Saunders told Technical.ly that In3 never even got a chance to invoice HU for the work the organization did to build the Inclusive Innovation Labs program. He even said that the pricing had been negotiated and agreed upon months prior to the program’s announcement this month, though he declined to share the terms of their deal.

There were also reportedly no official, signed contracts between In3, HU and Fiserv to run the program. Saunders said there was a “memo of understanding” running through HU’s legal process since September, but a finalized agreement had not been signed by all three parties yet. He was worried about announcing the program before contracts were signed and sealed, but HU was driving the dates for the program to take place this spring. Saunders envisioned that a bigger contracts would be signed with the university and In3 for future programming as well.

“The idea was that, we were working on an overarching agreement with the university so that we wouldn’t have to go through this long process every single time,” Saunders said. “We’d had already gone through the paperwork to be an approved vendor. We were in the system at Howard. Everything was a go.”

HU has taken down its original press release sharing the news about the program’s launch, and the application link is no longer live on Fiserv’s site. Despite HU and Fiserv making moves to wipe all details of the program online, Saunders said he hasn’t heard from his representatives at either organization since the news of the program’s termination came last week. Technical.ly reached out to those representatives at HU and Fiserv via email, but has yet to receive a comment back from Fiserv.

“Everyone has gone dark. No one has responded to me since this email went out,” Saunders said.

What’s next?

Above all, Saunders is worried about how this situation will affect future business relationships since the program attracted other organizations that wanted to do similar partnerships with In3 and HU. He’s unsure where those opportunities stand now and he’s been confused about how to explain why the HU partnership ended.

“My concern, and I’ve expressed it to my contacts at Howard, to be frank, this is like a public lynching,” he said. “It is abundantly clear to Howard, and to everyone, the role that Howard plays not only as an HBCU, but as a huge supporter of Black and brown folks, period.”

Despite the program’s cancellation, Saunders said In3 intends to provide entrepreneurial support to the individuals who had already signed up to participate in the lab. He said that In3 would love to run the full program, but doesn’t have the funding to do it alone. Still, Saunders would be interested in continuing to work with Fiserv or other organizations interested in partnering and covering the costs of the program.

“I wanted to structure the program with us independent of Howard providing programming for Howard students,” Saunders said. “Our primary objective was not to support Howard. Our primary objective was to support the community.”

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