MIT yesterday awarded $1 million in prize money to startups and established organizations creating economic inclusion, progress, and opportunity in the digital age.
The MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy presented the awards at the conclusion of its first Inclusive Innovation Competition. Four grand prize winners—one from each of four categories: skills, matching, humans and machines, and new models—each received $125,000. They are:
99Degrees Custom (Humans and Machines category): An apparel manufacturer of sewn and bonded sports and activewear that has engineered a partially-automated production line to compete with low-wage overseas manufacturers. The company, based in Lawrence, Mass., remains competitive while paying its 50 employees living wages and benefits.
Iora Health (New Models category): A primary care provider that operates on a flat fee model, earning profits by keeping patients healthy without unnecessary visits or procedures. Iora employs “health coaches” hired from the community at a living wage, providing an entry to the health care field. Health coaches help patients focus on meeting healthy goals and following doctor-recommended regimens. Based in Boston, the company serves 45,000 patients in 29 locations across 11 cities.
Year Up (Skills category): A nonprofit that equips low-income young adults with technology-based experience and skills that allow them to compete for, and obtain, professional jobs. Year Up’s curriculum is market-driven and responds directly to the hiring needs of employers. Based in Boston, they serve young adults in 17 U.S. cities.
Laboratoria (Matching category): A company training women from low-income backgrounds and helping them find technology jobs, such as coding positions, with Latin American companies. Graduates of Laboratoria’s program only pay for the training when they are employed. Initially based in Peru, Laboratoria has expanded into Mexico and Chile. The company plans to train 10,000 women by 2021.
A panel of judges selected the winners from 20 finalists, with the remaining 16 each receiving $25,000. Judges’ choice awards of $25,000 each were awarded to four additional companies.
An investment in human capital
The awards, which were announced at a ceremony at the MIT Media Lab, capped a day of discussion about how to create economic opportunity in a digital era that so far has seen a widening gap between haves and have-nots, with increasing numbers of people falling into the latter category as automation and globalization have reduced opportunities for lower-skilled workers.
Many of the finalists presented or pitched their work at an afternoon pitch session. The event also included a conversation with U.S. Small Business Association administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet, who discussed implicit bias in small business loans and work visas. Contreras-Sweet also discussed new ways for employees to learn skills in the workplace.
The question of training was raised repeatedly in talks throughout the day: How can the United States unleash the latent potential of unemployed and underemployed workers, equipping them with the skills and experience needed to fuel a digital-driven economy?
To Byron Auguste, managing director of Opportunity@Work, the answer is to see human capital and labor as an asset class that today depends on selection—skimming a small number of winners from the top—over investment. Auguste argued that the paradigm should be flipped, focusing on investment in human capital that results in the returns of a skilled, productive, and engaged workforce.
“If we keep our status quo labor market institutions, our status quo corporate governance, business models, and public policies, then I believe it is the case that emerging technologies will be deployed … in a way that displaces more middle-class jobs than they create,” Auguste said at Expanding Opportunity in the Digital Age, a series of short talks that preceded the competition. “So it will feel like technology is being done to us, not for us.”