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How to elevate an inclusive community of entrepreneurs

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Networking is how business gets done — but access for women and entrepreneurs of color is often limited. How can they build community, and how can the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem support them?

On Nov. 16, MIT Sloan hosted “Next Level: Elevating an Inclusive Community of Entrepreneurs,” featuring three people at the forefront of entrepreneurial diversity: Malia Lazu, a former Berkshire Bank executive vice president and current MIT Sloan lecturer who focuses on inclusion in the innovation economy; Nathalie Molina Niño, president of O3, where she is a gender- and climate-focused investor; and Leandrew Robinson, co-founder and CEO of Hingeto, a platform connecting online retailers and brands. Here are six takeaways.

It’s only gotten tougher for female entrepreneurs, so change is essential. Molina Niño recalled experiences entering the workforce two decades ago, when there was a “concerted effort to get more women into engineering, technology, and STEM.”

The entrepreneurial world has grown more inhospitable to women since then, she believes.

“We’re actually seeing a degradation. This year, women got less venture capital than three years ago, and every year it’s decreased,” she said. “A young woman today has to go no further than the cover of every technology or startup magazine in the world, no further than Googling tech founders, and any other constant and persistent message telling them, ‘This is not a space for you.’”

As such, access matters as much as capital. Robinson was able to network effectively thanks to connections that he made as entrepreneur-in-residence at online clothing retailer Karmaloop, where he helped to grow revenue from $25 to $130 million. Lotus founder Mitch Kapor took note and began inviting him on trips to Silicon Valley, where he made crucial connections.

While Kapor’s introductions helped, Robinson still felt like an outsider because he was the only Black person in many situations.

“You have a bit of imposter syndrome. ... It’s super lonely,” he said.

He referred to “underground railroads in the innovation economy” that exist among Black entrepreneurs, such as email groups and WhatsApp chats instead of formal, organized groups. They’re helpful but also reinforce otherness.

“Why is it a whisper when you’re [offered] access?” Robinson asked. “We have to be intentional. Those who already have access, have opportunities, and have the luck to get out have to be intentional about sharing that with all communities,” not just their familiar networks.

That’s why it’s crucial to lift others up along the way. Bringing these communities out into the open will make access easier.

“If there are kingmakers, and if they want to make a difference, they absolutely can,” Lazu said. “They can do the one-on-one work to help that happen. Then what happens is that the community of those granted keys begins to figure out how to get more people in.”

“If one person can eat, two people can eat,” she said. “I think that you’re seeing a lot of that within communities of color and women networks.”

Discomfort is natural, and maybe even helpful. Robinson landed his Karmaloop role through persistence, even when it felt unsettling.

“Knock on that door 40 times,” he said. “The reason I got that job [at Karmaloop] is I told them, ‘I want to start a company within a company here. Pay me when it takes off.’ That’s how I got that job. I knocked. I took it.”

He was out of his comfort zone, but he kept on going anyway. 

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“Act like you belong there. Then that begets another opportunity. Do the work, be OK being uncomfortable, and enjoy the journey,” he said.

In fact, this discomfort is preparation for entrepreneurship.

“Being an entrepreneur is not comfortable. The whole time you’re operating, you’re thinking: ‘How can I keep this company alive so I don’t have to fire my friends, or how can I find more customers so I can go to the next level?’ It’s totally uncomfortable,” he said.

Difference is an asset. Lazu pointed out that companies with diverse executive teams are 33% more likely to outperform their industry on profitability and 70% more likely to capture new markets. For minorities in any organization, imposter syndrome can be turned into an advantage: the ability to bring new perspective.

“Let me flip it around and say, ‘I’m actually the only unicorn here, because I’m actually the only one who’s been a Black man in America for X amount of years or a woman in this room.’ So that’s a great, great takeaway,” she said.

Plus, outsiders often recognize and appreciate other outsiders — and can help form connections. You never know how someone else arrived at success, so differences matter.

Maybe an investor is dyslexic, or grew up poor on a farm, so they also relate to feeling marginalized.

Diversity can’t be performative. Molina Niño’s company, O3, stands for Outcomes Over Optics.

“We live in a world where optics seem to take precedent, and we need to be living in a world where outcomes are really the focus,” she said. “Are you making sure that everybody [who] contributed … has skin in the game? The best kind of skin in the game is my income, my promotion, my group’s growth, my ability to publish a book — whatever these things that you use to measure [success] in your field,” she said.

As such, actions speak louder than words. Robinson calls this “hire-wire.”

“Don’t do performative. … You have a fund size of a billion,” he said. “Why don’t you take 15% of that and … make it a mission to find Black, Latinx, women and fund them? Wire. If you’re a company, and you want to make an impact and serve a community better? Hire.”

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