Written By: Maji Tharpe

I had the pleasure of attending the annual Chicago Innovation Summit on July 12, 2017. The event included everything from tech entrepreneurs and CEOs at fast growing companies sharing their secrets to success, to hands-on interactive expo features demoing virtual reality, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, drones, and more.

During the sessions, the organization did a great job of representing gender diversity in an already male-dominated tech industry. For example, Andrea Saenz, First Deputy Commissioner for the Chicago Public Library and Chair for the Board of Directors for the Instituto for Latino Progress did a fantastic job in probing conversations, contributing insight, and cultivating balance as three executive leaders from Center of Lost Arts, 1871, and Second City Works eloquently shared their take on the creative side of innovation.

As nice as these sessions were, in reviewing the participating organizations, I noticed that the ethnical representation didn’t reflect the demographics of our city or state. In search of greater insight, I reviewed the recipients of last year’s Chicago Innovation Award (this year’s is coming up in the fall). Through my informal internet search of each organizations leadership team website, LinkedIn, and more, I found that of the 25+ organizations honored, few showed notable diversity in their leadership teams.

What is Innovation?

This led me to think about what challenges the city of Chicago is experiencing with diversity in tech and innovation. And further, what does innovation really mean to us? In these initial thoughts, I came up with 3 basic categories that “making something” has to include. Delivery of:

  • New products (such as designing new software or a physical item)
  • New ideas (such as a social university concept)
  • New methods (such as disrupting the process consumers use to hail cabs)

It became clear, that in this definition, there can be some overlap but the common theme is that there must be a “new” element to the contribution. There must be something that did not exist, at least successfully, before. Could this be what’s missing? It is no secret that diversity in entrepreneurship is growing rapidly, but entrepreneurship does not automatically mean innovation. It’s something that we also have to be deliberate about and foster in our communities.

A way forward…

STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) and STEAM (insert arts) have been heavily promoted within many communities in Illinois for several years. Unfortunately, the results of this promotion are not indicative of the investment being made. If our goal is to encourage innovation amongst all societal groups, diversity and inclusion in innovative organizations, and encouragement of all ethnic groups to be active members of the upcoming 4th Industrial Revolution, I am making a plea for industry, professional groups, and trainers to innovate innovation.

Trying to convince individuals that may not have frequent exposure and an organic attraction to IT or manufacturing to dedicate themselves to a life of STEM without a contextualized basis tied to their actual interests has proved ineffective in both recruitment and retention. Integrated paths need to be developed for STEM and IT to be contextualized within career training – whether that means high school, college, trade, or on-the-job.

As my husband put it, “Nobody wants to read the 500 page instruction manual from page 1 anymore.”He’s right. Here’s my suggested plan:

  1. Develop programming training programs tied to career paths. These programs should allow short-term results that will immediately make training participants more valuable in their workplaces. Example: Create a bi-level programming training program for cosmetologists that teaches them some coding on how to change hairstyles or colors for a client. First level sticks your toe in the water while the second level increases their mastery. Locally pair the participants with peers and conduct virtual training at conducive times.
  2. Partner eager entry-level talent with seasoned talent interested in increased diversity in innovation. Seasoned talent can usually quickly identify pit holes and help polish ideas. Entry-level talent may be more quickly acclimated to modern technology.
  3. Continue to create industry-sponsored contests to spur innovation. Not only will this result in promoting an innovation mindset, but also will align innovators with the resources to potentially allow the most promising inventions to make it to the market or these innovators to be hired at organizations in which they can continue to be trained. It’s equally important to market these events and encourage participation from diverse backgrounds.

Chicago Innovation is on the right track in trying to include diversity within their initiatives. Educators and industry are on the right track to prioritize STEM-related training to prepare their future workforce. Now we simply need to revise our strategy of asking a crowded classroom to raise their hand if they are interested in IT. Instead, we need to inspire our diverse population in every industry to see how technical tracts can make them the heads of the class and ask spark innovation

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