Entrepreneurship at the intersection of diversity and inequality

The Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship convened a one-day conference on Monday, Dec. 5, on the simultaneity of agency and inequity of power and privilege in entrepreneurial endeavors.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — With the launch of the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship this semester and the early 2016 release of the Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion action, both entrepreneurship and diversity and inclusion are major strategic priorities at Brown University.

On Monday, Dec. 5, the entrepreneurship center immersed students, faculty, staff from Brown with local community members and scholars from higher education institutions across the country in both of those priorities for a one-day conference titled Entrepreneurship at the Intersection of Diversity and Inequality.

The conference provided perspectives on how entrepreneurship has served as a potential pathway toward inclusion and socioeconomic mobility, particularly in times of exclusion and marginalization.

Jennifer Nazareno, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Brown School of Public Health who led the organization of the conference, and Danny Warshay, the center’s executive director, spoke about the event’s genesis, their biggest takeaways from the conference and where the conversation will go from here.

Both entrepreneurship (with the launch of the new center) and diversity and inclusion are significant priorities at Brown. How did the idea for a conference originate?

Nazareno: My research examines how immigrant Filipina nurses provided long-term care and housing to vulnerable populations after the deinstitutionalization era. They stepped in to meet the needs where other long-term-care businesses were unwilling. A lot of Filipina women are nurses who became entrepreneurial because they didn’t want to work at the hospital anymore. They wanted to own their own businesses and use their skills to do so. I don’t even know if they knew to use that word — “entrepreneur.” They just knew that being a business owner would open up opportunities and social mobility for their families.

I thought it would be really interesting and timely to have a conference that looked at immigrant and minority entrepreneurship. Not a lot of universities explore entrepreneurship this way, and I thought it would be fitting for Brown, given the culture and the critical lens that Brown students have. I discussed it with Professor Mark Suchman in sociology, I pitched the idea to Danny, and it just took off.

Warshay: The center’s mission is making entrepreneurship an essential part of the Brown experience. That mission reflects a very broad footprint over the whole Brown ecosystem and doesn’t just mean business or technology. So when Jennifer mentioned this idea, I thought it was a great illustration of our mission. It made sense for the conference to be at Brown because it combined two principal themes the University is looking to advance in its strategic planning: diversity and inclusion, and entrepreneurship. It has not always been clear that those two have a lot to do with each other. And we were really proud that in our first days, the center was able to coalesce around those two important themes.

Can you share some insights on the focus of conference? What kinds of questions did you explore?

Nazareno: Intersectionality is a very theoretical term, and people usually look at it from the perspective of race, class and gender. What we were attempting to do, and what I think we did successfully, was to broaden that — to look at race, class and gender but also at ways in which other forms of social issues intersect with entrepreneurship. We brought panelists who examined based on race/ethnicity, class, gender as well as other categories of identity, such as sexuality, immigrant status and differently abled bodies. According to some scholars and keynote speaker Alejandro Portes, this was the first time they have presented at an academic conference hosted by an entrepreneurship center at a major university — with this specific angle of examining entrepreneurship.

It was also unique in bringing scholarly work and practice, where both can inform each other. Many panelists in the morning provided the framework and context by which immigrants and marginalized groups became entrepreneurs in this country. Afternoon panels showcased researchers and practitioners on the ground who are currently trying to make an impact on some of today’s complex social and public health issues through entrepreneurship. Other panelists discussed opportunities created in the informal economy. We invited everyone to critically engage and discuss how these presentations are expanding how we think, research, practice and talk about entrepreneurship at these specific intersections.

Warshay: The theme that helped us focus was diversity and inequality, and there was a lot of creativity applied to this particular conference in a way that helped us access impulses of this same theme from a wide variety of perspectives. We focused very explicitly to the exclusion of things that might have had interest but didn’t really qualify as entrepreneurship, particularly at the intersection of diversity and inequality.

During the conference, we saw this expressed in panels about topics ranging from street musicians to nonconventional bodies to AIDS patients in China to food sustainability in Latin America — all sorts of applications that were very disparate and had a focus on how entrepreneurship relates to different problems that people look to solve.

Nazareno: I don’t think people would think, initially, to look at these things through an entrepreneurial lens. They would have thought about looking at them through, for example, a public health lens and maybe think of an intervention — but not about how to get the intervention out there for people to use. And that’s an entrepreneurial way of thinking about the world: What does the world need? And how can we provide these services to those who need them?

Warshay: We don’t want be sloppy and define everything as entrepreneurship, and the conference was rigorous in its application of entrepreneurship through different methodological lenses. It’s important for Brown’s new center to be known for both respecting the rigor of academic research and for convening people around topics related to entrepreneurship that are different from the ways people might typically think about it.

What moments during the conference stood out to you as particularly compelling?

Warshay: Don Operario, a public health professor and researcher at Brown, told the story of how when we first approached him a few months ago, he didn’t quite understand how entrepreneurship would have anything to do with public health. He told us a bit about what he was working on — an app for AIDS patients in China — and we explained the center’s work and mission to him, and it dawned on him that he was actually being quite entrepreneurial but didn’t know to describe it that way. And then he very enthusiastically embraced a relationship with us that led to a series of workshops on how entrepreneurship can help solve the world’s health problems.

We are making the same connections with the Brown Institute for Brain Sciences and the medical school and the arts initiative among many others. In the Brown ecosystem, everyone thirsts for something that we call “distinctively Brown” — I think these interdepartmental relationships that we are forging, and notably this conference, are distinctively Brown. There are many other examples of this kind of breadth of entrepreneurial expression that we are starting to see and embrace from all these interdepartmental corners of the Brown ecosystem.

That’s what resonated for Don. He realized that entrepreneurship doesn’t have to have a narrow definition focused just on technology or business. At the conference, he noted that there is some overlap between the two methodologies of public health and entrepreneurship. But, in his words, the field of public health doesn’t go far enough in the application of that methodology, and it falls short where it can actually apply the solution that the methodology has devised. He said a lot of what he has learned through interactions with us is a methodology for taking an idea to the step where you can actually have impact, not just publish in a journal or talk at a conference.

Nazareno: One of the presentations that most struck me was the one presented by Dr. Lorena Munoz from the University of Minnesota. She is a geographer who examined how inmates in a federal female prison create spaces of economic opportunities centered around foods, handmade crafts and other forms of entrepreneurship in a highly restricted and regimented space that can be understood as queer economies. I found her work to be very provocative and it really expanded my view of how I critically think about entrepreneurship.

We have students at Brown who want to be entrepreneurs, and we should embrace that, but we should also educate them on different ways of thinking about it — what it means to be an entrepreneur for different groups of people. We had a very great opportunity to do that here. Overall, it was a wonderful day of research and inquiry around very timely issues that need more of our attention.

Warshay: One panel I’m really proud of was called “Innovation, Technology and Service Delivery to 'Invisible' Communities,” which focused on providing entrepreneurial resources to Latino, African-American and Asian communities. Many Brown students come from those communities, whether in Rhode Island or elsewhere, and may not always feel like they are affiliated with the word “entrepreneurship” — but they are and they should be. So it was important that we dedicated a whole panel to that topic and that we had lots of students in attendance from those communities who were motivated and inspired by what they heard.

Where does the conversation go from here? Did specific next steps emerge for the center?

Warshay: This was definitely on my mind when I offered my final remarks. I always say teaching and researching entrepreneurship are a participation sport — not a spectator sport. In order for it to be valuable beyond just being inspirational, we want to advance the opportunity to actually do something with what we’ve developed in this conference.

We have already talked about publishing. We talked about convening other kinds of conferences. We talked about diving in and doing more firsthand research. And what’s great is we now have connections with all these researchers from other universities who participated in our conference. One of the roles the center has now played is as a convener and as a nexus of people with interest in these fields.

Nazareno: One panel was on immigrant entrepreneurship and one of the suggestions was that we should have researchers as well as actual immigrant entrepreneurs together at the table. Let the research and the practice inform each other. I think what’s great about this center is that we recognize the importance of both research and practice. We want to actually talk to people on the ground and bring them to the center to share that narrative and those real-life stories.

Getting all the researchers and practitioners together like this wasn’t a small feat. So why not take that momentum and not just use it for today, but actually build on it and see where it takes us? Why not have this push us toward a certain way of thinking about entrepreneurship and how we are branding that here at the center?

Warshay: We have a loose strategic overlay we’ve established for all the different elements of entrepreneurial activity, which ranges from engagement to inspiration to empowerment. I think that same paradigm relates to what we are doing with the conference. Engagement happened at the conference and maybe even inspiration did too — and now we need to figure out how we translate this to the next step of empowerment, where we provide additional resources and move to the next stage of impact.