THE BLOG
03/25/2016 11:17 am ET | Updated Mar 25, 2016

4 Solutions to Rid Our Communities of 'Innovation Deserts'

In many underserved communities across this country and the globe, some people have to take a car or public transportation to travel miles to access healthy food options; these have been deemed food deserts. What happens when you also have to drive those same lengths, if not further, to access tools and resources to be an active participant in the innovation economy? How do we change that?

As a member of the tech community and an entrepreneur, I believe we must ensure that as tech and startup ecosystems are being built and fostered, that we are building an inclusive innovation economy and providing easy solutions to getting rid of innovation deserts in communities across the country.

For the past four years, my husband and I have worked in South Florida with Code Fever and Black Tech Week. We set out on a mission to get as many people as we can who identify with the African American and Caribbean community introduced, engaged, and actively participating within the innovation economy in Miami.

The pursuit is based on this question: How can we change the definition of disruptors and innovators in marginalized communities that are disconnected from the innovation economy? Here are key things we have learned that need to happen.

1. Create Asset Maps
Once you're in, you're in. It's always the "getting-in" part that disconnects the people who need the resources the most from utilizing everything that the ecosystem in your community has to offer. The truth is, there is a lot of activity already happening in our communities that needs a simple pivot to keep up with the pace of technology and the needs the community. It's important to map out what the ecosystem looks like in your community not only as a whole, but also for different groups. What does it look like for a female startup founder? What does it look like for a Black, Hispanic, or Asian entrepreneur? What about for the LGBT community? This should include identifying the funders, the co-working spaces, accelerators and incubators, community programs, coding bootcamps, government agencies that provide resources, innovation hubs, and startup and innovation event organizers.

2. Cross the Tracks
We must cultivate a "Cross the Tracks" cross-collaborative culture. Traveling around the country, I have noticed that innovation, creativity, tech, and startup activity seem to happen in silos in a city, instead all over a city. Provide incentives for organizations to host programming in various communities, and assist organizers with connecting the dots as much as possible. Let them know where free and low-cost event space is in your district to provide programming. Most importantly, people should never feel that they can't be innovative on their blocks and in their neighborhoods, that they must leave home and drive to where innovation happens. This just perpetuates the sense that this kind of activity cannot happen in neighborhoods that are already disconnected.

3. Take the Pledge
The diversity pledge that Kapor Capital is making their portfolio startups sign as a condition of getting funding is something that I would like to see duplicated in startup ecosystems across the country. Diverse hiring practices, mentorship, and internship opportunities are some of the ways that local startups and tech companies can drive innovative corporate social responsibility in your city.

#4. Change the Narrative of Inclusive Innovation
It's the difference between compassion and charity. Charity is showing up to marginalized neighborhoods with a truck full of turkeys and giving out free turkeys during Thanksgiving. It looks good and it feels good, but the next day the recipients are hungry again. Investing in marginalized communities and making sure that they are active members of your startup ecosystem is not charity; it's economic development. When done right, it will increase everyone's bottom line. Smart cities don't happen without investing in people, and not just the best and brightest, but also your "weakest players."

In February, we attracted almost 1700 participants during Black Tech Week, an initiative of Code Fever in Miami by the Knight Foundation. Our team, as well as community programming partners, held events all over the city to increase deal flow, showcase opportunities, provide collaborative collision points, and increase the resource magnesium in our communities. We provided access to VC and angel-funding opportunities, mentorship, hiring partners, youth tech, and innovation programing.

Once basic "Maslow's needs" are met, then people in marginalized communities have the luxury to innovate. While we are shaping what our communities will look like over the next 5-10 years, we have to make sure we invest in building innovative capacity and human capital. Let's rid our community of innovation deserts.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Simmons College, in conjunction with the 37th annual Simmons Leadership Conference - the premier women's leadership conference in the country - held March 29 in Boston. For more information about the conference, visit here. To follow the conference live, follow #SLC16 on March 29

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