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A Rising Star: Launch Academy

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The Deshpande Foundation, which supports sustainable, scalable social and economic impact through innovation and entrepreneurship, named Launch Academy, our student business incubator, a recipient of the Rising Star Award for Excellence in Curriculum Innovation.

June 11, 2021
by Audrey Iffert-Saleem
Audrey Iffert-Saleem

I used to start guest lectures by asking students to draw a picture of an entrepreneur. Invariably, the majority of students would draw men, typically wearing business suits. This pattern mirrored what I learned in my research on entrepreneurial intention – few people, both men and women, intended to become entrepreneurs, and most had very limited ideas about who entrepreneurs are.

It makes sense that people would have these narrow views, given mainstream depictions of entrepreneurs. Go ahead, close your eyes. Think about an entrepreneur you’ve read about in the news or seen in the movies. You’re probably picturing someone who looks pretty similar to the characters students typically draw. Now think about all of the wealth, products and services that we’re missing out on when people who don’t fit that stereotypical image choose not to pursue a dream and advance their ideas. We risk missing out on a generation of talent and innovation when people don’t see themselves reflected in dominant models of entrepreneurship.

My job is to change those perceptions. I lead InnovationX, Oregon State University’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and our team is redefining how OSU students experience entrepreneurship. We’re based in the College of Business, and we serve students from across the entire university, measuring our success by who we include in our programs and how those student entrepreneurs excel. It’s one thing to run a successful incubator program filled with engineering students and MBAs. It’s entirely another to create an incubator program where public health, horticulture and education majors feel equally welcome and can thrive.

To create an environment where any student can feel a sense of belonging, we use a concept called inclusive design. Inclusive design is the development of mainstream products and services that are accessible to and usable by as many people as reasonably possible – without the need for specialized adaptation/design. In many entrepreneurship communities, these specialized designs might look like accelerators for women or mentoring programs for entrepreneurs of color. While we believe these specialized programs are valid and necessary until the dominant culture of entrepreneurship programming changes, we ask ourselves, what would it look like to no longer need these special programs?

Dreaming that up is half the fun.

The inclusive design approach calls for 1) recognizing that exclusion is happening; 2) centering on the experiences of students who’ve been historically excluded from entrepreneurship incubators; and 3) designing for historically excluded students and extending to all. With this approach, we develop our programs to serve students who do not (at least initially) see themselves as entrepreneurs. And, why not? The personalized outreach, one-to-one coaching, intentional messaging and role modeling needed to make this significant shift in thinking also are valuable to students who already identify as entrepreneurs. It turns out that the same strategies that engage students from non-traditional entrepreneurship backgrounds are successful in engaging all students, no matter their background. When we focus on inclusion, everyone wins.

Like any journey toward inclusion, the work is never done. But, our numbers are great indicators that we are making real progress. Each year, we serve more women, students of color, students with financial need and student parents; students from the different colleges and campuses are bringing in their friends. And, it’s possible to do this with limited resources – we’ve excelled in 2020-21, in spite of the pandemic. This academic year, 49 teams representing seven OSU colleges participated in Launch Academy; about 40% of student participants identified as women and about 40% identified as students of color. While these numbers are not quite as strong as they were in 2019-20, they stand out compared to the OSU student population.

Recently, the Deshpande Foundation, which supports sustainable, scalable social and economic impact through innovation and entrepreneurship in the United States, Canada, and India, named Launch Academy, our student business incubator, a recipient of the Rising Star Award for Excellence in Curriculum Innovation. The award recognizes Launch Academy’s flexible and accessible model for providing students with entrepreneurship resources, training and community. We are proud of the strides we have made toward building an inclusive entrepreneurship community for our student business owners. We also recognize that we still have a lot of work to do as we strive to better serve the diverse population of students who call OSU home. While we celebrate our progress, we also commit to continuing to work toward the vision of an entrepreneurship center that welcomes, inspires, values, validates, informs, empowers, supports and celebrates students of all backgrounds.

The students who explore our programs are as likely as anyone else to draw pictures of entrepreneurs who fit a narrow cultural definition of business owner. Our job is to help them ultimately envision themselves in these roles and to provide the support they need to succeed. And, our hope is that someday, when asked to draw an entrepreneur, these students choose to draw a self-portrait.

InnovationX, our Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, is a training ground for turning our focus on problem-solving into results and sustainable businesses. While the center lives in our College of Business, InnovationX serves students of any major across OSU and promotes access to entrepreneurship programming for our communities.

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