Below is a snapshot of the Cover Story published in the St. Louis Business Journal:
Solving the [startup] sector’s diversity problem isn’t just about creating a fair ecosystem. Leaders in the startup community consider it imperative to giving St. Louis a chance at standing out among the nation’s top innovation hubs. ...
One group in particular was built with the sole intent of addressing the issue.
The St. Louis Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective, a product of the BioSTL innovation hub, this month appointed its first full-time leader, LaShana Lewis, whose goal is to draft the plan toward a more inclusive St. Louis entrepreneurial community.
“People are starting to notice (the growth in St. Louis). There are companies even moving from San Francisco and New York to change their founding area to here,” Lewis said. “I want people to feel like those companies are welcome and that diversity is something very important to us.” ...
While several St. Louis startup organizations have made their own efforts toward boosting racial and gender diversity in entrepreneurship, leaders of those groups have realized their efforts alone won’t be enough. That’s why more than 20 organizations locally have joined together as part of the St. Louis Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective.
The collective’s operating model — which includes a regional approach and brings together startup support groups, economic development agencies and investors — is unique nationally. It focuses on developing solutions to solve systemic, long-standing issues that limit minorities’ opportunity in entrepreneurship. While other startup support groups have their own diversity initiatives, leaders of the effort say a truly equitable ecosystem won’t occur without a regional, systemic approach.
“We have to understand and dismantle some of the systems or we are just supporting entrepreneurs and placing them in a system that doesn’t function for them,” said Ben Johnson, vice president of programs at BioSTL.
The collective was launched in 2016 by BioSTL with help from a $420,000 grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. It has since grown from 11 member organizations to 23 groups and more than 300 individuals.
After debuting with a regional summit on race and gender equity in 2017, the collective established four committees focused on access to resources, measuring and sharing equity data, diversifying networks and startup ecosystem navigation. One of its biggest moves came earlier this month, when the collective appointed its first full-time leader: LaShana Lewis, the founder and CEO of L.M. Lewis Consulting, which specializes in diversity and inclusion consulting.
The collective “wasn’t something that was just kind of a thing that somebody thought about. There was a need and there is a reason for it to exist,” Lewis said. “It’s because it’s much evident through statistics that the resources aren’t distributed equally to certain members of the community.”
Lewis is responsible for developing the collective’s strategy to create systems-level change. BioSTL plans to continue handling the collective’s finances, but said it will now take a “backstage” leadership role with the organization.
A priority for Lewis will be to complete the collective’s work with Forward Cities, which is consulting the organization and helping it study the region’s disparities in the entrepreneurship sector. Lewis doesn’t want to rush the process and will instead take time to go through Forward Cities’ research to determine recommendations that spur new equity and inclusion initiatives. ...