Respect Diversity + Inclusion

How the COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented innovation

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Story at a glance

  • The introduction of new obstacles can often unearth foundational issues, as well as the need for innovation.
  • The coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests have made it nearly impossible for companies and industry leaders to shy away from making their values known.
  • A new guard of innovators and entrepreneurs are guiding the way toward a more equitable future.

When the world as we know it is shaken, innovation, whether by new circumstance or necessity, is bound to find its way through the chaos to reach the top of the metaphorical jar. The saying goes that with all that unforeseen chaos also comes the chance for new faces to quickly make their way up the rungs of industry ladders, ushering fresh ideas, and ideals, in with them to hopefully save the day.

For entrepreneurs looking to bring about social change, that time is now — a year in which the word “unprecedented” has been battered around news headlines like a ping pong ball, accurately and alarmingly describing the country’s current status: more than 200,000 lives lost to the coronavirus, the plummeting jobs market, the civil unrest sparked in response to the death of Black Americans at the hands of police. 

The new guard

It’s within these dire circumstances that businesses and industry leaders have had to finally raise up their voices, and those who failed to have been paying the price. No longer acceptable is the mild blanket statement put out by, say, a director of communications, and gone are the days of “no comment.” Here instead is the upwelling of a new guard of entrepreneurs and CEOs — not only motivated by the bottomline, but by the most important causes of our time like saving the environment and fostering safe technological innovation. In fact, according to KPMG, 72 percent of CEOs believe the next three years will be more critical for their industry than the previous 50 years.

Adding fuel to their fire are investors: venture capital firms, angel investors, startup accelerators and of course higher education institutions. One, The Oxford Foundry in England, has awarded funding and expert assistance this year to entrepreneurs as part of its COVID-19 Rapid Solutions Builder program. 

“I think one thing the University of Oxford has always been really conscious about is societal economic needs, trends, what’s going on — whether that be in the economy, commercially in the private sector or beyond,” says Ana Bakshi, Director of the Foundry. “The university’s DNA in a sense is about serving society. The whole purpose is around educating people to lead in research, but then you also have this kind of brimming entrepreneurship ecosystem that’s bubbling up from students and alumni that are not necessarily connected to research but really want to build businesses. So what kind of offerings and support system do you have for them? I think it was quite limited, and that was the kind of key intention behind building [the Foundry].”

Bakshi tells Changing America that while words like “empathetic” and “inclusive” aren’t necessarily ones that would have been associated with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company even as recently as 10 or 15 years ago, that new kind of leader is exactly what the Foundry sought out to find when it was launched a few years back in 2017. 

“When you’re looking at the kind of leaders that we want to nurture, and more so that the world demands in present day, because it’s completely different to our expectations from leadership, maybe like 10 or 15 years ago, our view now is that they should be very compassionate and empathetic and inclusive, and collaborative and very creative, as well as agile, entrepreneurial and progressive.”

Bakshi explains it in this way, that The Foundry seeks aspiring entrepreneurs that not only answer, for example, the question of what the future of artificial intelligence might look like — but what the concept of ethics might mean to those who are paving its way into that future.

Tech and ethics

The concept of incorporating ethics and equality into the world of burgeoning innovation might be new, but it’s one that has become a key indicator of success for schools and businesses as the way we learn and work becomes increasingly digital. Chicago Public Schools, for example, made history in June when it announced that more than 100,000 of its students would receive high-speed internet over the next four years, a push described as the largest, longest-term effort by any city to close the gaping digital divide.

Meanwhile, the newly launched Bronx Community Relief Effort distributed $14 million in microgrants for small businesses and nonprofits in NYC’s poorest borough, also donating a whopping 15,000 Chromebooks and Wi-Fi devices to schools there.

The city of New York and others such as San Francisco have also passed legislation to regulate police use of facial recognition technology. Some cities have banned the use of it altogether, with Boston becoming the largest city on the East Coast to do so, acknowledging the technology’s “discriminatory tendencies.”

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Industry leaders are also paving the way for more ethical uses of artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology, acknowledging how the pitfalls of leaky ethics can lead to false arrests, wrongful deportations of immigrants and the over-policing of disproportionately minority communities. 

This summer Amazon announced it would halt police use of its facial recognition software Rekognition for a year, and IBM CEO Arvind Krishna published a letter to Congress saying the company would be putting an end to its facial recognition tech as well, saying it would not condone the use of the technology to be used for “mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms,” or any purpose which is not consistent with the company’s values.

In its letter to Congress, IBM also urged Congress to consider national policies to expand the number and reach of programs that “create more open and equitable pathways for all Americans to acquire marketable skills and training,” saying that the need is “particularly acute in communities of color.” 

Women on the rise

Nearly 50 years ago in 1972, Katherine Graham became the first female CEO to run a Fortune 500 company when she took the helm of the Washington Post’s parent company. Meager gains have been made, with just 37 women leading Fortune 500 companies today. Statistics have shown that female founders also receive just 2 percent of venture capital dollars — a number that drops even further for women of color.

“Diversity of perspective breeds success,” says Bakshi. “Several statistics show that people coming from racially diverse backgrounds support the company in performing better economically, and yet there’s still definitely not a level playing field.”

Results of a study by the BCG Henderson Institute strongly suggest that increasing the diversity of leadership teams leads to more and better innovation and improved financial performance. The study found that in both developing and developed economies, companies with above-average diversity on their leadership teams report a greater payoff from innovation, with companies that reported above-average diversity on their management teams also reporting innovation revenue that was 19 percentage points higher than that of companies with below-average leadership diversity.

Bakshi says that the first step is for companies to realize what exactly true diversity looks like, and become comfortable with the concept of intersectionality. She says that while many have historically perceived diversity to simply mean adding more women to their leadership team, the most important consideration is lowering the barriers of entry to underrepresented communities and those with intersectional disadvantages — especially women of color. 

Others seem to agree, like entrepreneur Anna Robinson, who founded Ceresa, a leadership virtual training platform aimed at increasing diverse corporate representation of underrepresented communities, particularly women. The company raised more than $1 million of early seed round funding in August, which is now being used to grow its platform, helping companies with a long-term vision for diversity and inclusion through ongoing mentorship and talent development.

And while the glass ceiling still looms high overhead, women such as Citigroup’s Jane Fraser are making new, historic breakthroughs. Fraser will make history come February when she becomes the first female CEO of a major Wall Street bank. Last year she also became co-chair of the Citi women affinity group, leading global diversity and inclusion initiatives to ensure that the company is recruiting, promoting and retaining more women.

“This is a groundbreaking for Wall Street, banking and finance,” Wells Fargo banking analyst Mike Mayo told CNN Business. “Citigroup is leading by example by adding diversity to the top of the firm when our country is crying out for this more than ever before. History has been made today.”