When Columbia Business School opened the doors of its Manhattanville campus for a Neighborhood Open House last fall, it was extending an invitation to members of the neighboring Harlem community for more than just a get-together. The open house served as the public introduction of the new Inclusive Entrepreneurship Initiative, an effort housed within the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise to bring entrepreneurial activities, opportunities, and training to the local Upper Manhattan community.
Lacie Pierre ’23, a dual-degree MBA and international public affairs student, notes that attendees of the open house included a diverse mix of local entrepreneurs, investors, students, representatives of nonprofits, and others.
“It was an opportunity for us to open up the space and accept feedback from people in the community: What would you like to see? What would be helpful? When we talk about inclusive entrepreneurship, we need to design that in a participatory way,” Pierre says. Stations manned by students dotted the gathering space, and attendees were invited to converse with the students or anonymously share their thoughts and ideas via index cards. In some cases, Pierre says, CBS students were able to offer attendees guidance or make connections in real time.
“I would describe the evening as affirming that it really is possible to do entrepreneurship in an inclusive way,” notes Pierre, “and that our School is at the leading edge of that intersection of business and society.”
The Inclusive Entrepreneurship Initiative is headed by Professor Dan Wang, co-director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, who says the initiative’s origins stretch back nearly two decades—to his own tenure as a Columbia undergraduate and his work on the news team of the University’s student radio station, WKCR 89.9 FM. One of the first stories Wang worked on for the station, around 2004, was about neighborhood tensions surrounding Columbia’s proposed expansion into West Harlem. In 2022, when he found himself moving his office to Columbia’s newest expansion, in Manhattanville, the stories he heard as a student reporter were still lodged in the back of his mind.
“I would describe the evening as affirming that it really is possible to do entrepreneurship in an inclusive way.”
- Lacie Pierre ’23, a dual-degree MBA and International Public Affairs student.
“I may not have the power to completely remediate these tense relationships,” he says. “But one thing we can do at Columbia Business School is create opportunities.”
Working closely with Kaaryn Nailor, assistant dean of community partnerships at Columbia Business School and managing director of the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center, Wang sketched out a blueprint for how the Inclusive Entrepreneurship Initiative might work and what it could offer. The initiative’s overarching goal is to expand and develop venture eco- systems in the communities around CBS—connecting students, faculty, alumni, and resources to the people and organizations who’d like to work with them in doing so.
Nailor says in these early conversations about the initiative, she felt particularly excited about the educational opportunities that opened up for CBS students when its campus moved to Manhattanville.
“I was passionate about ensuring that students understand that when they’re at Columbia Business School—and after they leave—the community around them should be considered a real benefit,” Nailor says. “I think there can be the idea that, ‘I’m coming into this historically marginalized community, and I’m here to help.’ Our community doesn’t view itself that way; most New Yorkers don’t view Harlem that way. If anything, Columbia gets the benefit of having these incredibly rich, diverse communities filled with people who are providing incredible experiences for our students, faculty, and staff—and who do a lot of teaching for the academy.”
Wang says the collaborations facilitated by the initiative could take many shapes, including internship programs for CBS students within existing local business-accelerator organizations or free “venture clinics” (modeled on the concept of law clinics) where students can offer business advisory services. Wang says, eventually, he hopes the Inclusive Entrepreneurship Initiative will include a curricular offering for students, “so that students who are interested in this can receive formal training in what it means to create economic value by bridging digital, economic, and social divides.”
During the spring ’23 semester, student working groups began developing preliminary feasibility studies and strategic plans for their own inclusive entrepreneurship project ideas. Nailor says she’s been heartened by how patient community members have been with students as they plot out their projects—and she has also heard from community partners about how excited they are to see what may come of those projects.
Wang says it’s important to think broadly about what “inclusion” can and should mean—especially when the initiative and the student projects are in their nascent stages.
“When you have a broad interpretation of inclusion, you can include populations such as individuals who are either permanently or temporarily disabled,” he says. “You can include folks who are elderly who want to access the labor market but face cultural discrimination. You can include undocumented immigrants. When we think of inclusive entrepreneurship, we’re thinking about all of these non-market barriers that people face in accessing the formal economy through entrepreneurship.”
Working hard to include a greater diversity of these underrepresented groups in entrepreneurial ecosystems is just good business, he notes. Entrepreneurship is the engine of the US economy because of its ability to generate novel solutions for the people who want and need them—but it could be doing an even better job of that.
“When every startup looks the same and comes from founders who have the same demographic and economic background, you lose that diversity of ideas,” Wang says. “One way to supercharge entrepreneurship, and make it useful for everybody, is to make it more inclusive.”