Commentary

What X Knows About Innovation That You Don't

Let’s play a guessing game. See if you can name the innovator without scrolling to the end.

Here goes: It’s an elastic business, one that scales capacity 1,000% during peak service hours. It’s also an eating establishment that, for many, doubles as a Wi-Fi-powered mobile office, a meeting place, a venue to socialize and learn.

Sound familiar? Maybe it’ll help to mention that the business transforms into an art gallery and performance space in the evening. Warmer? How about: a localized brand offering a product individuated by person, according to his, her or their hyper-specific preferences.

Sounds like the latest Amazon initiative, or a WeWork brand extension that just received $50 million in funding, right?

I assure you, it’s neither of these things. But before I tell you about the innovative company I have in mind, let me add that the numbers call for greater “broad-mindedness” about who’s an innovator.

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 According to the “Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) United States” report, from Babson College, there are often striking gender differences among innovators: 

  • Women exhibit less confidence than men in their ability to start a business (48% versus 62%).
  • Only 3% of women entrepreneurs start information and communications technology businesses, compared to 11% for men. 

Racial diversity among innovators is also an issue: 

  • The majority of entrepreneurs, 64%, are white, reflective of the U.S. population.
  • Results from 2014 to 2016 suggest that entrepreneurship rates are more stable among the white population and less stable among African Americans and Latinos. 

What to do about the situation? Let’s start with: the innovation economy should not be limited to those who can squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans. Or shell out $2,500 for a day-pass to a conference three thousand miles away from the community where you do business.

A more practical approach is to think of innovation as an everyday occurrence, not a prestige ritual reserved for the C-class.

As of 2015, according to a report from stastica, there were 31,490 independent coffee shops in the U.S. This figure includes the coffee shop I visit a few times a week and the one I was thinking of when I started typing these words.

Admittedly, I could just as easily have named any family-owned business or community-based retails establishment. The point, however, is not in the particulars. It is about democratizing innovation.

In our age of #MeToo and struggle against income inequality, innovation should be viewed as the eraser of economic boundaries, not the branding strategy of a ruling class, as described in “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, “by Anand Giridharadas.

The good news, from the same GEM report, is that despite barriers, women and minorities are making meaningful strides: 

  • In 2016, entrepreneurship rates rose for women by one percentage point to 10% while staying relatively steady for men at 15%.
  • African Americans and Hispanic ethnicities contribute substantially to entrepreneurship in the United States, accounting for 14% and 8% of entrepreneurs, respectively.

The challenge is not to stop at any single group, gender or nationality. Only then will we be the change agents we claim to be. Innovation shouldn’t be reserved for when we are among a particular group of people; it is a constant practice that brings the entire world into the frame.

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