Engage 2021: At Princeton, inclusion in innovation and entrepreneurship is more than just talk

Priestley, school’s vice dean of innovation, explains how university is creating and expanding programs to fill need

It’s really easy to say inclusion means you are making sure your liberal arts majors are getting an opportunity to join entrepreneurial cohorts that include computer science and engineering majors. Or even that a globally renowned university such as Princeton is collaborating with other top colleges in the area, including Rutgers University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Stevens Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania.

But doing that doesn’t address what has too often been a missing piece of the startup puzzle — providing an opportunity for those from underserved and underrepresented communities to engage with other entrepreneurs and innovators and turn their ideas into new ventures.

Rodney Priestley, Princeton’s vice dean for innovation, couldn’t agree more. That’s why he took time to address the issue during the opening segment of Engage 2021, the university’s two-day innovation and entrepreneurship virtual conference that concludes Thursday. (Click here to see the Day 2 agenda and register.)

“I always say, first and foremost, that the university is committed to diversity and inclusion at the highest levels,” he said. “When we think about innovation, and when we think about Princeton innovation, it is about inclusive innovation.

“And I don’t believe this is lip service. We actually strongly believe that we cannot be successful in innovation and entrepreneurship if we do not do it in an inclusive manner.”

Here are a few ways the school, led by Pablo Debenedetti, Princeton’s dean of research, is addressing the issue, he said.

Princeton introduced a distinguished lecture series, which will be aimed at addressing the culture on campus and research. In September, it hosted Empower, a virtual conference that celebrated Black Academic Entrepreneurship. The conference led to the START Entrepreneurs program.

Priestley describes START as an integrated program that is part academic fellowship and part startup accelerator. The goal of the program is to help aspiring commercial and social entrepreneurs translate academic scholarship into highly impactful new ventures.

Those selected for the program spend 12 months on campus working with a Princeton University principal investigator engaged in translational research leading to new or enhanced innovations that can be applied in a for-profit or not-for-profit startup. During this time, START Entrepreneurs receive training in entrepreneurship along with tailored mentorship.

In the accelerator phase, START Entrepreneurs spend 18 months off-campus at the Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs, where they work full time on their new startup or nonprofit organization. Educational programming and mentorship will be ongoing during this phase, as well.

Throughout the 30-month program, those in the cohort are paid both a salary and benefits as well as a stipend during the research phase.

The START program strongly encourages applications from members of groups that have been historically, and are presently, underrepresented in academic entrepreneurship, such as racial and ethnic minorities.

A previous tie to Princeton is not required — but all applicants must explain how they would contribute to the school’s inclusion goals.

Priestley said the school’s efforts are not solely focused on entrepreneurs. He pointed to the weeklong executive education program the school started with the Wharton Business School at Penn to train Princeton faculty in entrepreneurship.

Princeton has now opened the program up to faculty members across the state of New Jersey, including community colleges — free of charge — with an aim toward increasing diversity among educators in the entrepreneurial space.

Priestley said both programs will have tremendous impact. They fill a need, he said.

“I am a firm believer that one has to address a problem when it exists,” he said. “I certainly believe a tide raises all boats, but if there are boats that are much lower, one has to address that in a systematic manner.”

Princeton, he said, is committed to that ideal.

“We feel that it’s extremely important that for many of the programs that we have developed — although they were motivated by support of the Princeton community — to open them up to non-Princeton faculty, students and staff in the sector.”

(For more information on Day 2 of Engage 2021, click here.)