Driving Inclusivity in the Boston Startup Community

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Photo Credit: Red Javelin

Inside the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building is a hidden gem of entrepreneurship: the Roxbury Innovation Center (RIC). As part of NewCo Boston 2017, the RIC opened its doors to business professionals for an inside look at inclusivity and diversity in the Boston innovation ecosystem.

Founded in 2015, the RIC supports local economic development by encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship. Operated by the Venture Café Foundation, the RIC is a mission-driven not-for-profit gathering and event space.

“I’m not here to reinvent the wheel. I’m here to help the wheel run more smoothly,” explained Alessandra Brown, Director, Roxbury Innovation Center, describing her role as a cnnector of local entrepreneurs, aspiring business owners, and innovation incubators.

Growing a business

In a panel discussion moderated by Brown, Marcus Johnson-Smith, co-founder of Kush Groove, and Andy Jacques, co-founder and CEO of Pulse 24/7 described their entrepreneurship journeys.

After a successful career in talent acquisition and resource management, Jacques decided to strike out on his own. With guidance from Smarter in the City—the first high-tech accelerator in Dudley Square—he launched Pulse 24/7 to help small businesses compete in the on-demand economy. With the Pulse 24/7 mobile and web platform, small business owners can automate appointment scheduling, enhance their marketing efforts, and improve their business results.

“Our whole mission is about inclusivity,” Jacque explained. “We want to democratize technology for small business owners who previously couldn’t afford it.”

Johnson-Smith was inspired to turn his passion for cannabis culture into a thriving business—Kush Groove, a brick-and-mortar store on Tremont Street in Boston that sells lifestyle products like clothing, bongs, glass pipes, and other marijuana accessories. They opened their store two years ago and have been well received by the community. When Johnson-Smith thinks about his company’s future growth, he sees the potential for major expansion.

“When it comes to innovation, there’s a lot of micro economies that you can create around one major idea,” he said.

Johnson-Smith also worked with an incubator—Epicenter Community’s Accelerate Boston—to refine his business model. To date, Accelerate Boston has engaged 65 businesses, 96% of founders under 40, 77% creators of color, and 53% female, and funded 14 businesses.

Defining innovation

One of the challenges that the panel discussed was the language of entrepreneurship and innovation in predominately African American and Hispanic communities like Roxbury.

“My community has always had those things. However, it’s not often labeled that way,” explained Brown. “We have small business owners who’ve been doing tech things for a while. It’s about finding the words so that they see themselves in that space.”

Because of the lack of diversity in innovation ecosystem, Brown said that, “you don’t see yourself there because you don’t see people who look like you.”

However, through the RIC and incubators like Smarter in the City and Accelerate Boston, more people in neighborhoods like Roxbury are gaining access to the resources, support, and funding they need to take their businesses farther. 

“The opportunity is here. The resources are here. It’s about connecting the desire and willpower to what’s out there,” said Johnson-Smith.