Education, entrepreneurship and equity


Share this article!



For the second consecutive year I was invited to speak at the South By Southwest Education Conference in Austin, Texas. Organizers put my team on a bigger stage in a bigger room. The results were the same as last year. Following an elongated Q&A that had to be stopped due to time, audience members rushed the stage.

What could have been said that caused school principals, district administrators and representatives from major tech companies like Microsoft and Google to immediately approach me following the presentation?


My team introduced compelling data and rationale for the education sector to see itself as the innovation pipeline connected to a holistic economic ecosystem that’s largely dependent upon STEM-educated (science, technology, engineering and math) critical-thinking problem-solvers. These solution-oriented innovators, developed on the campuses of K-12 and higher education institutions, are needed to flow into the arenas of a high-wage tech-based workforce and trickle into a high-growth tech-driven entrepreneurial landscape. They represent the human capital in which we’re investing. They own an equity stake in the future of America. And we’re banking on their success.

Welcome to the 21st century public paradigm, where economic equity is slowly being recognized as an educational priority at the earliest stages. Of course, it’s easy to conflate the terms equity and equality, when so much of American history is steeped in the extraction of both.


The inequality of the public education system, developed during an era of institutionalized segregation, is unfortunately still producing cohorts of kids (along racial and economic fault lines) who are severely undermined in capacity to compete in today’s knowledge-based, tech-driven globally competitive innovation economy.

In 11 states last year, not a single black child was given an Advanced Placement Computer Science test. For Latino students, eight states were guilty of the offense. How do these decisions factor in the future for millions of innocent children who will likely ride out the conveyor belt of K-12 education into a society with few livable-wage jobs for those lacking an educational background steeped in STEM?


Even the poorest communities have a vested equity stake in the continued economic success of America. Yet, today, many communities are shortchanged when it comes to the quality of education available to their children, which is largely based upon the present-day net worth value of families who never escaped the prison of generational poverty over the past five decades.

In Oregon, there is growing collaboration between business and education leaders with recognition of what’s at stake in preparing minority students to compete and contribute meaningfully to the economic growth and competitiveness of the nation.

On the last day in February two innovation pioneers, one from the world of business, the other an education leader, met at the Café Viale on 5th in Portland. Dwayne Johnson is head of the Technology Association of Oregon Foundation, a Governor John Kitzhaber appointee and former co-chair of the committee on Small Businesses.  Dr. Sybril Bennett is a Professor of Journalism at Belmont University in Nashville, TN and the author of “Innovate: Lessons from the Underground Railroad.” Dr. Bennett was in town giving a keynote speech about digital citizenship as part of the Association of American Colleges and Universities Academic Renewal Conference on Disruptions, Innovations and Opportunities.

In her book, Dr. Bennett argues the Underground Railroad was among the most effective, disruptive and innovative networks in U.S. history.

“The Underground Railroad was successful because a disconnected group of people connected for an epic win,” Bennett wrote.

Technology today empowers disconnected groups and peoples to connect online via the Internet and offline activities, such as meetups, hackathons and pitch competitions held within local innovation ecosystems. Exposure and education play key roles. Nurturing talent to be prepared for the STEM pipeline, increasing the number of start-ups, bringing like-minded people together and providing a space and place where excellence can be achieved is Johnson’s goal for Greater Portland.

That’s a business leader thinking about the education pipeline. And more educators are now thinking about the return on investment in students through the lens of economic impact. The two sides are forming unique collaborations across the country and students are benefiting. For example, in Cleveland, Ohio, Hawken School has successfully incorporated a Lean Launchpad course to teach student how to be entrepreneurs. The NSF-funded experiment is soon to be scaled up.

It’s encouraging to see collaborative efforts being made to invest in developing entrepreneurship skills in students, many of who will become tomorrow’s CEOs, investors, foundation leaders and policymakers. There are many positive signs of business and education starting to work better together. Most notably in Oregon, Cheryl Myers, the Director of Economic and Business Equity in the Office of Governor John Kitzhaber has accepted a position as Chief of Staff for Ben Cannon, Executive Director of Oregon’s new Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

Myers, who previously sat on the North Clackamas school board for eight years prior to serving the governor for three years, is the quintessential nexus point for collaboration between business and education sectors.

Hopefully, more educators and industry leaders will collaborate in tackling the task of preparing and equipping the nation’s youth to capitalize upon their equity stake in the future America. And with the rapidly shifting demographics, we can ill-afford to leave entrepreneurship as a curricula afterthought when designing 21st century lesson plans to empower future generations of students in schools located in underserved and historically disconnected communities.