What it means to build inclusive ecosystems

Let’s level-set with a fact that we can’t refute: White men hold a disproportionate amount of power in tech, entrepreneurship, and venture capital — industries with outsized power to shape the ways we live and work.

The data shows the extent of this current inequality: A Deloitte-NVCA study found that just 14% of VC investment partners are female, and just 6% are Black or Latino. Some 83% of tech executives are white, and Black and Hispanic workers are employed in the tech sector at just over half the rates they are in the private sector overall. In 2016, 10 prominent Silicon Valley tech companies employed zero Black women. Women-owned startups received just 2% of all 2018 venture capital and 1% of venture-backed founders are Black and 1.8% are Latino. And this is just the beginning of the list.

Pervasive exclusivity is a moral problem, as it exacerbates income disparities, reinforces historical inequalities, and narrows career possibilities for too many Americans. It’s also a practical problem with consequences for the entire nation. When only some people have the opportunity to pursue their ideas, everyone loses out on the innovation that never takes root.

Fortunately, there are some notable efforts being made to support groups that are too often marginalized. Opportunity Hub is working to train the next generation of Black tech leaders and founders. Pivotal Ventures is leading the fight for gender equity in tech. Other organizations are also working every day to create more inclusive opportunity, including Black Girls CodeBlack and Brown FoundersKapor CapitalBackstage CapitalCode2040Million Women Mentors, and numerous more.

When only some people have the opportunity to pursue their ideas, everyone loses out on the innovation that never takes root.

CORI’s role to play

CORI was founded because the digital economy lacked geographic inclusivity, with rural places left behind as the urban space rapidly grew. But, we understand that to truly create inclusive rural prosperity, rural opportunity also has to be inclusive across race and gender.

Contrary to popular perception, rural America is far less white than stereotypes suggest, and rural racial disparities often exceed urban gaps. As we and other organizations work to build tech ecosystems in communities where they were lacking that foundation, we have the opportunity and the duty to make sure they are inclusive from the start.

In June of 2020, CORI made a formal commitment to improving our diversity, equity, and inclusion work, pledging to expand our hiring pool, add new perspectives to our Board, welcome diverse new communities to our Rural Innovation Network, and work with all our communities to ensure their efforts are including and representing the entire community. We’re proud to have made real progress on these fronts, while also recognizing they are just first steps and that we have much more work to do.

Reaffirming a commitment to inclusive ecosystems

Now, as we begin the new year and start working with new communities and continue to help others, we want to reaffirm our commitment to inclusive ecosystems. In every community, we pledge to provide dedicated support that will actively engage underrepresented and marginalized groups so that they can be drivers of and active participants in the digital jobs and startups of the future.

We will train local leaders on best practices for outreach, program design, and execution that reach and support individuals who are representative of their communities. And, as we look to expand into new communities, we will put a premium on the full diversity of rural America that offers leaders who reflect and are connected to the people they serve. This is how we succeed — because rural innovation can only lead to widespread rural prosperity when every rural person has an equal opportunity to participate.

Inclusivity across the network

Within our Rural Innovation Network, we are fortunate to have already witnessed examples of the power and potential of rural entrepreneurial ecosystems that support female founders and founders of color.

Based in our Network community of Durango, Colorado, Erin Neer is CEO of MuniRevs, a startup that helps communities automate their business revenue collection.

Kanesha Barnes is the founder of EduScape, an educational startup bringing interactive learning to classrooms in our Network community of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and beyond.

Sho Rust’s childhood took him across the globe to Japan, but he settled in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to launch Sho.ai, an AI-driven branding startup.

Susan Langer launched Live.Give.Save from office space at Red Wing Ignite in Red Wing, Minnesota.

And Josh Kim found a new home in Waterville, Maine, where he built The Cubby, an online marketplace empowering college students and bringing them together.

There is still much to be done, but as we continue to work for more inclusive ecosystems, leaders and innovators like Sho, Kanesha, Josh, Susan, and Erin are proving that rural entrepreneurship is at its best when the people driving it are as diverse as rural America.

Changing the culture and outcomes of tech and entrepreneurship at the scale needed for social justice will require a comprehensive effort that spans governments, businesses, philanthropists, investors, nonprofits, and community leaders. We are proud and excited to play a role in that work, and as we move into 2021, we are committed to a continuous effort to make rural America more inclusive and equitable.

We’re living in a moment in which momentum is rising to make real change, so there’s no better time than this moment. Let’s get to work — and stay at it — building inclusive ecosystems from the start.