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What Happens When Only 25% of the Population Can Innovate?

Posted by Abbe Ramanan on September 16, 2019

Abbe Ramanan, graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and Member Services Intern at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, shares some insights gleaned from attending a Fierce Urgency of Now (F.U.N.) event.

Tristan Walker is a great storyteller, and with good reason. Walker has raised millions of dollars over his career spanning tech, venture capital, and now, health and beauty products as CEO of Walker & Company. He went from being raised in Queens to excelling in an elite boarding school in Connecticut, to Stony Brook University, to the Graduate School of Business at Stanford. He has lived the kind of life that makes for good stories.  

But of the many stories Tristan told during his keynote address for the Fierce Urgency of Now (F.U.N.) Festival, the one that struck me the most was not about him. He described his reasons for starting his nonprofit, Code 2040, a nonprofit which connects promising Black and Latinx students to tech companies. Seven years ago, when the nonprofit ushered in the first class of students, the cohort included a Black student from M.I.T. This student was president of his class, a varsity athlete, and excelled academically. 

Yet this student, Walker said, had never heard of Silicon Valley. Plenty of tech companies were recruiting from M.I.T., but they weren’t recruiting Black students.

The story mirrored Walker’s own experience – he didn’t find out about Silicon Valley until attending business school at Stanford. This mirrors the experiences of millions of young people of color, who can’t build ground-breaking companies of their own – not because they lack ideas or merit, but because they’re simply not invited to participate.

This participation gap, coined the “lost Einsteins” phenomenon by Stanford professor Raj Shetty, the first to recognize the pattern, is not only problematic for young would-be entrepreneurs of color, but for all of us who are losing out on their innovations. Shetty’s work through the Equality of Opportunity Project linking tax records with patent and elementary school records highlights the problem in stark figures: Black and Latinx children who excelled at math were no more likely to become inventors than children with below-average math test scores. 

Black and Latinx children who excelled at math were no more likely to become inventors than children with below-average math test scores. 

The consequences of this are staggering – how many brilliant ideas from people of color have we missed out on?

When considering this in conjunction with Walker’s story, this phenomenon becomes even more frustrating. Walker described his reasoning for starting Walker & Company as a desire to serve using his unique abilities. He described his “a-ha” moment, noticing that there weren’t any grooming products specifically for people of color, and realizing, that “[he] was the best person in the world to solve this particular problem.” He was a Black man who understood the needs of his community, and he also had the ability to raise the capital needed to start a grooming products company. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs of color aren’t in Walker’s position. Brilliant and eager persons of color may have an idea that can uniquely serve their community, but they don’t have access to the opportunities to scale it. 


So, what can be done for these “lost Einsteins”? Programs like the Fierce Urgency of Now festival can help. A program of The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the brainchild of Justin Kang and Sheena Collier, the Fierce Urgency of Now (F.U.N.) festival was held with the goal of highlighting the experiences of, challenges of, and possibilities for young professionals of color in Boston. Through 30+ events over five days, every corner of the community was invited to connect, convene, and celebrate.

Walker gave his address to a crowd of 300+ people, mostly young professionals of color, in the heart of the Boston Federal Reserve Bank, a symbol of exactly the kinds of institutions that have historically locked minorities out of financing opportunities. Hopefully, one day Tristan Walker will be just one well-known entrepreneur of color among many, and all of us will get to benefit from a more equitable and innovative world. 

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