Category School News
Author Andrew Myers

Becoming an entrepreneur is the dream of many an engineer, computer scientist, biochemist and other students in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math. Yet that dream is a reality for far too few Black, and other racially minoritized students today. Just why is a matter of debate among educators in STEM fields who hope to inspire more of their students so that, with the right education and the right coaching, they, too, can found, build, and lead successful companies based on innovative ideas.

A deeper understanding of the reasons behind racial disparities in entrepreneurship is the goal of a new five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to a team of researchers led by Ebony McGee at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and fellow professors at two historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — De’Etra Young, PhD, of Tennessee State University and Susanne L. Toney, PhD, of Hampton University.

“This is an intentional project to tap into the expertise of the scholars and scholarship at HBCUs to understand how we can implement a STEM entrepreneurship program for historically underserved and marginalized students of color,” explains McGee of the overarching goal of the study. “We wanted to do it on the undergrad level specifically. Few tend to think of undergrads as entrepreneurs, but we actually think it is the most opportune time to be an entrepreneur.”

The first year of the study, which is already underway, will include an in-depth survey of a broad cross-section of STEM-based undergraduates, both racially minoritized and not, to learn the motivations, attitudes, practices, behaviors, and prior experiences of others who have succeeded in STEM entrepreneurship.

“We want to understand the landscape, particularly with STEM students of color, but also a national sample of STEM students of every race and ethnicity to understand their current exposure to STEM entrepreneurship,” McGee says.

Questions the team seeks to answer include: Are they taking classes in STEM entrepreneurship? Are classes in STEM entrepreneurship even offered at the undergraduate level at their institutions? Are they involved in clubs? Have they done incubator training?

“We’re going to take the results of that study and do focus groups to further drill down into the experiences of even current STEM entrepreneurs — students who have succeeded to learn how they did it,” McGee adds.

The later stages of the study will develop and roll out entrepreneurial programs, including summer virtual training, three-day in-person patent workshops, and additional in-depth patent coaching to help students to navigate the complexities of funding and running successful businesses. By the program’s fifth year, McGee says, business coaches will be available to aid potential entrepreneurs in incorporating businesses.

The goal is to train a new generation of diverse business owners and welcome them into the American STEM ecosystem that has yielded so many other entrepreneurs. The program will help students learn to establish limited liability companies, increase retention of racially minoritized groups in STEM fields, promote STEM innovation that challenges systemic racism, and, ultimately, create financial prosperity through business ownership.

Too often, McGee says, for racially minoritized students the major impediment to greater entrepreneurialism is a matter of college debt, which African Americans shoulder at much higher rates than other college graduates. The undergrad years are a time when young students are surrounded by an intellectual environment that stimulates their creativity and sense of innovation, but accumulated debt holds back many. At the same time, racially minoritized students face other hurdles, such as limited access to entrepreneurship-specific education, a lack of capital sources willing to invest in ventures led by people of color, and exclusionary social networks.

“To be an entrepreneur, you have to take risks, and the undergraduate years are a time when young people are surrounded in an intellectual environment that stimulates their creativity and your sense of innovation,” McGee says. “We think this is a really untapped market for the entrepreneurial space.”

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