It's not an unfamiliar feeling for me to walk out of the classroom feeling completely inspired and uplifted by the conversations I have with my students about social entrepreneurship in public health. For the past two years I've been channeling that feeling into a podcast, "Impact & Innovation," that I record with case protagonists, guest speakers, and student innovators changing the status quo. Now, with COVID-19, I'm unable to march down to the media lab to keep those conversations going. Instead, I'm curled up with my laptop under a patch of sun that has made its way into our glassy building, and am writing this blog post instead.
It's hard to find hope during these times, especially on a day like this, when yet another new season is starting tomorrow with the fall equinox, and we still have as much uncertainty in our lives as we did in the spring. But these conversations, and these people, do make me feel hopeful. Today we met with Kathryn Finney, an alumnae of the Yale School of Public Health, who early in her career worked for a non-profit dedicated to achieving health equity for black women. During that time, Kathryn founded a digital startup as a hobby on the side, and later sold it. She experienced firsthand that not only do social entrepreneurs play a role in gender and racial equity; but also that we live in a society where gender and racial equity in entrepreneurship itself is a key challenge.
Kathryn went on to found Digital Undivided, to support Black and LatinX women entrepreneurs, and more recently the Doonie Fund, to create more equity in COVID-19 response and financial relief for Black women business owners. One of the entrepreneurs who participated in both of these was Bee Law, founder of Quirktastic, an online platform for geeks and hobbyists (soon to be rebranded as QuirkChat). One of Kathryn's parting messages was that during this time, it is all too easy to feel fearful and powerless, because nothing seems to be working as it should be. But this is also a time when we can go back to the drawing board, when everything is fair game, when it's up to us to imagine and create a more equitable society. She quoted the Sikh activist Valarie Kaur who asked, "What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?"
What can we birth out of this darkness?
As I looked around at my students and these two incredible women, I realized that the features which may be perceived to be our weaknesses, are instead our superpowers.
Race, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, education, professional training, hobbies, family history, history of being bullied... these are only some of the differences that are represented in my classroom. As we each silently compared ourselves to the archetype of the white male who gets funded in entrepreneurship, I could see us all coming to the same realization. It is our unique experiences with the aspects of society we are trying to change which will help us unlock that change. I had an image of the movie X-men, where each character's flaws turned them into superheroes.
I think Bee Law was onto something when she named her startup Quirktastic. On a day like this which started out full of fear and heaviness at yet another impending season of the unknown, I'm grateful to my quirky, geeky students and entrepreneurs for uniting and creating this community of hidden superheroes. I think it's time to come out of hiding, and lead the way!