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Creating and Sustaining an Inclusive Innovation Ecosystem

Philadelphia is on the rise. Population is growing for the first time in 50 years; we’ve successfully hosted events on the international stage; cranes are dotting the skyline; millennials are flocking to the city. The future is looking bright.

Philadelphia is a world-class city and my vision for its even greater future is one where we have shaken the albatross of being the nation’s poorest large city. Philadelphia will remain a tale of two cities until we solve the endemic poverty that plagues many of our neighborhoods. But I strongly believe that the business of science and technology can take on urban poverty. My vision for the future is one where Philadelphia develops a world-class model for creating and sustaining an inclusive innovation ecosystem.

Innovation is the currency of the new economy, and technology is now at the heart of virtually every industry. Scientific and technological innovation drives growth and industries that are most centered on innovation have a significant positive impact on Greater Philadelphia’s economy. For every job in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, 4.7 other jobs are created. The multipliers are also high in software publishing, electromedical manufacturing and scientific R&D services.

But as the city’s innovation economy matures and our entire job market continues to recover from the Great Recession, many residents are not sharing in the growth, as exemplified by a Drexel University study that found the economic recovery has left black male teens in Philadelphia behind.

We know that the state of public education in the city is a major driver of inequality, but we cannot afford to wait for schools to get better before we connect underserved communities to the innovation economy. There are steps we can take right now that will pay short-term dividends, both for addressing poverty and improving your business’s bottom line.

One example of how to bring inclusion to the innovation economy is the University City Science Center’s First Hand youth education program. Recognizing that many schools lack adequate resources to teach 21st century skills or to inspire pathways to 21st century jobs, we use the startup ecosystem as a learning lab for students from underserved communities. Partnering with local schools, we offer a variety of 10-week inquiry-based learning experiences where middle school students are mentored by scientists and entrepreneurs at the Science Center’s resident startup companies. Students work on a prototype project in a wet-lab alongside real companies making real products and real discoveries. The students then pitch their inventions in our conference rooms, just like a startup company.

FirstHand is just one example of the growing number of programs that partner with businesses to lower barriers of access to the innovation ecosystem. The West Philadelphia Skills Initiative is connecting unemployed residents with jobs that are being created by health sciences and technology growth in University City. The Biomedical Technician Training Program, a partnership of The Wistar Institute and the Community College of Philadelphia, is putting Philadelphians on the path to family-sustaining jobs and opportunities for career growth. Coded by Kids is teaching youth how to code at recreation centers throughout the city, and they are partnering with the Opportunities Industrialization Center to scale their program up for young adults.

Every business, small or large, can take immediate steps that can make the innovation sector more inclusive:

1.) Hiring: Small adjustments to your hiring process can quickly lead to a more diverse, and often more effective, workforce. Make sure your job announcements go out through diverse channels. Reconsider the educational requirements for certain jobs; requiring a degree doesn’t always guarantee a better hire and can limit your applicant pool.

2.) Internships: The Philadelphia Youth Network’s WorkReady Philadelphia always has more students looking for internships than available slots. The skill and experience-building of internships is important, and these internships provide connections to informal networks that students might otherwise never be able to access.

3.) Procurement: Every business can utilize the power of the purse to benefit the local economy. Engaging vendors that are minority- and locally owned can have a huge impact on communities. Take a look at your vendors and consider making a few changes.

Too often businesses only address poverty through the lens of philanthropy. Decreased poverty will lead to lower taxes, safer streets and better public schools, all of which will make a positive financial impact for your company. Making science and technology-based sectors more inclusive is not charitable work—it is essential to our bottom line as businesses and to maintaining a world-class city.

Stephen S. Tang, PH.D., MBA. is president and CEO of the University City Science Center in Philadelphia. Graduate firms and current residents of the Science Center’s business incubator support one out of every 100 jobs in Greater Philadelphia and drive $12.9 billion in economic activity in the region annually.

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Kristen Fitch

Senior Director, Marketing