Princeton’s Empower 2021 conference looks to increase opportunities for Black entrepreneurs from throughout academia

“Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year.” -- W.E.B. Du Bois

Empower confernce logo and headshots

With that quote, Dr. George T. French, Jr., president of Clark Atlanta University, a Historically Black University based in Atlanta, delivered the endnote at Empower 2021, a Princeton University conference celebrating Black academic entrepreneurship. His charge to attendees to go out and create impact concluded two days of actionable advice on how to propel university research into new ventures beyond academia, and of frank conversation about the challenges to success faced by Black academic entrepreneurs.

This year’s Empower 2021 is the first in a series of events that will focus on the hurdles faced by academic entrepreneurs from historically underrepresented groups.

During the event, Princeton announced three new initiatives that the Office of the Dean for Research has designed to expand participation and leadership by groups historically underrepresented in research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Rodney Priestley, Princeton’s vice dean for innovation and the Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, leads Princeton Innovation, which hosted the event.

“We initiated this first conference to address the inequities faced by Black entrepreneurs from throughout academia,” said Priestley. “The goal of Princeton Innovation is to advance innovation and entrepreneurship for societal benefit. We want to provide more opportunities for Black academics in the region, the nation and internationally to translate their research into innovations and ventures that create benefits for society.”

Empower 2021 attracted more than 900 registrants from across the country and abroad and featured speakers who contributed knowledge and perspectives from finance and industry, in addition to academia.

In addition, the University, along with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, the law firm Mintz, the financial services firm EisnerAmper, and Foundation for Health Advancement, also awarded a $100,000 prize plus generous in-kind services to the top winner in a pitch competition that attracted startup ventures arising from research at institutions across the country. The National Urban League was also a conference sponsor.

“I was thrilled that this is a national conversation,” said Empower planning committee member Ita Ekpoudom, Partner at GingerBread Capital, and an alumna from the Class of 2003. “We are really trying to advance Black entrepreneurship, which is one of the ways to close opportunity and wealth gaps, but it will take efforts across the country.”

Gaps in opportunities, governance, funding and wealth were a recurring theme throughout Empower 2021 especially in the opening keynotes for both days. On the first day in the opening session, the governance gap – a scarcity of Black and other leaders of color in Fortune 500 companies, was discussed by Gabrielle Sulzberger and Mike Froman. Sulzberger is a co-founder of the Board Diversity Action Alliance, a senior advisor at Two Sigma Impact, a trustee at the Ford Foundation and a 1981 Princeton alumna. Froman is vice chairman and president of strategic growth for Mastercard, chairman of their Center for Inclusive Growth, and a 1985 alumnus.

In the second day opening session, Ken Chenault, former CEO of American Express, and chairman and managing director of General Catalyst, identified several gaps that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed among communities of color.

Throughout the conference, speakers offered actionable advice for Black academics to overcome these gaps and achieve success spinning out companies based on their research.

Pairing academic entrepreneurs’ technical expertise with business development support and training was identified as a key component in spinout success. “Many of us majored in engineering and sciences,” said Robert Long, chief research and development officer at Kimberly-Clark and a 1979 alumnus. “Selling ourselves is not the thing we majored in.”

The efforts to address these gaps were identified as being critically important, even if progress is gradual. During a panel on corporate partnerships, Rossie Turman, Chair of the International Finance group at Lowenstein Sandler, delivered a powerful example of the importance of measuring success not by completion, but by what progress has been achieved.

“The success that I want to see for my community was not going to happen in my lifetime," Turman said. "I was just putting up bricks on the wall. You don’t measure success by the fact that the wall is done. You measure success by the fact that more bricks are on the wall and you are helping more people put bricks on the wall.”

One immediate step to address the funding gap was the Empower Pitch Competition. Six startups based on university research from academic institutions around the country competed for a total of $135,000 in cash plus in-kind legal and financial advisory services. The winning startups:

  • Grand Prize: Sonavi Labs, a medical device company spun out of Johns Hopkins University, won $100,000 plus in-kind services.
  • First Runner-Up: Moving Analytics, a digital health company spun out of Stanford University, won $25,000 plus in-kind services.
  • Second Runner-Up: Grid Discovery, a microgrid data company spun out of Stevens Institute of Technology, won $10,000 plus in-kind services.

In addition to the prizes, all of the 15 pitch competition semi-finalists were offered the opportunity to meet with up to four funding groups in a curated series of meetings. Early response indicates that many of these discussions are ongoing.

Princeton is also taking tangible steps to overcome these gaps for Black and other underrepresented academic startup founders.

As announced by Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti in his opening remarks, the University is launching three new initiatives designed to expand participation and leadership by those historically underrepresented in research, innovation and entrepreneurship, in response to a call by President Christopher L. Eisgruber to combat systemic racism:

  • A new fund to support research collaborations between Princeton faculty and researchers at minority-serving institutions in the sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences.
  • The Amplifying Voices Distinguished Lecture Series, featuring prominent underrepresented researchers for public lectures and for smaller discussion sessions.
  • Inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship, which aims to boost the representation of historically underrepresented groups in entrepreneurship. The Empower conference series and START Entrepreneurs are two major programs under this initiative. START Entrepreneurs is a fellowship and accelerator program that will fund and support entrepreneurs translating University research into impactful new ventures.

Empower 2021 also included “Moving Forward” roundtable discussions to further explore key issues and to share suggestions for next steps. Dr. French closed his endnote address and tied together the themes expressed throughout the conference with a call to work together: “We take from the Empower conference that we should partner. Let’s all come up together. Let’s empower one another.”

Princeton Innovation will host Engage 2021, the second annual Princeton University conference on innovation and entrepreneurship, on Dec. 1-2. Among other areas of focus, Engage 2021 will continue the conversation about building a robust and inclusive innovation ecosystem and supporting academic entrepreneurship.

Recordings of the conference sessions are available on the Empower website. The Empower conference was organized by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council.

Wright Señeres and Tracy Meyer contributed to this story.