The Experience of Black Fellows in UIF: A Research Study
The UIF team worked with Stanford researcher Sedinam Worlanyo to understand the unique challenges, insights and needs of Black students in our program.
In Fall 2019, prompted by dynamics we’d observed of majority white teams that had one Black teammate, we decided we needed to learn what was going on, in reality, on campus. We asked ourselves, What is the experience of Black University Innovation Fellows at predominantly white institutions? What are their unique challenges, insights and needs?
We brought on Sedinam Worlanyo, a Stanford University user experience researcher and graduate student, to interview Black Fellows to help answer these questions. In her report she synthesizes the results of the qualitative research study she conducted with 10 Fellows over a 10-week period in late 2019. It provides insights on how Black students approached ideas related to design thinking, entrepreneurship, team dynamics, and negotiations with stakeholders. It also highlights both obstacles and opportunities that students encountered.
Our team reflected on these voices in order to help inform the direction of our program and the types of resources we provide. First, we created a set of new onboarding activities to help new cohort members gain empathy for one another and come together as a team before training. Then, we worked to expand the number of students applying from Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs). At the same time, members of the UIF team engaged in a deep dive in the untold history of the populations we serve, and now better understand the unevenness of opportunity.
Below are key findings and selected quotes from Sedi’s report. Her entire report, including case studies, is available as a PDF here.
To the Black members of our community, we see you. The deck is stacked against you. We have been remiss all this time, but we are determined to do better. As we work to be an anti-racist initiative, we thank Fellows, Faculty Champions and many others who have helped us realize we must do better. Thank you for your faith in us.
–The UIF team
A Snapshot into the University Innovations Fellows Program: Experiences of Black Students
Across the ten interviews, I found common themes and these constituted the findings we see below. My five main findings were centered around the positive impact of the UIF network, the need for diverse perspectives in design thinking and entrepreneurship, influence of UIF on career outcomes, UIF recruitment needs and fellow team dynamics.
Invaluable relationships even beyond the UIF network
If I could summarize the most important benefit for the black students I interviewed from UIF in one word, it would be relationships. These relationships ranged from friendships with other Fellows that they met at the meetup to connections/referrals made through UIF to opportunities that opened up that otherwise may not have existed. Additionally, in some cases, stakeholders on campus also became potential long term connections. Even in the rare case of Kim* where internal team dynamics were awful, friendships were made at the meetup (*name is fictitious, see case study 1 in full report).
Consequently, the powerful impact and opportunity that UIF creates for students to build those key connections should never be undervalued. The connections present a unique impact that results in changing lives. How might UIF continue to create an environment and atmosphere for these relationships to be created and nurtured?
“It’s been one of the best decisions of my undergraduate experience to this date. I still have people that I’ve met along the way, the mentors I’ve met along the way who I still keep in touch with. This previous weekend, I’m seeing another really good friend of mine I met there. In like a couple weeks I’ll be in Austin, where I’m also catching up with a couple of my mentors there too. To say that UIF kind of changed my life and I got a lot out of it would be an understatement.”
“Overall, I just had a really positive experience. And a lot of the people I would have connected with. For example, there was one local entrepreneur who religiously sponsored the hackathons that we had even after I left, he kept sponsoring those and then he would check periodically to say, okay, well, you go, you’re still in grad school. Good, good. So the connections that I had there even after I left from the program have been pretty good.”
The need for multiple perspectives in design thinking and entrepreneurship
Five of the interviewees brought up a need for more holistic perspectives and “real” narratives when talking about design thinking and entrepreneurship. Ideas such as risk taking are glorified without recognizing the privilege that comes with it. Within the UIF curriculum, I identified a need to acknowledge and talk more about privilege and how (in the words of a Fellow), “the experience of change making as a person of color is actually going to be different than a white student.”
Through these interviews, I was personally pushed to take a critical look at how both design thinking and entrepreneurship are presented. Which people are not included in how design thinking might be presented? What are some of the frameworks within design thinking that some black students are not connecting with? How can both design thinking and entrepreneurial skills be taught in a way that is more inclusive?
Like with everything, there is always a danger of a single story and from synthesizing the interviews, I believe that is the current flaw about how both design thinking and entrepreneurship are presented. More perspectives need to be included. How are black people applying design thinking in their lives? What parts are working for them and what parts are NOT working? Black Fellows need to hear that. What do Fellows need to consider before they try and start a business that their white peers do not?
“We rarely discuss the hardships because that would expose the deep gaps of privilege that exist within entrepreneurship.”
“I feel like design thinking has always been part of my people, my culture, my fabric and now I’m being taught it again. Those were the kind of conversations I needed to have.”
“Let’s be real. There are parts of design thinking that seem almost fake because our communities have been doing this without the title, without the structures and they haven’t been seen as serious. Now that we’re doing it as college educated intellectuals, it’s like a new thing. It all just feels fake.”
“I felt like some of the wordings, the topics, were geared towards a white audience.”
“This [entrepreneurship] shit is hard. It’s hard work and not just because it’s like you need money or any resources or whatever it is. But that is like interpersonally draining and that we all come from communities where many of us are trying to save or dig people out.”
UIF has a large influence in students’ careers in terms of how they think about innovation, design thinking processes and how they interact with stakeholders. Design thinking processes permeated students’ academic and career experiences whether it was present in a PhD program or when coaching students in public speaking.
“I actually do coaching for students now, so students will come to me. I’ll specifically help them go through the process of managing that [public speaking] at their next gig and I use design thinking the way I talk about prototyping discussions.”
“My program is called human centered computing. So it’s like a nice mix of psychology and design and computer science. So, interestingly enough, it is obviously a lot of the stuff that we do in UIF. So like prototyping and designing with empathy.”
“UIF definitely inspired me to continue working in the field of innovation, especially once I graduated and worked for 2 years in my college’s innovation department mentoring students to get excited about innovation and taking interest in working on real world businesses and creating their own projects. Afterwards, I would say that the mentality I developed while with UIF definitely strengthened my desire to work for myself and apply design thinking to my business.”
Recruitment was a conversation that came up especially with the interview question “Imagine you were a co-director of the UIF program, how would you support black students in your program?”
A perception that emerged was that the existing curriculum disconnects were because it was a reflection of the majority audience that was being catered for. In addition to partnering with HBCUs, what other models can UIF develop? What are the actual current recruitment percentages in terms of race? What are the perceived current percentages by Fellows in terms of race? The direct quotes below begin tackling some of the questions poised above and I expand upon further ideas in the recommendation section.
“Currently, UIF is speaking at a majority white audience. Very different conversations if it wasn’t those kids. You’re getting like 80% white Midwestern kids. Because the schools are able to … they’re putting money behind the program.”
“They need to have a much blacker speaker lineup and facilitator lineup. I think that the fabs need to be blacker. I think that the outreach in the like what’s it called the photos and media that they put out like all has to be blacker because like a must. We need to be explicitly called in.”
There are areas of improvement in how teams are recruited, how Fellows are taught to interact with each other in teams and ideas of “cultural awareness”. No one should feel parachuted into a program. However, in scenarios like this whose role is it to step in? The program directors? Faculty champions? The team itself? What strategies can be used to further connect teams and facilitate cultural awareness within those teams? How can options be provided for students to opt out of what they feel like might be toxic teams or toxic situations?
“Bridging cultures was expected to happen on your own, as you talk to people, which people will do, they’ll benefit from it. Absolutely. But there are some of us who might fall through the cracks. So it needs to be a little bit more intentional. That’s what I would do, and then continue with everything else. It’s really great.”
“I felt like I couldn’t leave. That Stanford opportunity was so important to me. The design thing. It was so important to me that I felt like I couldn’t leave. And so I chose to stay. But I try never to operate with my teams [in management roles] in that way ever. I always try to leave the door wide open.”
“I trusted her (faculty champion). She was a part of the program. I trusted her leadership, but then she took a step back, so she wasn’t there. She was there, but she wasn’t there as much.”
“And so what it turned into was the older cohort members were the leaders, kind of, they were the ones supposed to kind of help us navigate.”
These additional recommendations are based on insights highlighted above and a follow-up discussion with UIF co-directors.
Strategic and authentic approach in building trust to aid recruitment
I believe an explicitly outlined outreach approach focused on including more students of color might be helpful in tackling the recruitment gap that past Fellows identified. The plan should focus on building trust in communities of color, some of whom might need to be explicitly invited and called into unknown spaces in order to feel safe.
“I think that it’s goals and misunderstanding on what is really necessary to get black and brown students into places like this and that it takes so much time and effort. And this is a team that is made up of, like, four people full time if that so I’m used to like in the mountain of other things that they have to do. They probably care very deeply about this, but like don’t have the time.”
“I think that first and foremost, they would need to establish a code of conduct that like clearly delineates them as like an organization that cares about justice about equity.”
Real talk sessions
Students identified a need for more realistic conversations that acknowledge privilege and hardships in entrepreneurship. Introducing more “real talk sessions” during the UIF meetup that bring in additional perspectives of these topics would be beneficial. Some of these sessions might benefit from being student only attendance.
“I like that we were able to gather without the gaze of the program or the meetup and it was on our terms.”
Black leadership within staff
I sought “black folks in leadership that I could pull aside and chat with.”
“You know, diversity within the program, whether it’s a dedicated team that’s focusing on it, whether it’s something specific in the actual meetup and then it’s also just recruitment of students. I know they’re trying to, they know it’s an issue.”
Audit of language in UIF core materials
UIF can conduct a review of language used in the core materials for teaching and learning. Facilitators can invite students during the online program or meetup to share their own personal experiences about design thinking in their own communities. This might make it feel more real to some black students and help them to connect with the content more effectively.
Transparency regarding UIF stance on diversity and inclusion
UIF may need to publicly state their stance on inclusion with a code of ethics or a statement on inclusion. The program should consider publishing their recruitment numbers and percentages in order to remain transparent and reduce any possible misconceptions of perceived numbers for race and gender.
Future Research Questions
Some initial research questions emerged from conversations with Fellows.
- How might we teach students how to apply design thinking to communities that they feel might need solutions urgently?
- What should the role of faculty champions be and how do we empower them to step in when a student feels “parachuted”?
- To what extent does the current UIF model work for school settings with different “cultures”?
- How might we create a more equitable business model to bring in more diverse students from various backgrounds?
Overall, these past weeks have been insightful. For most of the students, they’ve recalled the positive life changing impact UIF builds regarding community and relationships. Their UIF relationships have become family.
There are opportunities for the program around the need for recruiting more diverse cohorts, the importance of acknowledging privilege in the fields of entrepreneurship/design thinking and the need for more representation when developing curriculum.
Further research should be conducted around how to teach design thinking in ways that connect more clearly with students from diverse backgrounds in a way that acknowledges power structures in play. Additional research needs to also be done around funding models and how to explicitly welcome and continue to support black students in the program.