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Q&A: Dr. Rachel Atkins

Workshop for Advancement of Research on Racial Equity and Technology, Entrepreneurship

On the Ground spoke with Dr. Rachel Atkins, a new collaborator with the Center for Critical Race + Digital Studies, on February 12, 2021 to discuss her recent Kauffman Foundation award. Their conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Congratulations on your recent Kauffman Foundation award! The project is titled “the Workshop for Advancement of Research on Racial Equity and Technology, Entrepreneurship.” Could you give us a general overview of the project?

The general idea is that we're trying to foster more work on this topic of racial equity and technology entrepreneurship among scholars across disciplines. Primarily, we're focused on two aspects: the antecedents on the one hand, and then the consequences on the other, of the lack of racial equity and tech entrepreneurship.  With respect to antecedents, we are trying to understand the nature of the disparities, to quantify them, and to understand why we don't see as many folks from BIPOC communities engaged in technology entrepreneurship activity. Then, on the other side of the spectrum, we’re looking at the consequences of disparity, so what sorts of racial equity outcomes do we observe from the technology entrepreneurship space and does the lack of representation among technology entrepreneurs contribute to the ways that certain types of technologies might produce unequal outcomes along racial lines.

The project was created to increase research in this area topically, but it's also designed to encourage scholars who identify as BIPOC research racial equity in tech entrepreneurship, because one of the other missions that Kaufman has in this line of funding is to try and diversify the pipeline of scholars who are doing work on entrepreneurship.

Was there a specific turning point, moment, or anecdote where you noticed the lack of existing research on this topic?

My original idea for my dissertation research was to utilize a commercial platform that I had developed with a high school friend of mine and my husband. I was going to attempt to use our platform to run some experiments for my dissertation, and   examine this idea of tech entrepreneurship and people of color. But starting that project, just literally trying to do the initial review of the literature and understanding the theory, I didn't find any literature on the questions I was asking. I kept thinking, am I just really bad at searching for literature? It turns out there just wasn't a lot written on this topic. There are certain limitations. My work focuses a lot on Black entrepreneurs, and when you're trying to use large administrative data sets, which is what I've been trained to do, finding a sample size large enough when you're looking at a subgroup of a subgroup of the population can be challenging. I think that plays a role in why we don't see more work on this topic. Beyond that, it was really difficult to find my theoretical footing because there wasn't a lot of literature on the causes of racial disparity in tech entrepreneurship. When I saw the Kauffman opportunity I thought this would be a really great way to generate a critical mass of scholars to start putting the foundation down in terms of both theory and a basic empirics to understand the lay of the land and, hopefully, there will be a snowball effect of more work in the area.

How is the initial foundational research going?

We don't have findings per se, but there are two lanes we’re moving in simultaneously.   One is the data collection phase and the other is systematic literature review. Not surprisingly, we’re still not finding a lot specifically on this topic, and so what we're doing is synthesizing a couple of different literatures. We do see more work on the consequences end, and there are a number of scholars who are looking at the consequences of technologies for issues of racial equity, so looking specifically at various types of algorithms. You may have seen there's been some work on, for example, facial recognition technologies and the ways that they are more or less accurate for people of color. Some work has been done on various types of commercial platforms, everything from eBay to AirBnB and just sort of looking at how user biases creates unequal outcomes for people of color. So, there have been some studies on the consequences end, but there's been much less work on the antecedents end, understanding and quantifying the technology entrepreneurship space for people of color.  We are synthesizing the literature in disciplines like economics management, entrepreneurship, sociology, and so on, that look generally at the technology entrepreneurship space and model who becomes a technology entrepreneur. We are looking at various general theories in those spaces, p and then synthesizing that literature with three sets of other literature. One is the literature on BIPOC entrepreneurship more generally, and why we observe racial disparities in entrepreneurship spaces. Second, we are looking specifically at STEM fields- so helping to understand racial disparities in STEM, both from an educational perspective, for example, disparities being experience for people of color in STEM majors in school, but then also in occupations and industries. Finally, there is some literature on gender and technology entrepreneurship. Going back to the sample size issue, women make up half of the population. It's just a little bit easier when you're doing quantitative analysis to have a sample size that you know includes enough women that you can do some analysis. There are some studies that look at entrepreneurial finance for example, Venture Capital funding and the ways that pitch competitions produce different outcomes for men and women.  We're also looking a bit at the gender literature to hypothesize about where there may be some overlap and what aspects of that would might not apply as well to communities of color. So that’s our strategy -- piecing together those literatures and synthesizing them to try and generate some theory on the issue specifically of racial equity.

This project is the first time that IHDSC has worked with Stern. Do you see increased opportunities across social science, business, and technology going forward?

I sure hope so! There's a lot of really interesting work going on in Stern in these spaces.  I know the Fubon Center for Technology, Business, and Innovation, for example, does a lot of really interesting work on topics like Fintech and AI. And to the extent that there are people at CR+DS or IHDSC looking at digital technologies and issues of racial equity there, I definitely think that there is opportunity for collaboration. There's also a Center for Business and Human Rights at Stern, and I would imagine that there are any number of ways that folks involved in those kinds of initiatives might also be interested in the work of CR+DS.  Sometimes I think our view of human rights can sort of omit issues of racial justice in the US.  We think often about a more global context and globalization, but the UN frameworks that folks who work in the human rights space use are really appropriate and helpful for dealing with issues of racial equity here domestically.  So those two centers are the first that come to mind, but I'm sure there are other pockets of work being done at Stern that would lend themselves to really fruitful collaboration.

The project sits within the Center for Critical Race + Digital Studies (CR+DS), which is embedded within IHDSC. Could you tell us about your involvement with CR+DS and how other affiliates in that broader network might be involved in your project?

I am a newer affiliate to the CR+DS community. The wealth of knowledge that I've gotten just from the listserv has been really helpful to me. My primary way of connecting with the Center is that I'm working together with Charlton McIlwain, who founded the Center. I’m the Co-PI on this project with him, so he was my first and primary connection to the Center.  But the hope is that once we've got a framework finalized for the project, I'll be sending out a call for collaborators and I'm hoping that I'll be able to tap into the CR+DS community to find some folks who will be able to bring their disciplinary and subject matter expertise to our project. There are folks who are doing really interesting work on various aspects of racial equity in various types of technologies, and to the extent that we might be able to nudge them to use that knowledge to look more specifically at entrepreneurial activity in those spaces, I think we can potentially produce some really interesting work.  So I'm hoping for some great collaborations to come out of this project.

How has COVID impacted your vision for the Workshop?

It ended up actually working in our favor to a degree. The original plan was to have four workshops over four years, starting this Spring with an in-person workshop. Due to COVID, we're not going to be starting that until next Spring. It's given us a full year to really focus on the foundational research and planning. In my eagerness to get this going, I might have underestimated the amount of time it would take to really get my footing. Being able to just spend a year delving into the research before putting the workshop together has been really helpful. But we're going to do a scaled back digital seminar to kick off the application process for folks who might be working on something that could be presented at the workshop in the spring of 2022. Look for that this summer. It was not on my radar to do some kind of virtual convening.  I was  always thinking about doing things in person, and so this created an opportunity where we could probably get, at very little cost, folks from all over to participate in a kickoff event. That's not something I had ever thought of before, but now it looks like a very doable and potentially really fruitful endeavor that we’ll kickoff this summer.

What are the next steps for how people might be able to get involved?

Step one, we're going to be looking for some specific expertise from folks who are doing work on either entrepreneurship or innovation and technology around issues of racial equity to contribute to our foundational research.  Beyond that, we will be issuing a call for participants who would be able to come to our workshop in 2022 and present their work to folks who are doing related work and have published in these various areas. We’re targeting BIPOC researchers to participate, and doctoral students and junior faculty will have an opportunity to apply for some subgrants, so there will be some funds available for them to utilize for their work.  We're really targeting doctoral students and junior faculty of color to try and offer as much support as possible for them to pursue this line of work.  There is the funding that I mentioned, but we’re also trying to expand the network that they have access to.  Part of the convening is to try and  get scholars who otherwise might not have face time with folks who are more established and well published and hope that it fosters collaboration and opportunities.

Do you foresee this project involving partnerships with government agencies, such as agencies that focus on business development or economic development, either at the local or national level? 

I actually do have an upcoming call with somebody who works in the city on issues of minority entrepreneurship and I'll be talking a little about this project.  It's not something that I had formally incorporated into the grant proposal but it's a great idea.  I know that Kaufman is always interested in collaboration with the practitioner community. We will be issuing a call for collaborators on this research and for participants in the workshop soon. If you would like to receive communications about either of these initiatives please email in order to be connected.



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