What It’s Like To Try And Grow An Inclusive Innovation Incubator In Washington, DC

Written by Dana Sanchez


Tech is probably the last thing people think about when they think about Washington, D.C., but D.C. tech made national headlines and set the Twittersphere on fire when racist trolls hacked the website of a NASA high school competition and targeted three teenage students there.

Flying under the radar was D.C.’s Inclusive Innovation Incubator (In3DC), which served as the training ground for three girls from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School — the only all-female, all-Black team of high school finalists in NASA’s coveted national science competition.

Aaron Saunders, founder of the Inclusive Innovation Incubator, is taking advantage of the incident to try and change the narrative. “How do we change it so these girls aren’t outliers?” Saunders said during a Moguldom interview.

Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner and Bria Snell earned a spot in the NASA contest finals with their project to purify lead-contaminated water in school drinking fountains. As part of the competition, they needed to earn public votes. The 17-year-old high school juniors turned to social media to raise awareness of their project.

The day before the voting ended, their project had 78 percent of the vote. Then an anonymous Internet forum known to spew racist and homophobic comments targeted the girls, saying their project didn’t deserve to win and that the Black community was only voting for them because they were Black. The NASA website was allegedly hacked.

Washington, D.C.’s Inclusive Innovation Incubator — In3DC — is an 8,000-square-foot space owned by Howard University and funded in part by the mayor’s office for diverse entrepreneurs. In addition to renting out desk and office space, In3DC holds tech events and workshops, boot camps, training and mentorship for underrepresented and under-resourced communities.

“When people think about putting their money in Black tech, the last thing they think of is D.C. That creates a whole set of challenges for us.” — Aaron Saunders, founder and CEO of Washington, D.C.’s Inclusive Innovation Incubator, In3DC.

In3DC’s youth education program nurtured and mentored the three young women and helped bring them into the national spotlight.

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser encouraged the launch of In3DC. She is responsible for the District’s first-ever roadmap to becoming a hub for inclusive tech and innovation. Her plan includes making D.C. the most inclusive tech culture on the East Coast.

Inclusive Innovation Incubator founder Saunders spoke to Moguldom about what it’s like to try and grow an inclusive tech ecosystem in a city like D.C., famous for all things political.

Inclusive Innovation Incubator
Aaron Saunders, founder and CEO of Washington, D.C.’s Inclusive Innovation Incubator (In3DC), Clearly Innovative and Luma Lab.

Moguldom: What were the unintended consequences of the racist hacking incident?

Aaron Saunders: That definitely put us in the spotlight, unfortunately for the wrong reasons. We’re trying to change the narrative that it was the first team of Black women that ever submitted (for the NASA competition). How do we kick back the narrative? We created the opportunity for the young women. How do we change it so these girls aren’t outliers?

Moguldom: How did the girls come to be at In3DC?

Aaron Saunders: We recruited students from Banneker High School. They loved the program. About 10 of them chose to do their high school community service through In3DC. During that time we were in talks with NASA to figure out how can we work with them in In3DC. They mentioned their competition for high school students. We mentioned it to the students and they worked on their projects and even came in on weekends. Some of our participants helped these three young women. A mechanical engineer and intern from Howard University also helped them. We paid for all their supplies for their project for NASA. There was a girls team and boys team. The girls ended up making it to the final round and that’s when all the fun began. Part of the competition was voting on social. The votes were killing it and then things kinda went sideways. We first got the students in the space through a grant from Verizon. Our STEM program doesn’t focus on coding — we focus on team building, problem resolution, user interface and design, and a little coding. We want the kids to understand that you don’t have to be a coder to be part of the tech ecosystem.

I think part of the problem was too much of the story is about the racist attack and not about the amazing work the girls did. The question people need to ask is why was this the first time. NASA is literally up the road here in D.C. Why aren’t more girls submitting. Why don’t more schools know about it? Why did this program have to happen at Inclusive Innovation Incubator? Why is most of the value our kids are getting in after-school programs and not in schools? The (NASA contest) winner was supposed to get $4,000 to continue the project. The winner was announced. Another team won. Luckily the mayor’s office provided more funding ($4,000) for the girls. Our team is going to get the money as if they won. In the summer we’ll use that time and money to expand on the project that they stated.

We want to let all D.C. high schools know we’re here. Let us make sure kids can be aware of opportunities.

Moguldom: This is the first incubator in D.C. that focuses on inclusive innovation. How do you plan to make money?

Aaron Saunders: That’s the hard part, the part no one else wants to do. No one wants to invest in the entrepreneur and get them to the point where they’re ready to go. The lack of social, financial and technical capital put us at a disadvantage when trying to get into incubators. Relationships in the funding and tech ecosystem matter. Before I was running this, I was an adjunct at Howard teaching cross-platform mobile development. One of the things I heard repeatedly was they can’t find developers to build their solutions. We don’t have a lot of Black angels. I see the same problem when all the tech companies can’t find Black and brown developers to hire. Who’s cultivating them? That’s what we’re trying to do here. Its really about incubating inclusive innovation.

Moguldom: How are you funded?

Aaron Saunders: Right now we do not have our own fund but (in April) the mayor’s office put out $1.5 million request for applications for an Inclusive Innovation Fund. The benefit is that our focus is on building a dense community of diverse entrepreneurs. Right now in D.C. the community is kind of fragmented. It’s been a year since our soft launch. This whole first year has been raising awareness that we’re here, community, ecosystem building. We’ve had close to 300 events at In3DC since the launch. The space is 8,000 feet. It’s pretty big. I own the brand. The building I am in is owned by Howard University. The mayor’s office gave Howard the funds to build out the space, then put out an RFP to have someone come run it. We’re going to start ramping up our mentorship programming. There’s no formal incubator but we’re about to launch one. Our initial goal was to support other incubators. We’d host them in In3DC but not have our own. But we’ve found that sponsors want to create that kind of program so we’re going to create one. Three years ago, D.C. did a Pathway to Inclusion report. Although incomes were going up in D.C., the gap between people of color and white people was growing. Everybody was moving up but the gap was getting bigger. The goal in creating In3DC was to try close that gap. I came up with the name Inclusive Innovation Incubator.

Moguldom: What difference does it make that you’re in D.C., not Silicon Valley?

Aaron Saunders: Because we’re in D.C. we get lost in all the noise at the federal government There’s a lot of people that don’t even know we’re here, know the work we’re doing. If we were in any other city we’d probably be getting way more press, probably more sponsors. People look at D.C. and automatically think, oh it’s good. Our challenges are just hidden by how well the rest of D.C. is doing. When people think about putting their money in Black tech, the last thing they think of is D.C. That creates a whole set of challenges for us.

Moguldom: What are D.C.’s chances for landing Amazon HQ2?

Aaron Saunders: D.C. made it to the finals for Amazon. I suspect that if Amazon chooses D.C., people will start to look at us differently. People think of tech in D.C. as only tech for government. People will have to take another look at D.C. I think D.C.s chances are very high (for landing Amazon HQ2). There’s a pretty decent metro station, airport, one of the highest educated areas in the county with advanced degrees, and there’s no other big tech company here. Amazon could come in there and be king. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post. If it’s not D.C., it might be a greater D.C. area thing. I think the region has a very good chance.

Moguldom: What’s on your wish list for the Inclusive Innovation Incubator?

Aaron Saunders: For people to consider Washington, D.C. as a place to help to create additional opportunities for diverse founders and entrepreneurs. For example, JPMorgan has invested a tremendous amount of money in Detroit. Baltimore’s about to build this huge innovation community. But there’s nobody in the nation’s capital, which probably has one of the best-known HBCUs. At one time, D.C. was called Chocolate City, but when it comes to entrepreneurs and tech, you don’t ever hear anyone mention D.C.

Wishes for the incubator? More opportunities for entrepreneurs here. We’re starting to tell our own story. The In3DC space has four classrooms. We’re going to turn one into a photo/video studio and allow entrepreneurs to use the space to start creating content. We also have plans to get podcasting equipment and start our own podcast, telling our own stories — the stories you’re not reading in Tech Crunch and other magazines. Tech Crunch isn’t writing this type of story (you’re reading now).

Moguldom: What type of stories do you want to more of?

Aaron Saunders: The stories about hardworking entrepreneurs. The stories you’re reading about the people of color who are struggling, rather than the stories of drama in their lives. Their background story is why they got the press. The only reason people are telling the story about the three girls is the race part. They’re all great students who chose to take the time to work on their project after school and on weekends. I want to tell the story of what happened regardless of race. Unfortunately, the reason they tell our stories is (race). I’m not hating on the success of these other folks. I just wish everyone had an equal opportunity to tell their stories and it wasn’t about something bad that happened. For example Arlan Hamilton. She worked hard, she built relationships and she raised the funds. If it was a white person, nobody would be saying, ‘How amazing.’ When we do it, we’re outliers.

Editor’s note: In addition to In3DC, Saunders is also founder and CEO of Clearly Innovative, a national cross-platform mobile solutions provider which won a $100,000 grant from JP Morgan two years ago. “In3DC is only here because of Clearly Innovative,” Saunders told Moguldom. “With that money, we started to look for a space to run our youth programs. That’s when the RFP came about (from the mayor’s office). The fact that we just won $100K made everyone comfortable with us doing the mayor’s project. In3DC is a for-profit. “We have a separate nonprofit associated with it to underwrite grants called Luna,” Saunders said.