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Deshpande Symposium Organizers Innovate, Migrate to Virtual Setting

Annual Event on Entrepreneurship in Higher Education Draws Record Attendance Online

Screen grab of symposium website landing page
Typically a lively in-person event in Lowell, the ninth annual Deshpande Symposium went virtual and drew its biggest crowd ever.

By David Perry

Even a global pandemic couldn’t stop the Deshpande Symposium on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Higher Education. 

The ninth annual symposium was cut from three full days to two half days, but the move to a virtual format saw attendance increase to 1,250, nearly fivefold over last year. Attendees tuned in from more than 400 colleges and universities, representing almost every state in the U.S. and 15 other countries, noted UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney in her welcoming remarks. She recalled the first year of the event, when there were just 75 attendees.

Participants discussed and presented more than two dozen panel and poster sessions about entrepreneurship, innovation and their place in the transformation of culture and ecosystems of colleges and universities. 

The symposium had been held at UMass Lowell since its inception in 2012, but this year it had been planned as its first road trip, to Cleveland. Then, COVID-19 scrapped those plans.

Thus began the challenging task, according to UML’s Senior Director of Innovation Initiatives Tom O’Donnell, of repositioning program content, selecting and organizing the best virtual delivery technology, pulling together the extended team for supporting the symposium operations, coordinating with keynote speakers, panel presenters and poster session participants, and coordinating all external communications to key stakeholders.

“Luckily, we had a very good core team with representatives from the Symposium Steering Committee, UML’s Graduate and Professional Studies (GPS) and audio-visual support teams and the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, allowing us to pull it off in just two and a half months with record attendance,” O’Donnell says.

“We pivoted,” says Deb Hoover, president and CEO of the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, a Deshpande Symposium sponsor. The shift online, she adds, came after some “quick thinking and lots and lots of behind-the-scenes planning.”

This year, conference fees were covered by sponsors. Attendees tuned in via Whova’s event management web portal and mobile app.

Some of the topics covered proved especially timely, as one of the panels and the second day’s keynote speaker addressed from first-hand experience issues facing African-American entrepreneurs. As protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder continued across the globe, veteran educators and entrepreneurs discussed their experiences.

Keynote speaker Lauren Washington, a serial entrepreneur who in 2017 cofounded Black Women Talk Tech to help Black women entrepreneurs, described in a “fireside chat” the systemic biases in the world of startups and venture capital.

Black Women Talk Tech was formed to showcase and connect Black women in tech and provide access to resources they might not otherwise enjoy — namely, connections to one another for shared experience.

In a predominately white, male world of entrepreneurship where Black women aren’t often invited to the table, Washington helped them build their own table.

“There’s a lot of institutional bias,” she said. “A lot of it is unconscious, and a lot of it is systemic.”

Washington, who also cofounded Fundr, a platform that automates seed investing by creating portfolios of vetted startups for angel investors, said inequity hinders many businesses from ever getting off the ground. Only 3 percent of all companies receive venture capital. A small fraction of that goes to companies run by women, “and an even smaller fraction goes to Black women,” she noted.

The path of Black women entrepreneurs is, she said, “a little bit windier. The journey is longer and harder just to get our foot in the door.”

The symposium also featured a keynote address by Daniel Isenberg, founding executive director of the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Platform and an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, on the role colleges and universities play in supporting the scaling up of emerging businesses in their regional ecosystems. Breakout sessions of panels and presentations fell into three themes: culture and ecosystems of entrepreneurial universities, entrepreneurship in the curriculum and university research commercialization

Next year’s symposium will be held June 9-11 in Cleveland.