Lab’s Work

Where Main Street meets the spirit of entrepreneurship 

As the Lab for Inclusive Entrepreneurship welcomes a new cohort of Inclusive Entrepreneur Fellows, founding faculty members aim to expand its reach.

Building on the success of its inaugural fellowship series, Northeastern University’s Lab for Inclusive Entrepreneurship has welcomed a new class of 11 entrepreneurs seeking strategies and solutions for business. 

This year’s cohort reflects the wide range of business leaders drawn to the program. Participants include the founder of a tech startup focused on civic engagement, the owner of a salon that specializes in eyebrow threading, and the founder of a company that provides yoga classes for kids in afterschool programs and preschools. 

One of the criteria we use to select Fellows is that their strategy be focused intentionally on helping others,” says Francesca Grippa, faculty director in the Business, Finance and Nonprofit Management programs and the Lab’s executive director. 

Grippa emphasizes that the forms that helping takes can range widely. Examples include a company with products that are environmentally friendly, one that provides mental health services in BIPOC communities, and one that teaches students in Boston schools to feel seen and supported. 

A multipronged approach 

“Our focus is Main Street,” adds the Lab’s communications director, Carl Zangerl, who is also an associate teaching professor in the Corporate and Organizational Communication master’s program. “Northeastern has this amazing range of resources and information for entrepreneurs,” Zangerl says, “and I view the Lab as the gateway for small businesses in historically underserved communities to begin to access some of this wealth of knowledge and tools.” 

Launched in 2020, the Lab is focused on three initiatives: fellowship opportunities for diverse small business owners; technical or managerial assistance for such businesses in collaboration with graduate and undergraduate students at Northeastern; and the promotion of supplier diversity through research and thought leadership.  

The first two are funded by Federal grants from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The third is made possible by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and is a cause close to the heart of Youngbok Ryu, who leads the Lab’s research on supplier diversity. “Our hope is that supplier diversity can be one way to close the socio-economic gap,” Ryu says.

An assistant teaching professor in the Commerce and Economic Development graduate program, Ryu sees opportunities in the region’s dense grouping of colleges. “We specifically looked into institutions of higher education,” Ryu says, “because we have a bunch of them here in New England. It’s very concentrated. Our primary role may be training students or conducting research, but on the other hand, we also have a responsibility to anchor institutions for communities—and, specifically, marginalized communities.” 

Based on its research, the Lab has already issued two reports (available here):  

  • “Promoting Supplier Diversity in Higher Education” identifies the barriers and opportunities in doing business with colleges and universities based on a survey of diverse small businesses 
  • “Addressing the Supplier Diversity Awareness Deficit: The Role of Higher Education Procurement Websites” highlights the ways higher education websites can help diverse small businesses navigate the procurement process. 

The same sense of responsibility to promote inclusive prosperity, Grippa says, forms the basis of the Inclusive Entrepreneur Fellowship program for Main Street business owners from disadvantaged communities recovering from the pandemic. “The Fellows are open,” Grippa says. “They’re eager to learn, some of them have gone through a lot, and they all want to grow their businesses.” 

An entrepreneur’s experience 

One graduate who has seen the program’s effects firsthand is Gayl Crump Swaby, president of mental-health provider New Generation Consultants. An experienced mental health counselor with a master’s degree in social work from Boston University and an Ed.D. in child and youth studies from Nova Southeastern University, Swaby’s expertise in her field combines rigorous scholarship with years of real-world experience. Particularly in her work with children, Swaby says, “my purpose has become my passion.”

Gayl Crump Swaby

Founder of New Generations Consultants & Associates, LLC

As an entrepreneur, however, she felt she still had a lot to learn.  

“The business side of being a therapist and running a practice or group practice or consulting business was not something that was taught in school,” she says. “I didn’t have a lot of those skills, so I wanted to get a deeper dive into looking at financials, business models, and how do I go about selecting one? How do I finance it? Anything and everything related to managing a small business.” 

At the Lab for Inclusive Entrepreneurship, she found exactly what she was looking for. Over the course of her fellowship, Swaby gained critical knowledge of negotiating contracts, setting fees, managing expenses, working with subcontractors—all knowledge and skills she could apply directly and immediately to her professional life. She also learned strategies for increasing sales and practical techniques for boosting her leadership skills. Along the way, she earned the badges that now adorn her LinkedIn profile: Building Blocks of Strategy, The Finance of Funding, and Commercializing Your New Venture.  

“The program helped me to really begin to scale my business up and think about what it means to be a small business owner,” Swaby says, “especially being a woman of color—and how difficult sometimes it is just getting access to resources and being able to break through barriers. The fellowship program helped me to think about not only not letting those barriers get in the way but the ways in which I can remove those barriers or get the support to remove those barriers.” 

Students learn from real-world challenges

The Lab’s initiatives have also proven to be fertile ground for experiential learning. Student teams in several NU colleges have helped more than 25 business owners address a wide range of challenges, from digital marketing to product development. Those business owners, including several Fellows, learned about the opportunities to collaborate with Northeastern students through the Lab’s website.

A prime example is the experiential collaboration of Ackeem Evans, founder of Election Bridge and a 2023 Inclusive Entrepreneur Fellow, and Mikhail Oet, program lead for the Commerce and Economic Development program at the College of Professional Studies. Election Bridge is an innovative tech startup that has designed a civic network platform. As Evans notes, “This project has been a great opportunity to spark transformative growth and unlock new realms of research potential for our company. It’s not just about scalability, but about fostering an environment where we can explore innovation. I’m excited to see the impact we can create by working collectively towards a common goal of civic innovation.” Echoing Evans’ sentiment, Oet says, “It’s been an exciting journey working with Ackeem.”

Ackeem Evans

Co-Founder & CEO of Election Bridge

The Lab’s own supplier diversity initiatives are also creating experiential projects. Currently, three student teams are developing recommendations—including the prototype of a diverse supplier chatbot—that will be featured at the Lab’s second annual Supplier Diversity Symposium on June 22. 

Grippa notes that faculty across Northeastern have begun to recognize the program’s effects, and she is hopeful that momentum will continue to build for the Lab and the entrepreneurs and students it serves.

“We’re still in a start-up mode,” Grippa says, “but our efforts have been contagious, and we have been able to forge new alliances and collaborations that will help us to achieve even greater success in the future.” 

Her read on the Lab’s potential? 

“I think that we can have a very significant impact.