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Changemaker: Joe Lott

Written by Sallyann Price / February 13, 2023

Brotherhood Initiative founder talks about race, entrepreneurship, and partnership with CoMotion Labs

Portrait of Brotherhood Initiative founder Joe Lott

Joe Lott is an associate professor in the University of Washington’s College of Education, where his teaching and research focus on creating robust learning ecologies for undergraduate students of color and identifying and supporting the next generation of inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs of color. He is the founding director of UW’s Brotherhood Initiative, a program launched in 2016 to engage and enrich the experiences of undergraduate men of color.

He spoke with CoMotion about inequities in higher education and entrepreneurship and the project’s partnership with the new social impact incubator with CoMotion Labs.

CoMotion: Tell me about the origins of the Brotherhood initiative. What need were you looking to address?

Joe Lott: My colleagues and I looked at the data on graduation rates and realized there’s at least a 10% graduation gap between men of color and their peers, not only at the UW but at peer institutions. So we gathered some practitioners of color from these underrepresented groups, including Black, Latino, American Indian, and Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian, and we met for a year to try to collectively understand: What is the problem? And how can we come up with a solution? And that’s how the Brotherhood Initiative emerged as a cohort-based learning community that aims to foster a robust learning ecology for men of color in an environment that wasn’t designed for them.

I went to a historically Black college for undergrad so my experience was different, but based on that experience I developed an interest in smaller learning communities and mentorship, which later became pillars of the Brotherhood Initiative. And it was during my doctoral program that I really started to see the inequities in higher education.

CoMotion: What have the outcomes been like so far?

JL: We have high retention and graduation rates. And our students are involved in measures of high-impact undergraduate engagement, like study abroad, research, and community service. By all accounts our students are thriving. And there’s the bonding component; it’s always good when they walk into a classroom and see another Brotherhood Initiative scholar.

CoMotion: What’s next for the Brotherhood initiative? How will the project work with CoMotion Labs?

JL: We’ve started something we call the Positive Social Change Challenge, a year-long class where students identify a social issue that is near and dear to them and their communities. The first quarter we talk about why do these issues exist? The second quarter they form groups and think about how they’ll address the issue, collect data from different stakeholders, and the third quarter they partner with the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship to develop a plan for action.

Ideally, I’d like students to continue these projects beyond the sophomore year and work with CoMotion Labs’ social impact incubator at Startup Hall to develop a business, nonprofit, or some sort of prototype. As we move forward it’s going to be more of an experiential learning approach focused on unlocking students’ leadership potential and developing their capacity for entrepreneurial innovation, which will translate to other areas of life.

CoMotion: What challenges do innovators of color face in the entrepreneurial space?

JL: There’s that saying, “in order to be it, you have to see it.” There are not a lot of entrepreneurs of color and it’s problematic from every point in the pipeline—access to funding, access to different spaces where they could be innovators, even just being taken seriously by stakeholders in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, where there’s a lot of negative stigma and low expectations. People of color are also more likely to come from economically depressed backgrounds, so are less able to take risks like quitting a job and starting up a business.

CoMotion: How can we, as a campus community and player in the innovation ecosystem, contribute to a more inclusive environment for all students and all innovators?

JL: First, there needs to be a commitment. And there needs to be intentionality in trying to understand, what are the problems and challenges we face and what are the opportunities? We see folks adding programming or resources as a one-off but there’s also an opportunity to look at the problem systemically: How do the ecosystem and different players in the ecosystem shape our understanding of where we are today? Why do we find ourselves in this position? It takes a while to flesh out a broader approach, so patience is another thing that I think we need as we develop these models and explore why things happen the way they do.