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Episode 6: Kelly Burton, Erin Horne Mckinney of Black Innovation Alliance

Welcome to season one finale of Diverse Disruptors. But before I talk about our guests Erin Horne McKinney and Kelly Burton, Ph.D. from the Black Innovation Alliance, let's discuss innovation for a moment.

The word innovation is everywhere. It has become a buzzword to describe a lot of things. Some might say the word is overused. For example, folks have said the app Clubhouse innovated social audio, or Apple innovated the smartphone. You get the picture. But what does innovation actually mean? I think the website innovation management defines it the best as “an idea that has been transformed into practical reality.”

Let’s go back to the app Clubhouse for a moment. It is basically an app that allows people to have discussion via audio on a smartphone. And folks have called it innovative, but is it really? Remember, innovation is an idea that has become a practical reality. The app itself, if you think about it, isn’t really innovative on its own until it finds a practical or creative use for itself. It is just a tool. Clubhouse didn’t really take off or wasn't even on people’s radar until Black creators found innovative uses for the app.

According to Marketplace, the growth of Clubhouse can be attributed to Black influencers and creators. This led to Clubhouse having a $1 billion valuation aka a unicorn. A good example of this is when a Black creator by name of Noelle Chesnut Whitmore had the idea of doing a production of "Lion King" on the Clubhouse platform. On Christmas day in 2020, Whitmore enlisted 40 cast members, a choir and live instrumentation to recreate the musical "Lion King" on the social audio platform.

The news of this performance went viral and helped propel the startup to becoming part of mainstream culture. You could say not only she innovated a use of Clubhouse, but how people consume theater. She made theater more accessible to more people, who wouldn’t normally go to see a show and that to me is very innovative. She took an idea and made it a practical reality. There have been many debates whether the founders of Clubhouse owe Black creators like Noelle compensation for helping grow their business to a valuation of $1 billion dollars. If it wasn’t for Black creators and innovators, would you even know about it?

Black people in this country have done this for years, decades and centuries, even when they were enslaved. However, a lot of times they weren’t compensated or even given credit for their innovations. For example, take the game "Fortnite." In 2018, Epic, the maker of "Fortnite," was sued by the rapper 2 Milly. 2 Milly accused the game developer of not giving proper credit and profiting off one of his dance moves in the game. 2 Milly eventually dropped the lawsuit due to a Supreme Court ruling that "simple routines" aren’t protected by copyright law.

There is a new organization called the Black Innovation Alliance that aims to address these disparities and fight for equity. In their manifesto they state, “we claim the right for Black people to profit fully from our contributions to this age of innovation.” The alliance comprises of support organizations that serve three types of Black innovators -- founders of high-growth tech companies; entrepreneurs leading small and medium-sized businesses focused on long-term and sustainable growth; and creative technologists and artists who use emerging technologies as their mediums. According to their pledge, in the next 10 years, the Black Innovation Alliance will recruit at least 500 organizations to support, fund and sustain one million Black innovators.

On this season one finale of Diverse Disruptors I talked to Black Innovation Alliance’s executive director Kelly Burton, Ph.D. and Erin Horne McKinney, who is the CEO of WomenVenture and founding member of Black Innovation Alliance about how this idea got started and why this alliance is so important now.

Director of Digital | Radio Milwaukee