Dawn Strickland

Dawn Strickland: Fostering an Inclusive, Entrepreneurial Community

The Student Startup Center (SSC) at UC Davis is a community of students and mentors interested in using innovation and entrepreneurship to make the world a better place. The center is designed to introduce students to entrepreneurs and early-stage investors, allow students to practice the work of entrepreneurs and early-stage investors and teach students useful knowledge and skills for their journeys as student entrepreneurs.

Based in the College of Engineering, Dawn Strickland is the SSC’s administrator and is responsible for the center’s operations, marketing and outreach. She also serves as lecturer for Launching a Company (ENG 080), a class in which students use modern startup-building methods to launch their own startups.

“I have been interested in entrepreneurship since before I knew it was called that. I concentrated in entrepreneurial management as an undergraduate at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and I worked in the startup world before attending business school at New York University’s Stern School of Business to study and experience social entrepreneurship,” said Strickland.

Below she shares her viewpoint on diversity, equity and inclusion in the SSC and some of the resources and opportunities available to students at the SSC.

What is unique about the Student Startup Center at UC Davis?

The SSC’s focus on building something is unique. We believe undergraduates are capable of using entrepreneurship to solve big problems. We encourage students to have the experience of being part of a new venture team while in college and we support their endeavors. If the venture does not succeed (and we know that most new ventures do not), students will have developed skills valuable in a number of contexts: initiative, empathy, creativity, teamwork, experimentation and problem-solving.

The diversity of thought and skills within our community is also unique. We are a part of the College of Engineering, but we work with undergraduates across the university. This allows our students the opportunity to work in multi-disciplinary teams in which diversity creates opportunities for better problem-solving.

What is your viewpoint of diversity, equity and inclusion at the Student Startup Center and at UC Davis?

I feel proud to work for a university whose chancellor is Black within a university system whose president is Black. I am grateful for Chancellor May’s emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion and for how he has backed up his statements by bringing in leadership at the most senior level to address these issues. I am impressed by what Vice Chancellor Tull accomplished at the University System of Maryland and am excited to see where she will lead us at UC Davis. Her efforts will inform our team in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion within the SSC and the world of high-growth tech entrepreneurship and investing.

Tell us about the Student Startup Center’s efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion.

The SSC’s efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion were ignited by the actions of our student managers. After the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, our student managers wanted to do something to demonstrate our ally-ship with the Black community. We decided that it would be disingenuous to make statements without action to back them up, so we have challenged ourselves to demonstrate with our actions that we are allies.

Our inclusion efforts begin with diversifying the role models that students are exposed to at the SSC. As much as possible, we want all students to be able to see themselves in the examples of entrepreneurs and investors that we present. We have already seen increased engagement when students connect with aspects of our role models’ identities. In addition, a diverse set of role models are able to speak to specific challenges and opportunities that may come with a particular identity, something that one must be uniquely qualified by life experience to do.

To promote diversity within the SSC student community, we have made dedicated efforts to connect with groups of students from backgrounds underrepresented in high-growth tech entrepreneurship and investment. We have partnered with LEADR and AvenueE, College of Engineering programs that support underrepresented students, to ensure that their students are aware of the experience of our programs. We have also partnered with student clubs such as the Society of Women Engineers to develop programming with them specifically in mind. We created Black America + Entrepreneurship, a First-Year Aggie Connection program designed to support a community of potential Black entrepreneurs as they enter UC Davis.

What resources are available to students at the Student Startup Center?

The first resource available to students is space. Our co-working space is a place where students can meet other students interested in building something new. They can talk about their ideas and find mentors to keep them on the right path. Our makerspace is a place where students can use machines such as a 3D printer and laser cutter to turn their visions into physical reality. In our Visual Thinking Lab, students can produce and experience augmented and virtual realities.

Secondly, we offer classes for academic credit: Intro to Entrepreneurship provides an overview of the theory of entrepreneurship, our Speaker Series course connects students with the lived experience of entrepreneurs and our Launching a Company, Hacking for Defense and PLASMA classes build entrepreneurial skill through hands-on company building.

Third, we host a workshop or event every day. In our workshops, students can learn about topics important to business, technology and prototype development from peer student managers and subject matter experts. Our events allow students to practice thinking like an investor with real life venture pitches and to connect with and learn from visiting entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. We also host team-building events and startup-building competitions.

Lastly is our capstone program PLASMA, an early-stage company accelerator that works with a cohort of ten undergraduate teams to aggressively accelerate the growth of their startups within an intense 12-week program. The student teams receive business education, mentorship and help developing their networks. At the end of 12 weeks, PLASMA participants present the results of their work at a Demo Day in front of a live audience and judges. Winners are selected to receive investments in their businesses.

What do you think the impact of building an inclusive environment will be on the students who are involved in the Student Startup Center?

A diverse group of UC Davis student entrepreneurs continues to take advantage of the support and resources of the center. An inclusive environment at the SSC allows all students to see themselves as high-growth entrepreneurs and investors and allows the community to learn from the experiences of those who would otherwise be underrepresented.

How do you envision diversity, equity and inclusion in the Student Startup Center in the future?

I envision a future in which students currently underrepresented in high-growth tech entrepreneurship and investing will seek out UC Davis and the SSC because of the opportunities and support they know they will find here. I envision a future in which we play a demonstrable role in establishing equity in high-growth tech entrepreneurship and investing.

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