PREVIEW: Innovate@BU to hold speaker series, fifth annual Cannabis Competition finale this month

The BUild Lab interior. Innovate@BU is hosting a conversation between three local female entrepreneurs of color at the BUild lab tonight, mediated by this year’s Innovator in Residence Jonathan Allen. SOPHIE PARK/ DFP FILE

Innovate@BU —  a Boston University initiative to teach students principles of innovation and entrepreneurship — will hold the first of this year’s four speaker events at the BUild Lab Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.. 

Jonathan Allen, a Boston University School of Law graduate and this year’s Innovator in Residence, will moderate a conversation with three local female entrepreneurs of color for the event. 

The guest speakers include Jacquetta Van Zandt, founder of videocast Politics and Prosecco, Hodan Hashi, co-founder of community engagement network Black Boston and Nia Grace, owner of Darryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen and Underground Cafe + Lounge at Northeastern University, who will also cater the event.

Micaelah Morrill, director of external relations for Innovate@BU, said the speakers will focus on engaging with their audience, adding that the event is open to all students from any school or college within BU.

“We believe anyone from any school can innovate and make change in their lives or their communities,” she said. “There are problems everywhere, so we’re here to help anyone solve them no matter where they are.”

Morrill said she, alongside a team at Innovate@BU, created the new Innovator in Residence position, officially filled for the first time last September.

The position will be rotated yearly, focused mainly on helping students develop entrepreneurial ideas and allowing them to learn skills from people successful in diverse fields.

Allen said one of his goals is to expand the reach of the BUild Lab, noting that students who tend to use it are generally in business or similar fields.

“We want to inspire people who are in other disciplines,” Allen said. “Law, theology, medicine, the arts, even. We want people from different backgrounds, different sectors to see how innovation intersects and is absolutely weaved in their areas of interest.”

He said each speaker will share their experiences starting their project from the ground up, maintaining stamina, raising funds and building an executive board.

“Every venture starts with inspiration,” he said. “Most often, this inspiration comes from lived experiences that ignite in entrepreneurs innovative fire to address an issue and or create an opportunity.”

Gerald Fine, executive director of Innovate@BU, said he wants to raise awareness of the organization’s initiatives for students to pursue social entrepreneurship. “Often when students think of Innovate@BU they think of technology start-ups and business entrepreneurs,” he said. “We think it’s important for people to understand that we’re also about social innovation.”

Innovate@BU will also hold the final event for its fifth annual Cannabis Competition next Wednesday, challenging students to pitch an idea for a company within the growing cannabis industry.

Fine said he finds the competition “interesting” given the current lack of research on the diversity and technology of the cannabis industry. 

“We’ve seen this real evolution toward equity, inclusion initiatives as well as tech initiatives in the competition,” he said. “It’s always great fun every year and I invite everybody to come and watch.”

Fine noted that Innovate@BU does not allow competitors to grow or distribute cannabis, instead focusing on “the fundamental issues behind the business.”

This year’s competition began in September, with four BU finalists chosen last Friday. They will present a brief pitch of their idea to a panel of judges at next week’s event for the chance to win a $10,000 grand prize. 

Morrill wrote in a follow-up email that some of the finalist pitches include Anabotto, a “robotanist” that allows anyone to easily grow cannabis at home, and Returning Citizens Venture Program, a non-profit that seeks to provide a second chance to those with minor cannabis drug offenses. 

The other two ideas included Elaganja, an online platform to connect customers to Black-owned cannabis brands, and QS cannabis, a “democratized ecosystem of crowdfunded data” that aids scientific research on cannabis while sidestepping federal prohibitions on the drug.

Allen said that outside of the events mentioned above, he encourages students to schedule office hours with him on the Innovate@BU website.

“My heart is for expanding and opening up opportunity for those who it may be out of reach for,” he said. “I’m really, really grateful for this opportunity and looking forward to making immense impact over the next year.”

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