Scroll to the bottom of this page to watch video of Mr. Saunders giving his full remarks.
The recent opening of In3 (Inclusive Innovation Incubator) was a full-circle moment for Aaron Saunders, a longtime computer software developer whose company (Clearly Innovative) operates the 8,000-square-foot co-working training facility on Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Aaron Saunders, Mayor Muriel Bowser and others gather for in3's grand opening.
A collaborative vision of Howard University and the District of Columbia Mayor’s Office, In3 will provide support and guidance to help innovators offer products and services for diverse communities. There were no such support systems when Saunders made his foray into technology, especially none for people of color.
During his keynote address at the 2017 Future of Wealth Summit, Saunders recalled teaching himself programming on the Commodore PET computer in his middle school’s library.
“I was 5’4 and maybe 50 pounds and wore bifocals. During lunchtime, I would go outside and frequently, it did not end well. So I decided to stop going outside at lunch time. I went to the library,” Saunders said.
Sixth-grader Aaron Saunders stands over the Commodore PET computer on which he taught himself programming.
Over the years, Saunders’ “hobby” grew into a profession and then into a kind of calling. He was the only African-American at most of the tech companies where he worked.
“There were not a lot of people who looked like me that wrote software,” he said. “There were not a lot of people who looked like me that were involved at all in technology.”
Founding Clearly Innovative fulfilled a personal goal and his desire to create an ecosystem to support people of color who aspire for tech careers. He hired people with non-tech backgrounds and taught them programming. Many Clearly Innovative alumni have gone on to prosperous careers at well-known tech firms – a fact that pleases Saunders.
Aaron Saunders with some of the Howard University Middle School students he's mentored and taught.
Clearly Innovative began to mentor and train students after Saunders was invited to pinch-hit for a sick teacher at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science. Saunders and his employees would end up volunteering at the school for two years and starting a popular summer program there. The student outreach wing of his company was branded as Luma Lab.
Saunders was already looking for a way to extend programming training to adults when he learned that Howard and the District of Columbia were seeking firms to lead In3. Being chosen to head this ambitious project has been a blessing, but not one without immense challenges, Saunders said.
A view of the newly-opened Inclusive Innovation Incubator.
The push is on to get the public to utilize In3 and take full advantage of all it has to offer. In3 must be able to sustain itself to survive and to keep prices competitive enough for those who will use the space. Memberships are available; sponsorships are being sought; and renting the space for hosting special events is encouraged.
Saunders confessed that his efforts to give back have sometimes put a financial strain on his company, but each time he sees former students or employees excelling, he believes the trade-off is well worth it.
“Maybe this is what it was all leading towards,” he said of his years of mentorship and training, “helping others see the opportunity that was there because maybe they did not have anyone else to show them.”
Watch Aaron Saunders give his “STEM for All” keynote address.