Different Shades of Innovator


By Constance Iloh

I grew up seeing the word “innovator” only associated with people who looked like they could be related to Steve Jobs. It was disappointing that a word representing so much possibility, creativity and complexity was limited by narrow applications. I was surrounded by overlooked innovators. Among my own peer group in a predominantly black county in Maryland, I saw no shortage of ideas, talent and genius. But the most overlooked innovator I knew was my mother. I remember vividly her doing things such as organizing a hair care assembly line so that my sisters and I and several other girls in our neighborhood could get our hair washed, conditioned and styled in stages that each parent was responsible for. This process saved time for already overworked parents while enabling a sharing of resources.

“As a professor whose research focuses on college access for marginalized populations, I don’t worry about whether my work can be categorized as innovative by others. I do, however, spend a great deal of time crafting and investigating research questions that position underrepresented people as experts on their own experiences, with insights necessary for addressing educational inequities.”

While my upbringing allowed me to see new methods and approaches absent from mainstream discussions on innovation, the public library introduced me to a diverse array of thinkers, disrupters and problem-solvers. My library card offered a guarantee of discoveries and information, but going to college was dependent on earning a full scholarship. I typed countless scholarship essays, including one for the Gates Millennium Scholarship, in the school library – often while my mom patiently waited in her car. When I learned that I had been selected as a GMS scholar, I could barely wrap my head around the blessing of spending four more years committed to the pursuit of knowledge.

Even today, as a professor whose research focuses on college access for marginalized populations, I don’t worry about whether my work can be categorized as innovative by others. I do, however, spend a great deal of time crafting and investigating research questions that position underrepresented people as experts on their own experiences, with insights necessary for addressing educational inequities.

And yet, somehow, the question of whether I personally see myself as an innovator continued to follow me. In a recent conversation with a scholar I greatly admire, she unexpectedly said: “What I love about you, Constance, is that you treat academia like Burger King: You are going to have it your way. … You continue to reinvent what it means to be an engaged scholar.” I thanked her for the affirmation, still uncertain about what to do with it.

Soon after that exchange, I was inundated with buzz surrounding September’s launch of singer Rihanna’s new beauty line. As both an interdisciplinary education scholar and an anthropologist, I am always eager to learn about distinctive business cultures and how certain companies cater to specific populations. Many of the articles on Rihanna’s cosmetics discussed the novelty of its 40 foundation shades, including a rare selection of darker shades that stores could not keep in stock. I thought to myself, “Of course people across a variety of skin tones – especially those historically not given many options – want to see their complexion represented in a high-quality makeup line.”

These were the same sort of thoughts I experience after publicly discussing my research and receiving questions that indicate some people are genuinely surprised that underserved and underrepresented communities desire high-quality, welcoming and transformative educational spaces too.

In considering the excitement surrounding Fenty Beauty, which was called “gloriously inclusive” in the press, I realized the discussion was parallel to my reluctance to see myself as an innovator and the urgency of doing so. Many of us don’t see ourselves represented in the limited shades the word “innovator” is packaged in. And there aren’t enough conversations that shine light on innovators hidden in plain sight. In the end, many institutions are unable to reach their full potential because they do not reflect a robust spectrum of innovators. While these biases remain, one small solution is fearlessly letting the world know my shade exists.

Iloh is an assistant professor in the UCI School of Education. In 2016, she was named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list.