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The Reverend Dr. Debora Jackson, Dean of the Business School at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), knows that advancing diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t just a moral imperative, but is also critical to innovation.

“We know, as a researched fact, that more diverse teams make better solutions,” she says. “Bringing together people who are of different race, ethnicities, cultures, orientation means we bring our own lived experience to the table. This helps to shape solutions that are more robust and can be more effective in solving the world's problems.”

She adds, “Belonging is also hugely important — making sure everyone feels a part of the team and feels like their perspective and insights are of value and that they can add their best selves. When you have that, then I think we have the recipe to make some real impact in the world.”

In WPI’s home town of Worcester, Massachusetts — which is fast becoming a minority-majority community — she’s observed how the pandemic has increased the income and equity gap. “For people of color, there's been less resiliency, and recovery has been slower.”

She sees fintech as a means to create greater equity for historically marginalized communities. “We want to ensure fintech is something that can be understood and harnessed by everyone. It’s all about marrying what is being learned in our labs and classrooms with meaningful community engagement. How can we ensure that those who have been left behind can have a seat at the table, and help to shape solutions that are relevant and empowering for them?”

She adds, “Fintech has the opportunity to be a lightning rod for positive social change.” Plans are afoot to create a lab at WPI that will seek to make the most of this potential.  “It’s a top priority for us,” she says.

Unleashing the power of project-based learning 

For over 50 years, WPI has been a school that does things differently.

“Project-based learning is a central feature of the WPI curriculum; it’s how we embody the motto of the school—‘theory and practice’—to be able to have our students engaged together in interdisciplinary teams, working together to solve real problems.

As a pioneer for over 50 years in project-based learning, it was only natural for WPI to be the academic partner in Mass Fintech Hub’s Project Based Learning Pilot in 2021. Working with many teams within Citizens Bank, three of its undergraduate students leveraged a Java software development environment and data from the bank’s enterprise platform to bring open banking APIs to life.

“This really helped to demonstrate the power of project-based learning to all of the Mass Fintech Hub’s members,” says Dean Jackson. “We’re delighted about the opportunity to work with many more of the Hub’s members.”

She believes membership of the Hub gives WPI unprecedented access and instant connections and interactions across the whole ecosystem—and a great way to bring industry leaders into the classroom, talking about their experiences and the emerging technologies they’re working on.

On April 23rd, WPI hosted the Hub’s second-ever annual Fintech Bootcamp. College students from over 11 schools attended, hearing from industry leaders about topics as wide ranging as Financial Inclusion, Financial Literacy, AI, Data Management, ESG, Cybersecurity and Blockchain.

Following the panels and presentations, the students had a chance to apply some of the insights they’d gained over the course of the day to develop solutions.

“With this taste of project-based learning, students from different schools and majors were all put into diverse groups, so that they could experience firsthand how people from different disciplines and backgrounds can learn from each other,” says Dean Jackson.

While a guest presentation can provide life-changing inspiration, WPI also recognizes the power of sustained one-on-one interaction. Last year, along with Brandeis and UMass Amherst, it participated in a pilot mentoring program where 20 Fidelity executives offered mentoring to students from each of the three academic institutions. One student who completed the program has already received a job offer from Fidelity.

Dean Jackson is excited about the potential for future mentoring programs, though adds that attracting a diverse range of students for these — and other industry-academia partnerships — is imperative.

“It’s key to remember: the solutions are better when diversity is at the table,” she says.

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