On Oct 24 – 25, The Company Lab (CO.LAB) hosted its first Unum HBCU Innovation Challenge, in partnership with Unum, the world’s largest provider of disability insurance. This two day business case challenge was born out of both organizations’ commitment to inclusivity and diversity, and a need to explore innovation in an industry subject to changing markets and disruption.  

This partnership exposed young talent to an opportunity that could advance their careers. Thirty-two highly accomplished students from fifteen Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the eastern region traveled to Chattanooga, TN to showcase their leadership, problem-solving abilities, and presentation skills by tackling key challenges in the insurance industry. The mission was to introduce future leaders and innovators to a corporate environment to address real-life business opportunities for a leading insurance company. The seven teams developed and presented viable, feasible, and desirable solutions; captivating senior leaders and hiring managers. Both participating students and corporate leaders were impressed by the value of recommendations produced in a short period of time. 

The CO.LAB Innovation Challenge is a twist on the traditional business case competition, adding a “hack-a-thon” element to push the innovation envelope. Innovation Challenges provide corporate talent recruiting teams a valuable platform way to educate, recruit, and vet incoming talent. They bring new energy and ideas to a problem and provide a great networking opportunity. It also allows the host company to hear groundbreaking concepts and perspectives from young talent outside of their organization. Innovation challenges can be tailored to recruit the type of talent companies seek to employ, particularly diverse talent. More corporations can facilitate some type of challenge to achieve the best environment for recruiting and retaining talent.

Innovation is critical to penetrating markets and growing market share. It’s an element that, if used correctly, can also create significant value for a company looking to increase its ability to scale. Innovation is more than just a new product or service,  it is also the simplification of an existing system, process, or procedure. Today, many legacy corporations compete with disruptive exponential organizations for the same customers. In order to compete, companies need to value the diverse set of experiences and ideas that ultimately drive innovation.  This starts with including a diverse group of professionals in the innovation process and promoting an environment that values their contributions.

The value of diverse teams has been well documented in recent years.  Studies by McKinsey & Co., North Carolina State University, and The Boston Consulting Group have all conclude that more diverse companies tend to be more innovative, faster growing, and more profitable. A 2018 report from Gartner highlights key findings from recent research that support the business case for diverse teams in innovation.


  • Companies with high diversity scores release twice as many products than average major companies.
  • Companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams are 33% more likely to outperform peers on profitability. 
  • Companies with above-average total diversity had both 19% points higher innovation revenues and 9% points higher EBIT margins, on average.

We believe that corporations that have diverse and inclusive environments also express different goals towards their culture, while they have continued to be more profitable and more likely to meet their financial goals. CO.LAB CEO, Marcus Shaw, says “Embracing diversity does not require changing culture at the expense of profitability, in fact it often results in enhancing culture and profitability.”

Corporations should always ask themselves how they can innovate and increase their competitive position. Talent is a big part of the answer; and diverse talent is critical to success. However, that is often easier said than done. Once you hire diversity, then what? How can a corporation accelerate innovation from there? These are 3 ways a diverse staff can accelerate corporate innovation.


  • Implement open door to innovation policies 

Promote a forum for listening to workers and peers when they have a new innovative ideas, strategies, or creations. An open-door culture for innovation can encourage employees to take appropriate risk aligned with the company’s mission, and use their time and talents in ways that support the organization.  Consistency and transparency are key values to embrace in open door cultures with diverse teams. 


  • Support new ways of decision making 

Develop a set of guidelines and innovation roadmap to help employees organize and align innovation with corporate goals, and understand decision making. It is important for corporations to establish and promote the criteria so that all employees feel empowered to create. Even the greatest minds need navigation and to understand how decisions are made. 


  • De-risk the innovation process

Employees must feel safe to take risks in the workspace in order to perform at their greatest potential. High performing organizations find ways to encourage risk-taking, while protecting employee from professional isolation when ideas don’t pan out. Ultimately de-risking the innovation process can create a more innovative environment, attract higher potential talent, and increase corporate profitability.  


Diversity and inclusion go hand-in-hand with successful innovation. Companies are more likely to benefit from an innovative workforce when they foster an environment of belonging. CO.LAB’s Innovation Challenges are helping partner companies enhance their culture and workforce, by encouraging intrapreneurship and innovation as a tool in recruiting and retaining talent.  If your company wants to learn more about CO.LAB’s Innovation Challenges email Erroll Wynn at erroll@colab.co.


About the Author

Erroll Wynn is a Programs and Community Outreach Manager at The Company Lab (CO.LAB) in Chattanooga, TN. Erroll manages relationships with partner organizations including the Urban League, La Paz, and Launch CHA, supporting diverse entrepreneurs. His Business Breakdown Session program provides 1:1 coaching for local businesses seeking to move past common obstacles.