How do we make the entrepreneurship landscape more inclusive, sustainable, and impactful? This question motivated Cait Brumme’s leadership at Harvard Business School, even before she joined MassChallenge in 2019. A year later, Brumme was running the nonprofit’s startup accelerator and corporate innovation programs.

Now, as CEO of MassChallenge, Brumme describes herself as “a passionate champion for entrepreneurs as individuals who solve problems, and the potential for innovation and entrepreneurship to have an even greater impact on the world.”

Boston-based MassChallenge has a network of nine accelerators in seven locations around the globe. Since 2009, it has supported over 2,400 startups. As part of our IL Member Spotlight series, we talked to Brumme about stepping into leadership at MassChallenge and her advice on making innovation a CEO-level priority.

Cait Headshot_Live

Cait Brumme, CEO of MassChallenge

Tell me about your new role as CEO at MassChallenge.

Our mission is to equip bold entrepreneurs to disrupt the status quo. We believe entrepreneurs and innovators solve problems. One big part of my role is to champion that message every day, and then, alongside our leadership team, to convert that into a strategy that our awesome teams, program, community partnerships, data, and marketing can convert into high-impact outcomes for our entrepreneurs, our community members, and our partners. We’re a nonprofit, so a big part of my role is also building our base of supporters, including around philanthropic, grant, and corporate fundraising.

What new projects are you exploring?

MassChallenge was born as a sector and industry-agnostic partner, but about five years ago launched a program in digital health and then followed that with fintech and sustainable food systems. We’re really excited about a two-fold opportunity to continue to expand our footprint into really high-impact, high-potential categories in which innovation is complex, both for industry partners and for entrepreneurs, and also to continue our own commitment to innovation to evolve the programs that we’ve been running to meet both entrepreneurs and corporate innovators where they are today. 

…Innovation is very small until it’s big, so it requires extra love and care and patience.

After running innovation programs for MassChallenge, you’re now CEO. What is your advice on getting innovation activities in front of senior leadership?

The research [and] our experience make it quite clear that, at the end of the day, the most effective companies in innovation definitely have it as a CEO-level priority.

First and foremost, what I would say to senior leaders is if [innovation is] not your CEO’s priority and you think it’s an imperative for your business, make that case and do it in a data-driven way around both opportunity and risk and changes in the market. But certainly, it needs that CEO-level attention. That’s in part because innovation is very small until it’s big, so it requires extra love and care and patience.

The other thing, which I would recommend to both senior leadership and to [the] CEO, is that there has to be a process around it. … Even though folks often talk about the “long arc of innovation,” there are steps along the way — key initiatives or learning or insights or partnerships — in addition to specific transactional opportunities which give indications that the investment is worthwhile. I think it’s important to tell that story in a way that’s business relevant and highlights the fact that near-term activities are moving in the right direction.

Are there any new roles you’ve added to the team lately?

We’re super excited. We just brought on Damon Cox in a newly formed role, Head of Next Practice and Inclusive Growth, to do two things: one is help us define and pave our way into adjacent emerging technology areas where our mission is aligned. … This is related to our hope and intent that the conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion [is] not in isolation or in a silo, but is rather deeply integrated with conversations around decentralized finance or digital health equity.