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How tech companies can work with HBCUs to meaningfully improve equity

These partnerships are crucial for making tech firms more inclusive and equitable, but they have to be more substantial than just financial commitments.

How tech companies can work with HBCUs to meaningfully improve equity
Howard University [Photo: Kelvin Sterling Scott/iStock]
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Over the past few years, we’ve seen various efforts to address racial disparity in terms of opportunity, access, and financial support for Black entrepreneurs and technologists. This includes everything from big tech company reports that document progress in diversifying their workforce to the onboarding of high-profile diversity and inclusion officers to address and improve the lack of D&I internally. But progress has still been glacially slow.

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That’s why corporations need to adopt a “yes, and” approach when it comes to improving diversity in the technology industry. This way of thinking comes from the world of improv, where all actions are supposed to be built upon. Instead of adopting “yes, and,” corporations all too often follow the lead of their competitors or simply dust off last year’s playbook, choosing comfort over innovation—yes, we need a more diverse workforce, so let’s do more of the same.

The technology industry’s engagement with historically Black colleges and universities as a vehicle to recruit talent is one area where a “yes, and” approach would pay significant dividends. Although companies like Google, Apple, and others from the Fortune 1000 have committed more than $66 billion to racial equality initiatives since the killing of George Floyd by police, this funding alone will not solve the issue of bias toward and ultimately lack of access for HBCU students when it comes to getting into the tech industry.

Are HBCUs a great source for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduates? Absolutely. HBCUs account for roughly 25% of all African American STEM graduates annually. In an effort to address the lack of diversity in technology, it is clear that corporations should continue to recruit talent and provide financial support for HBCUs. However, if corporations truly want to meet and exceed their diversity goals, then what comes after “and”?

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How tech companies can help

Over the years, one argument we’ve heard ad nauseum from the tech industry is the “pipeline” argument, which cites the lack of properly skilled minorities for hire as the reason for the lack of diversity. Yet, if you look at the trajectory of the U.S. population, we’re getting more and more diverse with each generation. It is clear there is diverse talent out there.

The real issue is the lack of mentorship, support, and access at the beginning of underrepresented tech workers’ careers. Whether it’s Black tech workers or aspiring entrepreneurs, the tech industry is in desperate need of both to ensure the technological solutions being developed are accessible to people from all backgrounds. Although it might seem counterintuitive for tech companies to want to support and empower aspiring entrepreneurs, the experience of these founders makes them great candidates for corporations if their ventures fail or as useful technology partners if they succeed. This is where partnering and supporting educational institutions, especially those like HBCUs that focus on Black and brown communities, is critical.

There are various ways that tech corporations can work with HBCUs to not only move the needle forward when it comes to improving equity in the industry at large, but also in their own organizations. One tactic that companies could employ is providing bonuses to those employees who mentor STEM students at HBCUs, incentivizing their workforce to take time out and provide much-needed advice and support to up-and-coming technologists. Some of this work is happening now, but employers often expect their employees to volunteer their time rather than acknowledging the business value of the effort through financial rewards. Tech companies could also partner with HBCUs to establish capstone projects where those students not only receive class credit, but also experience a pre-internship opportunity.

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To establish and ensure a healthy pipeline of Black and brown tech talent, tech organizations could also fund and support on-campus accelerator programs in an advisory and mentorship capacity. Historically, HBCUs have struggled with financial support, and with HBCU enrollment down 5.5% during the fall 2020 semester, the situation has only worsened. The funding of an on-campus accelerator program would help HBCUs attract students who expect access to hands-on mentorship, tools, and a network to start their entrepreneurship journey early on in their careers.

The organizations supporting HBCU entrepreneurs

For corporations looking for their “and” statement, there are various organizations and programs that are doing the work to empower the next generation of Black tech entrepreneurs, including Codepath and SEO Career. Another one of those is my organization, Nex Cubed. In an effort to close the racial disparity gap, we established our HBCU Founder’s Program to provide not only monetary support for aspiring entrepreneurs but also advisory support, mentorship, and networking opportunities.

Current students and recent alumni from HBCUs across the country were invited to take part in this inaugural program, which provided support in establishing their startup across various tech sectors, including financial services (FinTech), education (EdTech), digital health, and real estate (PropTech)—key sectors in desperate need of systemic reform that technology can help enable.

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Over the course of the program, we had more than 350 students and alumni from more than 50 HBCUs enroll in the program and participate in industry webinars and virtual brainstorm sessions led by corporate executives, successful entrepreneurs, and top-tier investors. The four-month-long program recently culminated with the announcement of the inaugural cohort founders who were selected to participate in the Summer Acceleration Program. Each participant in the Summer Acceleration Program will receive $10,000 to cover the cost of participating in the program as well as technical resources to develop their MVP.

The technology industry has always been built on innovation. It is time corporations started applying that innovative thinking to increasing diversity in its ranks. All startups begin with the seed of an idea, which can only become a full-fledged business with mentorship, guidance, and access to the network of people that will help open doors. It is clear that HBCUs have so much to offer when it comes to supporting tech entrepreneurs who can build the solutions needed to address the major issues we face as a society. It’s time the tech industry updated its playbook when it comes to supporting this community—and partnering and supporting HBCUs in a meaningful and long-term way is the perfect first step.


Marlon Evans is the CEO of Nex Cubed.