Entrepreneurs Keep HBCUs Afloat
Despite tough financial odds, black colleges offer ways for students to become job creators.
In the fall of 1995, when I arrived on Howard's campus for the first time, it wasn't the exception to the rule to be a black overachiever. There were a bunch of other black kids who'd grown up feeling at home everywhere, but nowhere. There were Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, evangelicals and atheists, along with gays, bisexuals, preppies, wannabe thugs (maybe even a couple real ones) and foodies -- long before it was cool. There was little conflict between all those identities and our blackness, and Americanness.
But every so often I'll get a question from well-meaning white friends: "Why self-segregate -- is it some kind of militant thing?" My response boils down to this: Going to Howard was no different from certain Jewish friends spending a year or longer in Israel. It's a break from the pressure of assimilating into an American mainstream culture from which we're often made to feel isolated. The experience deepened my confidence that it's very possible to be successful without working for someone else.
Let's get back to the White House conference's main point: Can HBCUs become entrepreneurial talent hotbeds? It's worth taking a look at the all-female Bennett College in North Carolina, where its president, the economist Julianne Malveaux, has claimed that many of her students will work for themselves at some point in their lives.
During her talk at the conference, she brought up an example of an easy way for students to start thinking about being an entrepreneur. She offered, "If you're braiding hair for recreation" -- say, in a dorm room -- "why not charge your girlfriend $20 for your time?"
Four years ago, Bennett opened the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, which now directs about 30 students through an entrepreneurship minor in courses like accounting, marketing and finding government contracting opportunities. One student proposed turning half of Bennett's vacant greenhouse into a farm. The first vegetables will be ready to hit the market soon.
At a moment when the country's competitiveness depends on an educated, innovative and diverse workforce, entrepreneurship is one additional area in which HBCUs can prepare students to excel, and ultimately continue to be relevant institutions of learning for new generations.