Editor’s note: Once a month, this column will tackle broader questions about what the country should do to increase educational opportunities for black youths.
At the Bayou Classic, the annual football game between the Grambling State University Tigers and Southern University Jaguars, the stakes of the competition off the gridiron have the potential to be much higher.
On a stage in a cold hotel room—a far cry from the more than 67,000 people who crowded the Superdome to watch the clash between football rivals and hear their mighty marching bands—technology teams representing each of the six historically black colleges and universities in Louisiana competed for $20,000 worth of prize money to show who could create the best “piece of technology that assists in the economic recovery of small businesses affected by natural disaster.”
Approximately 30 people watched these techie squads of primarily African-American students trying to impress four nonathletic judges (including me) with ideas like a post-disaster online marketplace for the BizTech Challenge.
We talk about the lack of diversity in technology and dearth of economic opportunities for black and Hispanic young people as a problem now. But in the future, it will be a major economic crisis once people of color become the majority of our workforce. If our K-12 and postsecondary institutions haven’t prepared this current generation of young students of color to compete for tech and engineering jobs, the whole nation will suffer.
To make sure that doesn’t happen, the country needs to do more to support competitions like BizTech and the institutions that make them possible: HBCUs make up just 3 percent of colleges and universities but produce 27 percent of African-American students with bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, according to federal statistics.
Entrepreneurial skills are needed in these lucrative tech fields. The white seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in October of this year was 4.3 percent. The black rate was exactly double that at 8.6 percent. In addition to money, black people need the human capital that comes along with the college degree (pdf). Thirty-six percent of working-age non-Hispanic whites have a college degree, compared with 23 percent of blacks, 54 percent of Asians and 16 percent of Hispanics.
Attendee Rodney Sampson, a partner in TechSquare Labs, watched carefully. TechSquare Labs is a technology incubator, corporate-innovation lab and venture fund headquartered in Atlanta. Its diversity and inclusion initiatives include CodeStart, TechHire and a $100 million Tech Opportunity Fund.
“Entrepreneurial and business teams that include ethnic diversity at the highest levels are more likely to surpass their industry averages,” said Sampson, citing research out of McKinsey & Co. “So, diversity in tech and business isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s a proven business case for investment, recruitment and contracting.”
Sampson's presence at the BizTech challenge was notable. According to a Brookings Institution report, African Americans make up less than 1 percent of senior decision-makers in venture capital.
The winning team from Grambling State University was the one that pitched Relief Front, the online marketplace that sells products of other stores that are negatively impacted by natural disasters, earning them $10,000 in capital and $5,000 in free legal services. Second- and third-place teams were from Xavier University and Southern University New Orleans for their respective Preventing Disaster Assistant, a disaster-preparedness app, and Panic Wave, a data-management tool.
HBCUs are well-equipped to develop more critical technologists who can incite social change through entrepreneurship. HBCUs have always provided students with the critical-thinking skills to navigate a democracy that often puts up obstacles to their success.
But the startup tech world is extremely culturally exclusive. One doesn’t get to gain access to fellowships and incubators or get to pitch in competitions without an invitation. The BizTech Challenge acculturates black students to the new ways entrepreneurs are getting access to capital and other resources. Job interviews have been traded for pitch competitions.
The yearly pilgrimage to “the Dome” for the Bayou Classic highlights the profundity and uniqueness of HBCU culture. The Battle of the Bands, football game, vendors and surrounding activities make up a black world unto itself. Football games offer a great stage.
But it’s far more rare and extraordinary to watch black people control, create and sell technology. Going back to the invention of the cotton gin, black folk have been used by technology; they haven’t controlled it or even benefited much from advancements. Technological developments in the auto industry decimated black employment in the Midwest. Black prisoners were treated as guinea pigs in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Black folks are the No. 1 consumers of Twitter; but what does the leadership look like? African Americans comprise less than 2 percent of senior executive positions in high-tech companies, compared with 83 percent of whites.
The competitors of the BizTech Challenge are going beyond changing the mostly adversarial relationship that blacks have had with innovation. The students in the BizTech may change what kind of teams black communities come out to root for.
“Companies that are disrupting societal norms via the sharing economy, social media and the internet of things must do better to address the less-than-remarkable representation of people of color as creators, influencers and decision-makers,” wrote Nicol Turner-Lee of the Brookings Institution.
HBCUs use of the football classics may bring attention to this issue. “We need to showcase our talent,” said Byron Clayton, president and CEO of Nexus Louisiana, sponsor and founder of the BizTech Challenge. Clayton hopes that some of the products pitched by the students will be able to take the next step toward hitting the market. “We have an incredible amount of talent in the HBCUs in Louisiana. We just need people to see it.”
In time, maybe thousands will pay to see tech competitors in action inside a Superdome that one of the BizTech students owns.
This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with The Root.