HBCUs have come under fire in recent years as questions abound as to whether these academic institutions are doing enough to equip black students for careers in high-growth industries and fields related to science, technology, engineering and math. Despite research showing that HBCUs produce the majority of black science and engineering graduates who pursue advanced degrees, Silicon Valley and other related industries largely overlook or ignore black talent for jobs and funding.
In reality, many current HBCU students are not only interested in and receiving training in tech and other STEM-related industries but are also actively seeking opportunities to join the fast-paced world of innovation by launching their own companies and rooting themselves in what’s happening in the industry outside the classroom.
At this year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, HBCU students were in attendance, many of them for the first time, making their way through lively panel discussions and engaging with some of the world’s most sought-after investors and entrepreneurs.
Nigel Van Groningen, a senior at Howard University who is majoring in graphic design, recently launched Happy Trigger, a device that allows users to play laser tag on a smartphone with anyone anytime.
Describing his experience at the festival, Van Groningen said, “I am a creative person, and this festival is filled with futuristic art combining music, film and interactive experiences. The fact that I’m in the same space and same audience as big brands and names, it’s inspiring.”
Van Groningen and his peers made it to the festival this year, thanks to a partnership with Opportunity Hub and MVMT50, two Atlanta-based organizations seeking to increase diversity in the technology industry. The initiative fully funded 50 trips for HBCU students from Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Howard University, Johnson C. Smith University, University of the Virgin Islands and Huston-Tillotson University.
After gaining confidence in navigating the crowded festival for the first time, Van Groningen and his business partners are putting together a plan to engage investors and manufacturers to grow Happy Trigger. He cites his experience attending SXSW as an invaluable opportunity to put himself in a position to make things happen. When he returns to Howard, he’s hoping to bring similar energy back to campus by sharing his experiences with other students.
“From a macro perspective, we wanted to give these students an opportunity [to attend the festival] because I remember starting out 16 years ago, trying to raise capital. There was a severe lack of minority founders, investors and advisers in tech at that time,” Rodney Sampson, serial entrepreneur and chairman of Opportunity Hub, told The Root.
“Now, 16 years later, there are only three black founders in Atlanta alone that have raised over $1 million. To get better outcomes across the country, it’s going to require early exposure and being intentional about engagement. We’re teaching these students about showing up and being in the room, even if it feels uncomfortable.”
Alston Clark, a sophomore and computer science major, also attends Howard. Before coming to SXSW, he had never heard about the event and jumped on the opportunity to attend one of the largest innovation conferences in the country.
“The tech world changes so quickly. I want to make sure that as a student I’m not learning antiquated information that won’t help me in the future,” he shared. “Coming to SXSW was an opportunity to accelerate that learning process. You can do so much learning here in one day.”
Sherrell Dorsey is a social-impact storyteller who started coding at the age of 14 and now speaks and writes frequently on the intersections of sustainability, technology and digital inclusion. Follow her on Twitter.