On Monday, Atlanta Public School students filled Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts for a fireside chat featuring Georgia Tech alum and entrepreneur Vernell Woods and entertainer Tip “T.I.” Harris.
At the core of the conversation was the duo’s attempt to boost diversity at the community level by providing opportunities and access to education.
Hosted by Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), the event is part of a larger outreach program for students in Atlanta’s underserved communities.
Moderator and ECE professor Magnus Egerstedt, Ph.D, told Hypepotamus that this outreach will help the school be a better partner for local communities and increase awareness of the school as an option.
“When it comes to our immediate communities and neighborhoods, there are so many smart, passionate, driven kids that we don’t reach. We’re not on their radar. We really tried to do something different that would get the APS students excited about coming to campus and see what we’re about,” Egerstedt tells Hype.
“Georgia Tech is beginning to look a little bit like the rest of the city of Atlanta, but we’re nowhere near where we should be. We know how important it is to be around people like you or that have a similar story to yours,” he says.
The tickets for the Entertainment and Technology: Powering What’s Next in the Atlanta Story conversation were all taken within 45 minutes of going live online.
“One thing that we observe in our incoming top students is that they’ve never quite failed at anything in their lives. They were the top at their high school and now they’re average. That’s okay. We want to help students get comfortable with the concept of failure,” says Egerstedt.
That’s why Egerstedt chose Woods, a Georgia Tech alum that has built (and failed) at a few business ventures. Now the co-founder and CEO of Moolah Mobile, Woods’ startup helps lower-income users pay for phone bills by taking surveys.
“Failure really isn’t an obstacle, you just have to figure out how to get around it,” Woods says.
“I went through some difficult things trying to figure out how to get investment. I’m now trying to make it a bit easier for all the kids that are smarter than me and show different paths like creating a great relationship like the one I have with T.I.,” Woods tells Hypepotamus. T.I. is now an investor in the startup.
“I know I’ve seen people who have nowhere to stay or are standing asking for change, but they have a cellphone. We want to help them earn a $100, $200 check at the end of the month by just engaging with these ads on their phone,” says T.I.
Woods sees the intersection between technology and entertainment as a catalyst for creating innovative products.
“I’m creating these cool technologies, but I can’t reach the people. Entertainers are in front of people so they’re actually more connected. Once we merge those, we’re going to understand the users’ needs a lot better,” says Woods.
On-stage, T.I. shared that he invests in people, not products — he backed a few iterations of Woods’ vision as it evolved.
“The problems that plague our community can all be traced to a lack of formal education and exposure to comparable opportunities to people that look like [Egerstedt,]” says T.I. “An entity like Georgia Tech can help provide those things in one swoop.”
T.I. spoke to Atlanta’s rich history of black leaders and how they thought “outside the box.” He believes that this entrepreneurial spirit is what allowed the city to grow and why he’s investing back into it.
“Together, we can move forward into success,” says T.I.
Woods shares that placing a priority on inclusion is essential when it comes to diversity of thought in innovation.
“What I’ve been through is very different from what some other kids in Georgia have been through. But coming together and seeing how we can solve problems in different ways, you can create something really special.”
After the students were given the opportunity to ask Woods and T.I. questions, the crowd exited the auditorium. But the excitement surrounding their future, including a possible one at Georgia Tech, remained amongst the students.
By nurturing this emerging engineering talent within the city limits, Georgia Tech can further feed the local talent pipeline and hopefully, keep these thinkers in Atlanta.