Spelman College student Brianna Fugate had put in time as a volunteer with Black Girls Code, at a Google immersive summer program, and in her classes as a computer science major. Thanks to her experience and leadership, when she arrived at the 2017 SXSW Conference in Austin, TX, she not only attended panels and workshops, but also connected with a recruiter to secure an internship in software development with music streaming company Pandora.
Fugate credits that internship and the project she worked on during the summer with the fact that she has already landed a job — a full semester before graduation — with Atlanta-based email marketing company MailChimp.
This rising technology professional, along with 99 other students, was able to attend what is arguably the most influential innovation event in the country thanks to a program called HBCU@SXSW. The initiative is part of Atlanta-based Opportunity Hub, an inclusive ecosystem building platform that seeks to fill the high demand of technical jobs with diverse talent.
Programs like HBCU@SXSW aim to close the tech industry’s diversity gap, which, though highly-publicized in the media this year, remains wide. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and Latinos 17 percent, but combined the two groups only represent about 4 to 5 percent of the total tech workforce.
Opportunity Hub founder Rodney Sampson, also a partner at Google for Entrepreneurs hub TechSquare Labs, explained the impetus for creating the program in a recap of last year’s event.
“Four years ago, my wife, a Howard University graduate, and I were at SXSW attending a VIP investor event. We realized that we were the only black people in the room and decided that early exposure to these unknown spaces was critical to increasing authentic inclusion in the innovation economy,” said Sampson.
In 2016, its inaugural year, HBCU@SXSW brought 50 African American, Hispanic, and Native American students to Austin; in 2017 that number doubled to 100 thanks to corporate sponsors like Snapchat, Google, Microsoft, Delta, PwC, MailChimp, and more.
This year HBCU@SXSW is aiming to give 500 students the opportunity. They’ll not only attend the conference at no cost, but also attend programming to connect with potential employers, learn hard and soft skills, and gain hands-on education in innovation and entrepreneurship.
And, though HBCU@SXSW students come from all over the country, one Atlanta company known for its non-traditional culture and community focus is taking the lead on encouraging Atlanta companies to step up to the plate.
MailChimp, recently named Inc’s Company of the Year, has launched an #AtlTechRiseUp campaign to improve the inclusion of minorities in Atlanta’s tech scene.
Though Atlanta’s student population is diverse — Georgia is home to 10 HBCUs including two of U.S. News and World Report’s Top 10 HBCUs in the country — that doesn’t necessarily translate to local employment statistics. When examining the post-event trajectory of the HBCU@SXSW students, 90 percent follow up their experience by interning at tech companies, but the majority leave to work on the West Coast.
#AtlTechRiseUp aims to retain some of this talent in Atlanta. In the short-term, MailChimp’s challenge asks other local corporations to sponsor students — at a total cost of $3,000 per individual — and appoint an employee to attend the festival to serve as an on-the-ground mentor for HBCU@SXSW programming.
But there’s a longer game, as well. In addition to the one-off sponsorship, #AtlTechRiseUp is encouraging companies to create paid internships for the students attending HBCU@SXSW, so they can get hands-on skills in the tech world following the conference experience. Finally, the campaign asks companies to develop internal teams to examine their corporate culture, create welcoming environments, and actively seek out inclusive gender, racial, and socioeconomic diversity.
“At MailChimp, we see firsthand that innovation thrives when people with diverse perspectives and from diverse backgrounds are represented,” says Chimére Faison Barnard, Diversity and Inclusion Talent Scout at MailChimp. “Our experience at HBCU@SXSW has given us access to some of the brightest, most driven talent. That is why we are honored to partner with Opportunity Hub to intentionally direct our resources to help students gain access to tech careers and help diversify tech in our hometown of Atlanta.”
Atlanta-based organizations that have already committed to sponsor students this year include Delta, Chick-fil-A, Carbice, Morehouse College, and Peach State LSAMP. Individual influencers have stepped in as well, including Atlanta Hawks’ Kent Bazemore, angel investor Mike Ross, and real estate investor Alicia Holmes.
Learn more about #AtlTechRiseUp here.
Photos courtesy HBCU@SXSW and Opportunity Hub