This Venture Capital Firm Is Partnering With HBCUs To Increase Diversity In Tech
Recruitment efforts at top tech firms have traditionally targeted students at elite colleges and Ivy League universities, leading to a predominantly white, male workforce. Because of that, companies have missed out on top talent from the 101 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which produce a growing number of science and tech professionals.
Unusual Ventures, a seed-stage investment firm, aims to change this with its new Unusual Interns program. Launching this summer, the program is designed to increase the number of black students working in technical internships by connecting students from HBCUs with high-growth Silicon Valley startups.
There have been many promises to improve the racial makeup of Silicon Valley’s workforce, but the tech sector’s latest diversity reports remain underwhelming. Black Americans represent less than 5% of the employees at most tech companies, according to the State of Black America 2018report. By contrast, at least half the workforce at those companies is white.
Tech’s lack of diversity is often called a pipeline problem, but Silicon Valley’s passive attitude toward diverse recruitment is really to blame, says Megan Holston-Alexander, a senior associate at Unusual Ventures who helped create the internship program.
“HBCU students are severely under-recruited,” she says. “VCs and companies will say, ‘Well, if the pitch deck of a black woman founder makes it to my desk, I’ll take a look at it.’”
A very different scenario occurs at schools like Stanford and at Ivy League institutions, where recruiters woo students with giveaways, dinners and coffee meet-ups. “It’s a totally different experience, and so our goal with this program is to be very active in that outreach because the engineers are there,” says Holston-Alexander. “You just have to put the same amount of effort toward getting them.”
As the very first step in the initiative, 10 computer science students from a group of handpicked HBCUs—including Howard University, Hampton University and Alabama A&M University—will participate in 10- to 12-week internships. They will be matched with tech companies like Zola, DataStax, zScaler and Harness, with the possibility of full-time employment after completing the internship.
The interns will also have access to a six-week online course, hosted by computer science academy Lambda School, where they will sharpen their skills in some of the latest tech areas of expertise, including full-stack engineering, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
To better prepare students for permanent jobs, the program will bring guest speakers from leading tech companies to offer insight into possible career paths and hold professional and personal development sessions.
Next summer, Unusual plans to enroll up to 50 interns and partner with additional HBCUs. The firm’s goal is to eventually expand the internship to a semester program whereby students receive college credit.
Yvette Clayton, director of career development services at Alabama A&M University, says the opportunities this program presents to students will be life-changing. “Actually getting to see a startup build its way up is just eye-opening,” she says. At her school’s College of Engineering, Technology, and Physical Sciences, more than 42% of the 1,000 students are women, and it’s the largest producer of African-American STEM graduates in the state.
Holston-Alexander, who graduated from Clark Atlanta University, an HBCU, says that early exposure to Silicon Valley and its cultural norms will not only be invaluable for black students, who otherwise wouldn’t have any such level of access, but will also be good for the companies, exposing them to the technical aptitudes of HBCU students. “They can see that these kids are talented and the diverse perspectives they bring,” says Unusual Ventures cofounder John Vrionis.
In recent years, big-name tech companies like Google, Adobe and Spotify have increasingly sought out relationships with HBCUs. While their efforts are commendable, says Vrionis, established companies don’t provide students with as many opportunities to troubleshoot problems and build new startup ventures from the ground up.
But as part of the Unusual Interns program, participants will have a unique chance to learn and contribute to the daily function and output of fast-growing companies, strengthening their entrepreneurial muscles. “The only way to learn all of this is by doing,” says Vrionis, “and VCs have front-row access to the next generation of disruptive companies.”
This article was originally published in Forbes.