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Diversity in Tech Summit at A&T

Congresswoman Alma S. Adams, Ph.D. (NC-12), Governor Roy Cooper and A&T Chancellor Harold L. Martin Sr. speak at Tech Summit on the campus of N.C. A&TSU. Photo by Joe Daniels/Carolina Peacemaker

The campus of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University served as the host site for the first Diversity in Tech Summit held on August 8 and 9, the largest of its kind bringing together more than 200 government, science, technology, and Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) leaders.

Congresswoman Alma S. Adams, Ph.D. (NC-12), founder and co-chair of the Congressional Bi-partisan HBCU Caucus, led the summit at her alma mater, saying that HBCUs are preparing their STEM students for the future. Participants met for a two-day brainstorming session on how to partner with a HBCUs for the biggest impact.

“HBCUs should not just be a concern of the Congressional Black Caucus or the Democrats, but should be a concern of everyone,” said Adams.

The Bipartisan HBCU Caucus is comprised of 76 members from both chambers of Congress and both sides of the aisle. In September 2017, the HBCU Caucus created the HBCU Partnership Challenge to increase corporate commitments to diversity and inclusion efforts on HBCU campuses. The caucus reached out to three of the largest tech associations — the Information Technology Industry Council, the BSA Foundation and the Internet Association — to help facilitate recruitment of companies that would be interested in taking the challenge.

Adams noted that while the challenge is open to all industries, the tech sector has been the most engaged. Tech companies Intel, Lyft, N.C. Blue Cross Blue Shield, and SAP have already committed to the challenge to find ways to increase diversity within their company.

“One of the things we’ve found is that there is no one process that companies use to try and develop a diverse workforce. We know that HBCUs have done so much in terms of STEM graduates. We think the best way to diversify a workforce is to look at our HBCUs,” said Adams.

HBCUs produce more than one-third of African Americans who earn a degree in STEM. HBCUs also produce 27 percent of all African American STEM graduates and 40 percent of all African American engineers.

Adams noted another goal of the summit was to provide education about HBCUs to members of Congress, as well as to help HBCUs globally expand their footprint. The summit served as an opportunity for tech companies to learn about ways to partner with an HBCU on not just employment, but also adding diversity to boards of directors and helping institutions with curriculum to prepare students for future technological employment opportunities.

“Diversity in the tech workforce will strengthen our economy and our state. We can recruit more jobs and develop better solutions when we make diversity a priority,” said North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper who attended the summit in support of the HBCU Partnership Challenge.

Before the breakout sessions, tech summit attendees took a tour of N.C. A&T classrooms and labs, while high school students attending the A&T STEM Early College and the N.C. A&T Middle College provided demonstrations of what they have been studying.

Tony Watlington, a senior majoring in economics at N.C. A&T, and a graduate of the university’s STEM Early College said he believes HBCUs have some of the best talent.

“I don’t think people understand the multitude of talent and potential we have on HBCU campuses. Companies who do decide to invest in an HBCU and its students will get some of the brightest and innovative talent, by far,” said Watlington.

Dean Garfield, chief executive officer of the Information Technology Industry Council, led a few breakout sessions at the summit and said there is a sincere interest in working with HBCUs.

“ITI reps many of the world’s most innovative companies, and there’s a sincere interest in creating capacity at HBCUs, learning from those institutions, as well as figuring out how we can strategically sustain partnerships. It’s not just about engaging in conversation but figuring out the action items we can help capture going forward,” he said.

Different models that encourage diversity already exist such as tech software giant, SAP’s (System Analysis and Program Development) Project Propel, which has partnered with Delaware State University to enable students to gain hands on experience in SAP’s latest technologies as part of their degree programs.

Garfield added that recruitment efforts for companies have started to trend upward, with more African Americans being hired, but now the challenge is retaining those workers.

“Part of this is also how do we do better at creating a work culture or environment on these companies’ campuses that value diversity and is inclusive,” said Garfield. “The future is being created today, in order to have that future reflect brown people we have to be at the table, in these conversations now. This isn’t just a tech endeavor, this is something we all have to strive for.”