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Push to get more African-Americans into tech leads to SXSW
Source: Jarrad Henderson




Mariah Cowling promised her father she would apply to Spelman College, with dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer. There was just one problem: the historically black women's liberal-arts college didn't have an engineering program.

So she became a computer science major instead. That's how Cowling, who is headed to Microsoft as a coder in its virtual reality division after she graduates from Atlanta's Spelman in May, finds herself surrounded by tens of thousands of tech professionals at the SXSW Interactive Festival here.

She's one of 100 students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) participating in the HBCU@SXSW initiative, a partnership between South By Southwest Convention and Festivals and organizations such as Opportunity Hub, Huddle Ventures and Stemmed. These have teamed up to help students of color attend the popular music, interactive and film festival in Austin.

Tech leaders, pressured by criticism that their workforces employ fewer African-American, Hispanic and female professionals than other industries and far less than their increasingly diverse customer base, have been trying to recruit more African-American engineering students and young professionals. But progress has been slow.

HBCU@SXSW organizer Rodney Sampson, an Atlanta-based tech entrepreneur and his wife wanted to take a    practical approach: fund the next generation of engineers to attend one of the largest tech industry events in the nation, a nexus of thought leaders, investors and future colleagues. The first year, 50 students attended.
Students from various Historically Black Colleges and

Students from various Historically Black Colleges and Universities listen to Twitter's Head of University Recruitment Trier Bryant during the South by Southwest Conference and Festivals (SXSW) in Austin, TX on Saturday, March 11, 2017. This year, SXSW has partnered with organizations such as Opportunity Hub, Huddle Ventures and Stemmed to create HBCU @ SXSW, an opportunity where over 100 students from various Historically Black Colleges and Universities network, receive mentorship and get exposure to career opportunities while also enjoying SXSW. (Photo: Jarrad Henderson/USA TODAY)

This year over 440 went through the rigorous application process to be considered for the program.    Sampson prides himself on the fact that these students aren’t only selected from the biggest and most well known HBCUs, like Morehouse or Howard, but also schools like Medgar Evers College, Tuskegee University, Allen University, Kennesaw State University and Huston-Tillotson University.

“We picked the students who wanted to solve the biggest problems using technology and had some pretty good ideas about it,” Sampson said. "We’ve really kind of have emancipated SXSW to a degree.”


Tech companies took notice of HBCU@SXSW and began to support the initiative with sponsorship. First was Booz Allen Hamilton, then Google, Microsoft, Mailchimp, Snapchat, and Apple. Over 30 companies currently support the program. At an estimated cost of $3,000 per student, HBCUxSXSW aims to continue to expand its program to reach its goal of having 500 students attend the annual event.

Recent Morehouse graduate and LookLive.com's Head of Marketing, Scooter Taylor, shares a smile during the South by Southwest Conference and Festivals (SXSW) in Austin. This year, SXSW has partnered with organizations such as Opportunity Hub, Huddle Ventures and Stemmed to create HBCU @ SXSW, an opportunity where over 100 students from various Historically Black Colleges and Universities earn the opportunity to network, receive mentoring and get exposure to career opportunities while also enjoying SXSW.    Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY

“Diversity grows out of the soil of inclusion,” said Cheryl Wade, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Booz Allen Hamilton, “It starts with making the hires and finding the talent, but there is work to be done on the side of the companies and organizations to be sure they’re building a culture where it creates an environment that people can stick, stay, and thrive.”

What makes HBCU@SXSW stand out    has been its approach of connecting students to the companies. Instead of hosting recruiters to make their pitches to students in a job fair-like environment, students often lead the charge, asking tough questions about navigating company culture, cultivating friendships with their business-owning peers and building relationships between scheduled events with potential mentors. Nothing sums up the #DiversifySXSW dynamic better than hearing the inspiring words of billionaire Janice Bryant Howroyd seep outside the ballroom at 9am only to have them replaced with F.L.Y.’s “Swag Surfin’” during another presentation at noon.

When asked what she would ask her freshman self, Cowling didn’t hesitate, “If I was to meet the old me, I would tell myself to take every single opportunity.”

Her father has passed away, making her pending graduation all the more bittersweet.

“My dad, I know he’ll be proud of me,” she said with a smile.



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