Fayetteville State University alumnus and entrepreneur Nicholas Perkins was recently featured in the Fayetteville Observer under the headline, ‘Entrepreneur Perkins generously remembers Fayetteville State, has billion-dollar dream.’ Perkins is perhaps the most prominent member of the HBCU Billionaires Club — a collection of young, HBCU alumni armed with the intellect, energy and vision to potentially amass more than a billion in personal net worth, and the character to give most of it back to historically Black colleges.
But only if Black colleges themselves are willing to front the start-up capital for their billion-dollar dreams.
There are many positive elements of HBCU culture, politics and society that separate them as the ideal training ground for young Black entrepreneurs. Family nurturing, an academically and ethnically sound approach to racial assimilation in professional training, and the model of Black community service through education are without peer, worldwide.
But the negative, unintended elements of the HBCU experience, taught and refined over generations, have harmed these institutions in profound ways that will force the closing of some schools, and the watering down of mission and impact of many others. Culturally, HBCUs have taught that accumulating wealth and education are methods of escaping poverty, instead of tools used for eradicating it. We taught our students that getting out is the top objective, and that giving back is good but only after you have situated yourself and your family.
We taught our students that getting a job is the top priority over creating one, and that if you do create one, the goal should be to find clientele and funding beyond our community, because everyone else will always have more money and more resources to support our efforts.
Oprah Winfrey followed the system, and is the only HBCU graduate to excel beyond the formula.
The result? Our biggest HBCU enterprises are funded in part by companies like Coca-Cola, State Farm, Honda, McDonald’s, Food Lion and a long list of corporations chiefly interested in Black buying power, more than Black economic freedom.
And the reason those companies have turned an eye towards Black communities? At some point, an HBCU graduate was hired in a key marketing or community development division of these companies who started a trend of support for HBCUs.
HBCUs created the Black middle class more than 40 years ago, and maintains it to this day by their very existence. But now its time for our institutions to intentionally close the wealth gap for African-Americans, and to reap the resulting benefits. Some schools have already started this process in earnest; dozens of HBCUs have campus resources for entrepreneurial development for students and community members, S.T.E.M./business hybrid curriculum, and partnerships with tech companies to provide computing tools and software to expand learning opportunities for students.
But, the next step is for HBCUs to do bigger business with Black owned companies. Many HBCUs are in states requiring 25–35 percent participation from Minority Business Enterprises, but they should make a commitment to individually raise that standard to 50 percent. And not just for smaller contracts like office supplies and signage creation, but large contracts like custodial operations, construction, food service (Perkins Management, Cravings Truck. From Momma’s Kitchen), marketing (duGard Ellis, Craig Stokes, media, (HBCU Story, HBCU Money, Old Soul Productions) groundskeeping, apparel design (Proud Product, Flyy Apparel), conference and event planning, and data management.
Fortune 500 companies got their start through venture capital funding, often brokered through alumni and university-based connections. HBCU alumni do not have the same kind of access to transformative wealth, but enough HBCUs committing to collectively supporting a number of worthwhile businesses owned by alumni can set Black America and its most valuable institutions on a path of economic and social freedom.