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July 4, 2020
Ro's Op-Eds

Times and Democrat

The Black Lives Matter protests are highlighting our failure to live up to our nation’s vision of “liberty and justice for all.” These protests remind us that it is not enough to express solidarity; solidarity must be practiced.

The U.S. House recently passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to address the clear and present danger people of color frequently experience at the hands of law enforcement. But these inequalities are not limited to the justice system. They are across the board and must be addressed in the private and public sectors.

If my six-decades-long friend and current colleague, John Lewis, was correct when he said, “in many ways, technology rights are the new civil rights,” we have some real work to do. The diversity numbers at tech companies are dismal. While Black Americans make up 12% of the U.S. population, their representation at major tech companies falls far short of parity: Apple (9%), Twitter (5.7%), Facebook (3.8%) and Google (3.7%). BLM protests are siren calls for structural change.

A company that seems to be answering that call is Zoom. They have announced a $1.2 million partnership with Claflin University to better connect Black students to the tech jobs and opportunities of the future. This is not a one-and-done donation or a photo-op. It is a five-year commitment of serious time and effort to make this a lasting and substantive partnership.

They are not just donating resources. They are committing time and personnel. Damien Hooper-Campbell, a Morehouse graduate, will spearhead this initiative for the company. Zoom Chief Operating Officer Aparna Bawa is joining Claflin’s Board of Trustees. Zoom’s long-term commitment is a model for the type of partnership that provides more tech opportunities to Black students.

During Claflin’s fall and spring semesters, Zoom will host two paid internships, paying $10,000 each to work on projects designed by the company. In the summer, Zoom will host three rising seniors, earning a housing stipend and $45,000, in its summer internship program. Not only will it put real money in the pockets of these students, the internship program will connect students to their peers from a wide range of backgrounds and universities. This will expand their networking capacity and provide job opportunities after graduation.

Zoom will also provide four $10,000 academic scholarships for selected Claflin students, contribute $30,000 to Claflin’s general operating fund, work with professors to assist in curriculum development, and find ways to engage Claflin’s alumni interested in career opportunities at Zoom.

Here’s why Zoom’s comprehensive approach is so important. Jason Su, the chief technology officer of Silicon Valley tech startup, a company also providing paid internships to HBCUs in S.C., found that when interviewing 4.0 computer science students at HBCUs, they were just as motivated and brilliant as students from better-known tech schools. What they lacked were opportunities and experiences, like attending hackathons and working on real-world projects. With historically limited resources, HBCU professors can only teach so much and textbooks only go so far.

Here’s what is so promising about the Zoom-at-Claflin model. Not only are they providing scholarships for students to attend college, they are directly providing real world experiences and opportunities within Zoom and working with Claflin’s professors to develop case studies to better prepare students when interviewing with tech companies.

Zoom is not alone. Last month, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings personally donated millions to both Spelman and Morehouse Colleges. And many of us remember Tech Giant, Robert F. Smith’s announcement during his Morehouse commencement speech last year.

Although Claflin’s alumni donation ratios are over 40%, much higher than other universities, it’s endowment, at $27 million is far short of other well-known HBCUs like Howard University, Spelman College and Morehouse College, with endowments of $688.6 million, $389.2 million, and $145 million respectively. Smaller HBCUs like Claflin should not be forgotten. Many of them deserve our attention and resources, which is why Zoom’s contribution to Claflin is critical.

There are more than 100 HBCUs with more than 225,000 students that can benefit from long-lasting partnerships like the one between Zoom and Claflin. This is how we start to dismantle systems that cause young Blacks to fear for their lives when walking to school and jogging on public streets while dreaming of becoming the next Steve Jobs. Their lives and livelihoods matter.