Here’s How You Can Support Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the U.S., Even as a Small or Private Company

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Corporate giants make headlines for partnering with historically Black colleges and universities. But companies of all sizes can do the same, and drive profound impact in doing so.

After George Floyd’s killing in 2020, the business community’s focus on diversity and inclusion — including diversity in the recruiting process — intensified, turning corporate attention toward historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Between spring 2020 and August 2021, corporations and individuals committed over $600 million to HBCUs. HBCUs have also seen a dramatic increase in recruitment efforts. Approximately one out of eight bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students comes from an HBCU, making those schools a fruitful starting place for corporate recruiters who are committed to diversity and inclusion.

Some companies — including Google and IBM — have also established formal partnerships with HBCUs. These partnerships can provide key benefits, beyond the clear moral commitment, to participating companies: Research has repeatedly linked workforce diversity and diverse recruiting to financial performance. In turn, those companies offer many different forms of support to HBCU students, including scholarship funds, educational resources, and internship opportunities.

While corporate giants might have more overall funds at their disposal, small and private companies have much to offer HBCUs in terms of unique resources and opportunities. Here’s how three such companies forged meaningful relationships with HBCUs to strengthen their recruiting prospects and impact their industries more broadly.

Hone in on your educational offering.

In 2021, Los Angeles-based alternative investment manager Oaktree Capital Management joined forces with two other alternative investment managers — Apollo Global Management and Ares Management Corporation — to launch the AltFinance initiative. This initiative offers needs-based scholarships and fellowship opportunities to HBCU students, but it also provides educational opportunities that align with Oaktree’s market niche. “There’s a lot of universities that teach equity classes, public equity classes, stock classes, but there wasn’t a lot about alternatives and credit in the college sphere,” says Jerilyn Castillo McAniff, Oaktree’s managing director and head of diversity and inclusion.

Identifying an educational gap like this can be an ideal starting place for companies interested in partnering with HBCUs. When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Corey Johnson, CEO of the Minneapolis-based ad agency Solve, was inspired to act and noticed a dearth of advertising programs at HBCUs. His team at Solve created a 12-week curriculum and instructed students at Morgan State University, an HBCU in Baltimore. That program — which has included courses like “Finding a Target Audience” and “Emotional Positioning” — is now six semesters strong.

Measurement is key to ensure that your offering is having an impact. Before students partake in the curriculum, Solve administers a survey. On average, approximately 80 percent of students say they don’t see a career for themselves in advertising. After the program ends, Solve sends another survey. Approximately 90 percent of students in the second survey say they would consider a career in the field, Johnson says.

Partner wisely to amplify your impact.

Any company can make a difference for HBCU students, but some may see additional advantages in partnering with other companies or nonprofits. The Chicago-based, Black-owned wine label Michael Lavelle Wines launched on Juneteenth in 2020, and the founders knew they wanted to make a larger impact on the Black community than they could by themselves. They quickly began supporting The Roots Fund, a nonprofit that helps send HBCU graduates to France for a master’s in wine management and/or an MBA in wine business. Terrence “Lavelle” Low, the CEO and head of house at Michael Lavelle Wines, says that choosing the right organization was one of the most important factors in beginning to support HBCUs.

“The Roots Fund is very authentic,” Low says. “We’re always looking for transparency and authenticity in our partners.” A spokesperson for the company said that Michael Lavelle Wines has contributed thousands to the nonprofit, despite only launching their own company of 10 full- and part-time employees in 2020.

Corporate partnerships can be powerful, as well. Thanks to Oaktree’s partnership with Apollo and Ares, each student in the AltFinance program has access to a mentor from one of the participating firms. This adds a depth and breadth to students’ understanding of the alternative investment industry.

Think beyond recruiting for your company.

Partnering with HBCUs can help companies improve the diversity of their internship ranks, and even that of their full-time employees. But that shouldn’t necessarily be the main aim of a partnership, says Johnson. “It’s about changing the industry more than just about changing us as an organization,” he says.

Industry-wide impact is about more than filling quotas, says Low. In fact, Low knows that the HBCU graduates who receive scholarships through The Roots Fund may not come to work for Michael Lavelle Wines when they return to the U.S. But this partnership is helping those students break into the predominantly White wine industry, Low says, and that goal is a priority for the company. When Michael Lavelle Wines launched, it was quickly recognized as the youngest Black-owned wine label in the country. But Low didn’t relish that fact. “We don’t want to be the youngest,” he says. “We want to pass that mantle and that opportunity on.”

Get started today.

Once you’re ready to begin reaching out to HBCUs, reach out to as many as possible — even if that means making cold calls. Johnson’s team called 54 HBCUs before a Morgan State University chair took up their offer. Low recommends connecting directly with the deans at HBCUs and messaging them on LinkedIn.

No matter what, Low says, always keep intentionality at the forefront in these reach-outs. “If you wait because it doesn’t benefit you, that’s not what it’s about,” Low says. “It’s about having an impact on someone’s life.”