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Partnerships with HBCUs growing, but industry says more can be done

Excerpted from the June 2021 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can view the entire issue here.

Every week lately it seems there are new announcements of industry partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And judging from panelists’ comments during a session at UIDPVirtual 2021, industry interest in HBCU collaborations is only growing. However, the panelists added, there’s plenty more that can be done on both sides to further enhance this growth.

And representing some of the largest and most active companies involved in partnerships with HBCUs, they know of what they speak. For example, Valinda Kennedy, HBCU Strategist for IBM, noted that some of their programs, like a PhD fellowship, have been in place since 1951, but the effort to reach out to HBCUs is ever evolving. “Last year we tried a complementary program with a focus on undergraduates, and a masters fellowship program,” she said, also mentioning the IBM Academic Initiative and its Skills Academy, which involves training, curriculum, integrated use cases, hands-on labs, and credentials. “Our goal is to expand and add even more programs,” said Kennedy, herself an HBCU alum.

At Dell Technologies, said Deborah Stokes, leader of external research in the Office of the CTO, these partnerships are “part of the Dell DNA — part of the culture code. We have a number of partnerships with HBCUs and MSIs [Minority Serving Institutions].” The company, she explained, helps craft curricula for students aimed at building their skillsets and helping them recognize Dell as a potential employer. “HBCUs are a talent resourcing pool,” said Stokes. “We plan on building external resources projects in those schools to find hidden gems.”

Dow Chemical’s involvement also goes back several decades, said Nikhil Fernandes, research scientist for university research collaborations, who is responsible for the company’s research program in North America. “We’ve gone beyond direct recruitment to partnering on K-12, [sponsored] research, and so on,” he reported. He also noted that in 2020 the Dow Acts commitment of more than $5 million was launched for HBCUs in partnering and enhancing the talent pipeline. “It will continue to expand,” he predicted, noting the funds will be used to build STEM curricula and “inspire and attract students.”

Keys to partnership

Both industry partners and HBCUs have responsibilities in generating collaborations, said the panelists, although they vary greatly. Major companies, for example, do not necessarily need to create awareness, but they do need to show why they’d be the proper partner for the university. “We have to show we’re engaged and there for the long haul,” said Fernandes, adding that deep alumni engagement is a critical factor. “Wherever there are people with a connection to the university, it drives a lot of internal support,” he noted.

“I agree,” said Kennedy. “Without senior level commitment you would not be able to provide what is most valuable to the company — faculty being able to participate in initiatives. We give away things worth millions of dollars, but you can only do that on a consistent basis when you have C-suite commitment. Our goal is to make sure we’ve defined repeatable programs and processes schools will benefit from — having that relationship that says as we go on, here are the resources you can engage with.”

“Each HBCU is not like every other,” noted Fernandes. “You have to tailor to the partner you’re working with.”

Kennedy echoed that advice. “They’re all different, all with unique circumstances,” she said. “Engage in ways to help them best achieve their goals.”

“Sometimes it’s not all about cash contributions; that’s the easy thing to do,” Stokes added. “What we’re able to provide are the resources available — the time, the expertise, we can sit on advisory boards, teach courses, be advisors. Engagement from corporate leaders, particularly at HBCUs and MSIs, are often where a university needs that extra bump.”

And what about the universities? “Have an entry point, so key partners know where to begin,” Kennedy advised. “If you’re looking to launch, who is your go-to person?”

“There’s no difference [between HBCUs and other universities] in deciding who to partner with — it’s the exact same thing,” Stokes observed. “What are the opportunities, the skills, the uniqueness of the programs being proposed? It’s a process of elimination; look at what their technology directions are, because we have a defined set of what will be the emerging technologies.”

“It’s about aligning to the priorities where we can help,” says Fernandes. “For example, we have expertise in chemical engineering, chemistry, integrated supply chains. If your university is looking to really build out their agricultural school, we might not be the right partner.” In short, he noted, a potential partnership should be looked at in terms of the needs of both sides — from research, as well as from the student and recruitment perspective.

“There is a pool of jobs available at Dow that HBCU students can fill, but make sure there’s an alignment of needs,” he said. “There are a lot of schools, and all of them are great; it’s a challenging decision to make, but the first place to look is the overlap of what the school needs and what we need.”

As for an HBCU seeking to get the attention of one of these partners, the joint advice was to start — to “make the call.”

“There are secret pockets we don’t know about,” said Stokes. “Sometimes it’s not easy to promote yourself, but it’s really important for a university to learn how to promote itself very well. Make sure you get the accolades for the research expertise you should be recognized for. If you’re an HBCU, find a university partner we already work with and collaborate as their partner.”

Addressing challenges

As with any potential partnerships, those between industry and HBCUs have their challenges — but the panelists suggested some strategies for overcoming them.

“One of the biggest challenges,” said Kennedy, “is that a lot of the HBCUs are small, and it’s just the size.” Part of that challenge, she suggested, can be addressed by industry. “We have to do a better job of our teams being streamlined, efficient, and meeting the needs with value propositions they are trying to address. Also, you can’t have conversations in a silo; they need to be in the room where it happens. They have to be part of the solution — otherwise it’s somebody doing something for them.”

What’s more, she continued, “I would like to see R1 [universities] leverage technology more with HBCUs; be complementary, with each trying to achieve [similar goals] and a long-term commitment to work together. Think about what universities want to work with HBCUs on and think outside what you’re working on today — what could we do together we’ve not even thought of? That can be a foundation to do amazing things in the future.”

Stokes agreed. Most R1 universities, she noted, have diversity and inclusion initiatives. “Why not expand them to HBCUs and MSIs?” she challenged. “That’s a really great way to get on our radar, so it can start the university becoming a strategic partner for us.”

The third part of the “stool,” she continued, is government — for example, NSF’s Industry University Collaborative Research Centers. “How many of them are in a stage where they not only have core universities, but school partners?” she posed. “NSF is looking for and funding them. I almost challenge NSF to say when you’re looking for partners for government center funding opportunities, why not include HBCUs? Make some recommendations for some of these grant proposals; include an HBCU as one of the pillar schools.”

“I agree,” said Fernandes, “And I’m beginning to see it. Two weeks ago, I looked at a proposal where there were multiple partners, and one called out that they were partnering with Florida A & M. Also, for R1s, where are your researchers coming from? Are you evaluating them in a fair way? Some HBCUs are part of a state system where there is already a big R1, so the opportunity is there.”

Keep it natural

However, cautioned Kennedy, “do not do it to check a box; it must be a natural project. If it’s known that an R1 school and two HBCUs have been doing phenomenal work in IoT, that’s the piece that becomes organic. If a university knows there’s a fit because there has already been work in this area, this should be a team assembled to win a proposal.”

“When these centers come in, having them at HBCUs makes them natural partners,” added Fernandes. “Make sure to spread funding to schools who can use it — maybe prioritizing multi-school proposals is valid, but it has to be where it makes sense. The government needs to do this long-term and build the universities up, so they can become R1s — don’t just engage with R1s, make them.”

“NSF had these Presidential Young Investigators awards,” added Stokes. [They’ve since been replaced by NSF Young Investigator (NYI) Awards and Presidential Faculty Fellows Program (PFF) awards.] “Encourage HBCUs and MSIs to nominate their guys to go for them. Recognize some of these up-and-coming researchers.”

And, Stokes added, there’s no substitute for exposure. “A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a local CTO,” she shared. “He said, ‘I presented at this class with HBCUs and they were bright, articulate — we had great conversations. What else can we do with these students?’ He got it, he’s engaged, and now I have three new action items. That’s the example you want — be engaged and follow up. He’s committed — that’s what a university wants.”

Contact Fernandes at; Kennedy at; and Stokes at

Posted June 18, 2021