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A stunning LLC surprise

I haven’t mentioned it in this newsletter before, but I didn’t study journalism in college. My major was in biology, and there’s a concept I learned about in one of my classes called activation energy, where a chemical reaction can only begin once enough energy needed to start has been reached. That’s where a catalyst comes in, to make the reaction begin quicker.

Billionaire philanthropist Robert F. Smith seems to be the catalyst that has caused a chain reaction of major gifts to be announced at HBCU graduations. In 2019, Smith announced he was paying off the loans of that year’s entire Morehouse College graduating class — more than $34 million.

Seemingly following in his footsteps, last weekend Pinky Cole — Clark Atlanta University alum and founder of restaurant chain Slutty Vegan — told around 800 students graduating from CAU that “every single graduate in this audience will leave this stadium as a business owner” because she was gifting them a limited liability corporation (LLC).

Cole partnered with a bank to purchase the LLCs and she told 11Alive the total cost was more than $400,000.

For some entrepreneurial-minded students, this may be a catalyst to push their business idea forward. Even for those who may not have considered becoming an entrepreneur, this gift may make them reconsider.

However, an LLC is only a paperwork vehicle. It’s not the strategy, funding and support that a business needs to fully get off the ground.

Which begs the question: what will this actually mean for the graduates?

So far, details have been slim. Slutty Vegan didn’t respond to The Plug’s questions if students would receive any additional support for their business or when they might receive the LLC.

To be fair, it has only been four days since Cole made the announcement and 800 students’ worth of paperwork may take some time to complete.

But when graduation ceremonies are starting to become co-opted as a PR opportunity for the chosen speaker and corporations (Cole specifically mentioned Varo Bank as her partner in the gift), it’s important to ask questions as to whether the gift will be beneficial for the graduates.

Three years removed from Smith’s gift to the Morehouse Class of 2019, the impact is still being felt. The young men whose debt was wiped away have been able to buy property before they thought they would be able to, have started nonprofits or simply built up important savings.

Smith’s gift also inspired him to launch the Student Freedom Initiative, an organization that takes a holistic approach to liberating HBCU students of excessive student debt by, among other things, creating an alternative income-based financing for students and improving HBCUs' capacity to teach, do research and raise money by upgrading their IT infrastructure at no cost to the school.

This is not to say that Cole should’ve put her gift towards debt forgiveness nor to dictate how she should spend her money. I just wonder if her gift will prove to be a catalytic spark or a flash in the pan.

Preparing students for one of the fastest-growing tech careers

​On May 13, Lincoln College, a small predominantly Black institution (that many in the media erroneously called an HBCU) shut down after 157 years, a casualty of two devastations — the pandemic and a cyberattack.

On its own, Covid-19, though difficult, was survivable. But after hackers infiltrated the school’s systems late last year and made all recruitment, retention and fundraising systems inoperable for around three months, the harm was too massive to overcome.

This illustrates the growing existential threat of cyberattacks and why preventing them is becoming such an in-demand field.

“Cybersecurity will be the issue of this decade,” Arvind Krishna, Chairman and CEO of IBM, wrote last August.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field of information security analysts — people whose job is to protect an organization’s computer networks and systems — is projected to grow by 33 percent from 2020 to 2030, making it one of the top 20 fastest growing occupations.

Companies like IBM and Accenture Federal Services are making sure that HBCU students are part of this growing field.

Last week, IBM announced it was launching Cybersecurity Leadership Centers at six HBCUs, with the eventual goal of having centers at 20 HBCUs.

The initial six HBCUs are Clark Atlanta University, Morgan State University, North Carolina A&T State University, South Carolina State University, Southern University System and Xavier University.

Planning for what the Cybersecurity Leadership Centers will look like is still ongoing, but it will be tailored to what each university wants and needs to build their capacity, which could include course offerings, research support, a top IBM employee available for the school and more.

“We did not want this to be something where IBM says, ‘Here's what you're going to get,’” Lydia Logan, Vice President of Global Education and Workforce Development at IBM, told The Plug.

“We really wanted this to be a partnership, collaboration, where we said to them, ‘There are a variety of things that IBM can do with you. What is it that's going to be valuable to you?’ Let's talk about how we build something together and do this over time and do it in a way that it's valuable for you, that it's valuable for your faculty and your students,” Logan added.

Accenture Federal Services (AFS), pulling from their experience in consulting and working on cyber threats for the government, works with Hampton University, Howard University and St. Philip’s College to train students through hackathons and immersive labs where students are given a cyber problem and asked to figure out how to solve it.

The company’s work with HBCUs was started out of a “desire to continue recognizing the caliber of the student talent and wanting them to have an opportunity to join us” said Terrianne Lord, a managing director with AFS and a Howard University alumna.

“That evolved into a partnership with the faculty and administration just to help broaden that impact, to help with classroom innovation and then continue to provide that real-world student experience,” Lord added.

AFS also recruits rising juniors and seniors from Hampton and Howard for internships, but the company goes beyond just hosting students for a few weeks in the summer.

Lord said AFS involves faculty before and after the internship, letting them know the concepts their students will be working on at the internship so courses can help prepare them beforehand and then after the work experience, the classes can complement what students learned.

As a growing number of organizations face dire cybersecurity threats, programs are in place now to make sure that HBCU graduates are there fighting the attacks.