How HBCUs Are Training the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

Danielle McGee understood entrepreneurship from a young age when she started a dog walking business at 14 years old. 

Now, twenty years later, McGee is the founder of Black Business Boom, a company that helps Black-owned businesses grow digitally, and an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Tennessee State University where she is helping train the next generation of entrepreneurs from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

In 2019, Black Americans were becoming new entrepreneurs at a rate lower than that of their Latino and white counterparts, according to an analysis by Statista. Studies suggest that Black entrepreneurship can exacerbate the racial wealth gap because Black-owned businesses are less likely than white-owned businesses to still be running four years after starting. 

However, when their businesses succeed, they have a similar likelihood of upward mobility as their white peers, so helping Black entrepreneurs flourish is key.

“I wish that they had entrepreneurship training when I was in school because I think I would be a lot further along in my entrepreneurial journey,” said McGee, who is an alum of Central State University. “I have a lot of other skills that I got attending an HBCU, but I didn’t have the basics that I needed to be successful in business.”

Now, she gets the chance to teach her Tennessee State entrepreneurship minor students about business strategy, marketing, financial modeling and even franchising. Programs like this can be pivotal for young Black entrepreneurs because HBCUs play an outsized role in educating Black students. 

In 2015 HBCUs made up just three percent of the nation’s four-year colleges but accounted for 15 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students.

HBCU-alumni founders are landing everywhere, from The Lip Bar products that grace Target and Walmart shelves to a bevy of nationally acclaimed vegan restaurants. In 2018, Bloomberg found that more than half of surveyed Howard University business school graduates had gone on to found their own company, the highest share of any of the 126 schools in their best B-Schools ranking.

Beyond Tennessee State’s program, other schools are also helping teach the building blocks of entrepreneurship to their students. At Fayetteville State University, the Center for Entrepreneurship provides students a leadership institute, pitch competition and undergraduate concentration. Langston University offers master’s degrees in entrepreneurial studies to their students.

In February, Morehouse College and Spelman College announced they were partnering with the Black Economic Alliance Foundation and Bank of America in a two-year, $10 million initiative to create a Center for Black Entrepreneurship. It will be a feature of Spelman’s Innovation Lab, which will reside in the Center for Innovation & the Arts, set to open in 2023.

Later this month, Bowie State University will open its Entrepreneurship Living-Learning Community, where students will have access to entrepreneurship workshops, skill development and like-minded peers.

Last week, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman announced a $1.5 million, five-year initiative with Blackstone Launchpad to expand students’ access to mentors, funding and entrepreneurship-based internships. The initiative will launch this fall across the three campuses.

“As an African American community, we are consumers disproportionately, we are not producers,” George French, President of Clark Atlanta, told The Plug. French believes that in order to fix this discrepancy, his students should follow in the advocacy footsteps of two former Atlanta University Center members, W.E.B Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Nonviolent protest is not only hitting the streets. I tell my students to look up at the highest building, your goal is to be in the C-suite of that corporation to influence policy.”

HBCU students are learning entrepreneurial skills not just in their classrooms. Organizations like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) are providing opportunities for them to develop design thinking skills, solve entrepreneurial challenges and gain exposure to major corporations through its Innovation and Entrepreneurship program.

“[This program] is about giving students access to opportunities and to expand their mindset beyond traditional pathways,” George Spencer, TMCF’s Chief Development Officer and the head of the entrepreneurship program, told The Plug.

Through competitions run by TMCF and corporate partners, students have the chance to go to workshops run by entrepreneurs and to participate in a business case competition. Just this year, the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program is partnering with 12 corporations, including Kroger, the NBA, Gucci, Ally Financial and Cartier to create programming for students. Over the past seven years, around 1,000 students have participated in the various programs.

Spencer cautioned HBCU students and Black entrepreneurs still face systemic, unconscious biases.

“We still have a long way to go in comparison to the counterparts of [primarily white institutions],” Spencer said. “[HBCUs] are just not on an equal playing field in the nation’s eyes, and so we have to continue to promote the excellence that comes out of these schools and continue to shine the light on these types of programs and the talent that exists.”

Mirtha Donastorg

Mirtha Donastorg is a corps member with Report for America and The Plug's HBCU Innovation Editor and Senior Reporter, exploring start-up initiatives and innovations coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as the way students are shaping the future of tech. She previously worked as an associate producer and a researcher for CNN.