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HBCUs are incubating an era of innovators 

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This week the House Oversight Committee had a hearing examining federal support provided to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, this coming on the heels of nearly 20 threats of racially motivated threats of violence to HBCU’s this year alone. The threats to these institutions are doing more than just disrupting post-secondary education—they are holding back economic opportunity. We encourage this timely hearing and ongoing conversation because HBCUs are playing a pivotal, but often under-the-radar, role in closing the racial wealth gap by equipping students with the entrepreneurial skills, assistance and, at times, capital needed to build successful businesses. 

Entrepreneurship is one of the greatest drivers of wealth creation in this country. According to the Small Business Administration, the self-employed have nearly four times the net worth of their peers in the workforce. An entrepreneur’s reinvested time and services often strengthen the communities they are in, contributing to job creation and supporting local economies during a downturn. 

Among students at HBCUs, the enthusiasm for careers in entrepreneurship is growing. For example, a study from 2014 found that 46 percent of business school students at Bowie State University held favorable views toward becoming an entrepreneur of some kind. And new data quantifies how HBCUs are stepping up to provide resources to support Black entrepreneurs. 

The new report from the Alliance for Entrepreneurial Equity, a joint effort between Third Way and the National Urban League, surveyed the 102 HBCUs across the United States to uncover exactly how they are shaping the entrepreneurial ecosystem today. It looked at whether these institutions offered formal business and entrepreneurship education, how they supported entrepreneurial networks, and whether they provided technical assistance and funding. 

The results surprised us. 

The vast majority of HBCUs offer business and entrepreneurship opportunities for students, with one-third also providing graduate level opportunities. Three-quarters of institutions help students expand networks, and almost half of them provide resources for un-enrolled community residents to do the same. 

According to the Alliance, HBCUs are helping businesses tackle the perennial problem of accessing capital as well. Even though just 6 percent of institutions have programs that directly provide early-stage funding for startups, one quarter help entrepreneurs find outside funding and over half provide technical assistance in that pursuit. 

The Aggie Venture Development Lab at North Carolina A&T State University is one of the few schools seeding new businesses with capital. Its on-campus incubator provides co-working facilities, workshops, and expert assistance for students interested in entrepreneurship and innovation. These resources equip students to successfully navigate milestones that have historically been a challenge for communities of color, such as filing a patent to protect their intellectual property and working with an accountant to ensure the financial sustainability of the project. 

Drive 900 miles southwest, and the Southern University Law Center offers a wide range of services through the Small Business Development Center and Technology & Entrepreneurship Clinic housed on their Baton Rouge campus. Just in the last year, students and practicing attorneys have provided over 380 hours of direct legal counsel to small businesses and nonprofits on intellectual property issues. The University also was selected to partner with the Minority Business Development Agency on a center that will help minority-owned firms secure new business through state and federal contracting opportunities. 

Many of us in the halls of Congress recognize the pillar of pride HBCUs are to the Black community. As members of the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, we have advocated that greater attention be paid to their strategic value. As part of that, the Caucus has worked to strengthen relationships between HBCUs and the private sector while also advocating for increased investment. Today, more than 80 companies and organizations are members of the HBCU Partnership Challenge which demonstrates their commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion in their respective sectors. These partnerships are an important marker of success and opportunity for communities of color. Let’s not stop there. As the new data shows, HBCUs are also working to usher in the next eras of entrepreneurs and business owners. We must support them and help even more students be architects of their own possibilities by pursuing the spirit of entrepreneurship. 

Alma Adams represents North Carolina’s 12th District and is the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus and a graduate of North Carolina A&T State University, the largest HBCU by enrollment. She is in her fourth full term representing Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in Congress. Troy A. Carter Sr. represents Louisiana’s 2nd District is a member of Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus and a proud graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans. He is a freshman member of Congress and a member of the House Small Business Committee. 

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