HBCU New Venture Challenge founders (from left) Akindele Akinhanm, Joseph Akoun, Emeka Igwilo, Kalesanmi Kalesanwo and Chukwuemeka "Obi" Obiaka (Courtesy photo)
HBCU New Venture Challenge founders (from left) Akindele Akinhanm, Joseph Akoun, Emeka Igwilo, Kalesanmi Kalesanwo and Chukwuemeka "Obi" Obiaka (Courtesy photo)

HBCU students and recent graduates who need the startup funds for their entrepreneurial venture have less than two weeks to enter a competition where they can win a cash prize totaling tens of thousands. 

The HBCU New Venture Challenge (HBCU NVC), now in its second year, provides entrepreneurs at 41 historically Black colleges and universities an opportunity to compete for the financial support and long-term guidance of angel investors and business mavens, some of whom just so happen to be HBCU alumni. 

Participants endure three rounds of competition where they engage judges in dialogue about their business ideas. HBCU NVC co-organizer Chukwuemeka “Obi” Obiaka said the most successful participants often demonstrate an ability to receive advice and change aspects of their business to ensure the greatest success.  

Obiaka, a fixed-income asset manager and alumnus of Morgan State University (MSU) in Baltimore, launched HBCU NVC with four of his colleagues in 2021. 

After two of their business ventures fizzled in college, the quintet developed the competition as part of an effort to highlight and support student entrepreneurship within the HBCU community. 

During the inaugural competition last year, 16 students from eight HBCUs presented their business plans in the areas of socioeconomic equity, communications, health and wellness, energy and sustainability, manufacturing and culture.  

The group of partner HBCUs has since expanded and now includes MSU, Howard University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Clark Atlanta University and Delaware State University. This has happened at a time when, as Obiaka described it, young people are creating their own opportunities in the job market. 

“Young people are now more likely to be entrepreneurs because there are different ways [to make money] in the digital age. They are finding creative ways to make a living,” Obiaka said, stressing the need for more investors to support these efforts  

“On the other hand, you need investors to make your vision a reality. It’s trending upward, but there is room for growth for things to get better. It’s really hard for Black entrepreneurs to get access to capital.” 

A survey conducted last year by Bank of America found that more than half of Black entrepreneurs cited access to startup funds as a hurdle in maintaining cash flow, covering operating costs and expanding their business. Though some Black businesses didn’t survive the pandemic, many others adjusted to the changing landscape by changing their sources of revenue and meeting their customers’ evolving needs. 

Meanwhile, Obiaka and his colleagues have set their sights on expanding HBCU VCU to all historically Black colleges and universities. Though they initially created the competition for MSU students and recent graduates, they targeted other HBCUs at the request of MSU President David Wilson. 

Obiaka said HBCUs serve as the ideal incubator for talent. Last December, Inglish Hills personified that reality when she took home the grand prize during the inaugural HBCU NVC. 

Hills, a 2022 graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, presented Save-Cycle, a low-energy recycling container in which consumers can deposit recyclable items and receive funds directly to their bank account. An accompanying mobile app shows people nearby recycling containers. 

Hills, a Bay Area native, thought of Save-Cycle after she and her friends spending time at Mission Dolores Park in San Francisco struggled to find a trash can. A subsequent conversation with a man collecting trash at the park inspired what Hills described as an eco-friendly way of supporting her community.  

When she’s not completing her studies at Spelman and working on Save-Cycle, Hills mixes drinks at functions across the Atlanta metropolitan area as part of another venture she started years ago. She calls entrepreneurship the best means of advancing her goals. 

After winning the HBCU NVC, Hills took on a venture capital internship in New York City and pursued another opportunity that connected her with more business mentors. She said she hasn’t spent her $25,000 grand prize yet, mostly out of a desire to soak in as much industry knowledge as possible and set a foundation for her small business. 

“It’s about having people who’ve been in the industry with connections who know the processes, even down to the paperwork,” Hills said. 

“I’ve been paired with great mentors through the challenge. It’s great to have someone as a sounding board,” she continued. 

“I know that Save-Cycle can be a world-changing idea [but] it takes time to get it off the ground. I want to be a Black woman who brings a world-changing idea, hire people who look like me and have young girls look up to me.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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