A student holds a program booklet during the 148th Commencement Convocation at Howard University on Saturday, May 7, 2016 in Northwest. /Photo by Patricia Little
A student holds a program booklet during the 148th Commencement Convocation at Howard University on Saturday, May 7, 2016, in Northwest. (Patricia Little/The Washington Informer)

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) recently held its 17th annual Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C., welcoming over 400 future leaders from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and over 40 presidents, chancellors and government relations officials. This year was bittersweet, because it was my last time presiding in my capacity as TMCF president and CEO. Seeing these bright young minds make giants steps toward their career goals with professional training and networking opportunities is part of this organization’s mission.

These young professionals are realizing a dream that sadly remains out of reach for far too many Americans: access to affordable higher education and a good paying job. While all of the data suggests that communities of color are making gains in college attendance and graduation, the pace is still not an equalizer for the harrowing statistics on disparities in socio-political and economic growth in fragile communities. That’s why our Leadership Institute is critical, not just for the students and the HBCUs from which they travel, but also for the communities they represent. Their presence here in D.C. is a signal that regardless of your background, talent can be refined and prepared for limitless success in government and corporate America.

Events like TMCF’s Leadership Institute are possible because of the commitment of organizations that heed the call of social responsibility very seriously. For TMCF, this includes corporate partners such as Wells Fargo (our 2017 presenting partner), Walmart and Altria, as well as government agency partners like the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They, and so many others, find TMCF an ideal partner in their own visions for workforce development and diversity because we deliver on our promises of access and opportunity.

Consider Altria. Their commitment to increasing diversity and desire to improve brand affinity among HBCU students led to the development of an innovative apprenticeship program. TMCF and Altria developed a program focusing on building an early talent pipeline by identifying students in their sophomore year. The program provides students with support that includes professional development, year-round coaching and mentoring, a brand and business immersion experience hosted by Altria, an internship, scholarship, and a full-time job opportunity.

On the government agency side, consider the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Outreach and Advocacy (OAO). They are charged with fostering a diverse and inclusive work environment whereby employees and customers are treated with dignity and respect and are provided opportunities for success through national policy development, education and training to best serve the USDA mission of protecting the health and value of U.S. agriculture, natural and other resources. In partnership with TMCF, the USDA sought to increase their diversity goals through a hands-on 10-week internship experience for undergraduate, graduate and law students and offer career opportunities to HBCU students across various USDA agencies in the U.S., including Puerto Rico. TMCF places some 150 interns within the USDA through this program every year.

All of our partners know the level of STEM participation and STEM degree completion among African-Americans is alarmingly low nationwide. According to a 2010 report from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Blacks received 7 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, 6 percent in the physical sciences, 5 percent in mathematics and statistics, and only 4 percent of the bachelor degrees awarded in engineering. In June, Forbes revealed that of the 16 Fortune 500 companies that shared demographic data on their executive positions, White men occupied 72 percent of those positions. These are more than indicators that we can all do better to help diversify from the C-suite down with qualified talent to lead. Good ideas, work ethic, and vision are not exclusive to race or gender. In a shrinking global economy, companies that value diversity are partnering with TMCF, specifically in support of the Leadership Institute.

For the past 17 years, TMCF has successfully worked to position its 47 member-schools in front of major corporations and federal agencies looking to enhance the pipeline of diverse talent. These companies, across a variety of industries, are not looking to sustain the status quo; they are eager to make headlines for finding talent to groom through the managerial and executive phases of their careers, in the hopes that they will one day assume leadership of major brands or perhaps launch their own. HBCUs have the ability to produce most of the nation’s African-American STEM talent, and by partnering with TMCF, agencies such as the Department of Defense are able to reach 80 percent of all students attending HBCUs. Diversity and inclusion remain important ideals for innovative industry leaders that intend to compete and redefine business and commerce.

So, much of what I treasure about working with my colleagues at TMCF is the opportunity to be a part of this positive sea of change by American employers, and knowing that HBCUs matter and continue to define their excellence through the top graduates they produce. I am confident that through the continued support of our partners and of strong passionate advocates in the growing Black college community, TMCF will keep leading the way as the preeminent source of support for HBCU students to not only survive while in school, but thrive when they graduate with a quality education and a promising career.

Taylor is president and CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the largest organization exclusively representing the Black college community. Follow him on Twitter @JohnnyCTaylorJr.

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