Wednesday Wisdom with Chad Womack, Co-Founder of the HBCU Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship (ICE) Initiative at UNCF
We’re halfway through the week, and it’s time for a boost of inspiration to keep us going. Our #WednesdayWisdom blog series taps into the minds of industry leaders and disruptive visionaries who are working to build the future of entrepreneurship.
Dr. Chad Womack is the National Director of STEM Initiatives at UNCF and Co-Founder of the HCBU Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship (ICE) Initiative. A proud graduate of Morehouse College and the Morehouse School of Medicine, where he earned his doctoral degree in biomedical sciences, Dr. Womack is passionate about and committed to building STEM pipelines to and through historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and fostering startup and tech-entrepreneurship among students majoring in a variety of STEM disciplines. Dr. Womack spoke with Project Entrepreneur about the impact of the ICE Initiative and his hopes for the future of tech entrepreneurship.
1) Can you tell us about HBCU ICE and why you launched this initiative?
I launched ICE in order to solve a problem I saw prior to joining UNCF, which is that underrepresented populations aren’t connected to the community or capital in Silicon Valley. Over the past 20-30 years, a small number of HBCU graduates have worked in Silicon Valley.
I also launched ICE to ensure HBCUs could continue to create real value for students and faculty members involved in STEM disciplines, as well as encourage Black students to pursue internships and eventually jobs within Silicon Valley-based companies and provide a platform for HBCU students to pursue venture capital for their tech startups.
We held the first ICE summit in 2013. It was focused on leadership, and it blew the students and faculty away! We really wanted HBCU faculty and students to see what was possible—to understand that our colleges and universities could and should play a role as a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship for the sake of the Black community, the way Stanford has really nurtured its graduates in Silicon Valley.
HBCUs don’t have the history of providing capital to entrepreneurs in the same way that Stanford has done. With ICE, we’re creating a platform to engage African-Americans interested in entrepreneurship as well as push for UNCF to create a startup fund that would support African-American founders.
2) What unique perspective are black tech leaders bringing to the startup world?
They’re bringing themselves, and with that comes a different perspective on life and a unique perspective on solutions to problems everyone faces. The greater the diversity of founders and startup entrepreneurs, the greater number of solutions. New perspectives are valuable, and we hope to continue to support the diversity of entrepreneurs entering the pipeline.
3) How will HCBU ICE transform the tech landscape by engaging students at HCBUs?
We’re solving a critical problem for [Silicon Valley] through our ICE platform. For example, we bring 100 of the nation’s leading HBCU computer science and engineering students to the Valley annually through our UNCF HBCU Innovation Summit. Over a number of days, world leading companies like Google, Salesforce, Adobe, NetApp and many more welcome our scholars to their headquarters. [Students and faculty] engage directly, in many cases with CEOs, leadership teams, engineers, recruiters, and Black Employee Resource Group (ERG) members. That’s a powerful and life-changing environment for our scholars. For the companies, there are tremendous cost-saving opportunities: [recruiters] may meet less than a handful of students during cross-country recruiting trips, but they meet the of the best at their headquarters via our summit.
4) Much of your work at HBCU ICE focuses on developing public-private partnerships. What forms do these partnerships usually take, and how do you envision these partnerships changing the way startups operate?
We can’t change the tech entrepreneurship landscape on our own; we need to work in collaboration with others to address the challenges we face in producing startup ventures. For example, there are a variety of accelerators associated with undergraduate programs and alumni through Stanford, Harvard Business School, Georgia Tech, and MIT. We want to infuse this trend of university-based accelerators with practices that are culturally competent.
We also work very closely with a list of 20 strategic company partners. The companies we talk to realize that they need to hone in on HBCU talent, and we work with them and have close relationships with our partners to see if our students have been hired. For example, we work directly with them to determine which areas in computer science our students may need strengthening. We then work directly with faculty. We make sure the company provides us insights in what our students need to do to succeed and remain intentional about bringing students into the company. We work with hiring managers/D&I teams to work with us.
To expand upon what I describe above, one way we introduce HBCU students and faculty to companies is through our tech summits. In addition to the companies already mentioned, last year we took 100 students and 30 faculty on 11 technical tours to tech companies: YouTube, Twitter, Yelp, Salesforce, and others.
5) What are your hopes for the next generation of entrepreneurs?
My hope for the next generation of entrepreneurs is a robust, diverse, start-up ecosystem that is inclusive of everyone. We’re quickly moving towards a minority-majority society. Our technology and companies need to be reflective of this monumental shift.
Photo of Chad Womack (r) and Devin Wenig, CEO of ebay (l) courtesy UNCF