Creating Opportunity For Entrepreneurs
Over the summer, the inaugural 12-student class of the HBCU Startup Internship program sharpened their business acumen at several burgeoning New Orleans firms and companies
A concept that blossomed from the shared ideal that everyone should have equal access to entrepreneurial opportunities bore fruit this past summer, when 12 hand-selected students from SUNO, Xavier and Dillard took part in GNO Inc.’s HBCU Startup Internship program.
The program was designed to increase startup activity among HBCU students in the New Orleans region, as well as to correct the inequalities found in the ratio of white-owned businesses and black-owned businesses in the city. Each 6-week internship provided students with hands-on, paid training in real-world, high-stakes settings where their existing talents could flourish and enhance the startup’s business model.
“Our Economic Mobility Platform was really designed to generate growth and wealth creation for Black GNO residents, and as we know entrepreneurship is one of many keys to wealth creation,” says Jasmine Brown, Public Policy Manager for GNO Inc. “Black entrepreneurship is a very devout focus area of ours with respect to our Economic Mobility platform. Knowing that, and knowing we had the connections to the start-up business community here, the deans at all three schools said to us, ‘You know what would be helpful is mentorship, internships and compensation.’
“So, that’s really what sparked us to form this HBCU Startup Internship.”
After meeting with the college of business deans at all three New Orleans-based HBCUs—SUNO, Dillard, Xavier—the brass at GNO Inc. partnered with Krewe de Nieux to identify the types of startups that would A) be interested in hosting interns for six weeks and B) provide the optimal environment for individual entrepreneurial growth and development. Additionally, GNO and Krewe de Nieux sought companies with diverse founders who could personally relate to their interns’ goals and circumstances.
“The most important thing is we didn’t want this to be a normal internship experience, where the intern comes into any part of the business at a remedial level,” Brown says. “We wanted our interns to be specifically exposed to development, crafting opportunities for an intern to have a ‘start-up experience’ within the general framework of your business.”
Ultimately, 12 startups were selected to participate: Catalyst: Ed, Junum, Lucid, Broadmoor LLC, Lookfar, rasa.io, Obatala Sciences, Resilia, Square Button, Torsh, Upriver Solutions and New Orleans BioInnovation Center. Additionally, several community partners were brought in to round out the educational experience. Idea Village organized a day-long bootcamp that prepared students through an interactive start-up intensive, and Phelps Dunbar sponsored The Nuts and Bolts of Launching a Startup, a workshop that offered practical guidance on topics like business formation and intellectual property.
“The idea of creating opportunities for traditionally under-represented youth, increasing the level of exposure, and building that pipeline of budding entrepreneurs and getting them first-hand experience in entrepreneurship in a field like ours…we immediately agreed that our company would not only be a participant in the program, but also support the program in any other manner possible,” says Trivia Frazier, Founder and CEO of Obatala Sciences Inc. “It’s a part of our mission, and it’s a part of my personal mission as someone who would fall in that traditionally under-represented category when it comes to females functioning in a biotechnology company—and African-Americans entrepreneurs founding companies in what we call the ‘Deep-Tech Sector.’”
With the 12 host companies on board, internship organizers then went back to SUNO, Dillard and Xavier and leaned on professors, instructors and other faculty to identify prospective students who would thrive in this type of a program. Not surprisingly, university officials selected several candidates who already ran their own business enterprises—but they also encouraged the participation of several bright students who weren’t on traditional entrepreneurial paths but who could benefit from interning in a startup environment.
One of those students was Lydia Paige Moffett, recent Dillard graduate and current first-year law student at North Carolina Central University. A political science major who spent several years on the Dillard Mock Trial team, Moffett landed an HBCU startup internship at Square Button Group, a holding company that operates a Consulting and Construction Services Investment Platform.
“Previously, I had been working for judges in the Civil Court district, small law firms, serving as a file clerk. So I wanted to expand my experience, expand my resume, and really just expand my knowledge,” Moffett says. “It took me out of my comfort zone, but I eventually found my place and found my role with the consulting firm.”
“The thing I loved, and one of the things I took away from the experience,” Moffett continues, “was that my supervisors prepared me for that next level of professionalism going forward. They made time for me where attorneys and judges don’t always have that time.”
As far as matching the right intern with the right company, Brown said GNO, Inc. essentially played ‘matchmaker’ and connected the selected students’ interests and backgrounds with the company expressing a need for such experience. For example, even though Obatala Sciences intern Naomi Winston of Xavier University didn’t have a STEM background or extensive experience in a lab setting, she did have vast marketing and photography acumen that proved incredibly valuable for the company. In a short period of time, Winston was able to complete several marketing packages and saw first-hand how her skillset could be applied to pretty much any field—including, in this case, a biotech firm.
Though the inaugural HBCU Startup Internship Program concluded in July 2021 with a ceremony at Scale Workspace, officials at GNO, Inc. are already assessing feedback from both the participating students and companies and are brainstorming ways to grow and improve the 2022 edition of the program.
“Because of COVID, in the first year of the HBCU Start-Up Internship, we were much more targeted and precise in our recruitment efforts because we had to be,” Brown said. “Our hope next year is to actually visit the campuses, host on-site informationals, attend Career Fairs, to meet students and cast a wider net. Spreading the word and seeing those potential interns face-to-face is something that’s going to be incredibly important.
“But, for Year 1, we couldn’t be more pleased with the experiences our interns had and the feedback we’ve got both from them and the start-ups that participated in the program.”