Diversity & Inclusion
Education / Investing / Jobs / Venture capital

These 10 HBCU students are working at Baltimore-DC venture firms

HBCUvc expanded a paid internship program to the region, with local organizing from Squadra Ventures. The goal: bring diversity to venture capital.

The HBCUvc team. (Courtesy photo)
Updated at 2:43 p.m., 11/23/20.

The network effect that plays out across venture capital can often be traced back to college. So it makes sense that an effort to bring change would start by providing students with experience working at VC firms.

The national program HBCUvc expanded its paid internship program to the Baltimore-D.C. region this year, meaning 10 students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are working at local venture firms during this school year.

HBCUvc, which was cofounded four years ago in San Francisco by University of Maryland Eastern Shore alum Hadiyah Mujhid, works to grow ecosystems and direct capital to Black founders in ecosystems around HBCU campuses. Locally, Baltimore-based venture firm Squadra Ventures first raised its hand to work with a pair of students, and encouraged others to hire them, as well.

Racial disparities in VC remain glaring, as only 1% of founders that receive funding and 3% of venture capitalists nationally are Black. Chelsea Roberts, who leads partnerships and community engagement for HBCUvc, said one way the organizations seeks to solve this is “by training students as investors in venture capital so that Black founders have increased access to capital from Black investors.”

As Squadra sought to dig in on solutions after making a commitment to diversity, Director of Portfolio Operations Margaret Roth said that instead of creating a new program of its own, the firm sought to link with others who were already doing the work.

The thinking was: “How do we bring something from the national level that’s already working and has an amazing network, and bring that to our community?” Roth said.

With its focus on markets outside of the major tech hubs and the concentration of HBCUs in the DMV and Baltimore’s majority-Black population, the region stood out to HBCUvc.

Squadra began talking to HBCUvc leaders in February, and the work was only accelerated by the racial justice movement that followed a series of police killings of Black people in the summer.

The fellowship includes a curriculum that’s taught throughout the year from HBCUvc. At Squadra, Roth said the two students working at the firm are engaged throughout the process of bringing a new investment to fruition, from early diligence to the joint strategic plan they develop with companies.

The network effect that has built venture capital has also resulted in its diversity challenges. In 2018, a study showed that 40% of VCs nationally went to Harvard and Stanford universities.

Providing opportunities for HBCU students who are interested in finance and engineering learn about venture capital can help new networks form locally.

“I don’t think there have ever been [10] Black students from HBCUs simultaneously working at venture capital and private equity funds…in Baltimore,” Roberts said. They’re in turn helping to invest in local tech entrepreneurs, and may be in a position to provide their own funding down the road. It’s all aimed at creating a more equitable innovation ecosystem that reflects the demographics of the city.

“That’s very much so exponential impact,” Roberts said.

VC can be a competitive space, and funds each have their own thesis and areas of interest. But as Squadra has worked to extend the program in the region, the team has seen firms come together to work on a bigger issue.

“Having the opportunity to collaborate around a noncompetitive thing as a venture capital community in the DMV, particularly in Baltimore, has already had really positive ripple effects,” Roth said.

We wanted to hear from the students, so we sent a few questions over to each of them. Here’s a look at the cohort, and their responses:

Edward Nwaba

  • Hometown: Columbia, Maryland
  • HBCU: Howard University
  • Firm: JMI Equity

Edward Nwaba. (Courtesy photo)

Why are you interested in VC?

I’m passionate about making a difference; I’m interested in VC as I believe that it can serve as a means through which I can invest in the uplift and betterment of underserved, minority communities.

What excites you most about working with startups?

The opportunity to help people in realizing their aspirations. I couldn’t imagine the satisfaction and elation that one would feel from seeing an idea from inception through becoming a profitable, thriving business. I’m excited to play a role in the process of helping people achieve the success they’ve always envisioned.

What change to the startup/entrepreneurship landscape would you like to help impact? 

I would like to specifically help with impacting the level of access that Black entrepreneurs have to funding sources and networks. Oftentimes, there are situations where people have great ideas, but simply lack the means — whether financial or otherwise –– to bring their ideas to market. I hope to be able to level the playing field in both helping entrepreneurs from marginalized communities gain the access they need to get their businesses off and running, and in also helping with providing the necessary, ongoing support they need to elevate their businesses to the next level. Sometimes, all people need are access and opportunity…I aspire to make both more accessible to entrepreneurs from underserved, minority communities.

Tobi Plumpter

  • Hometown: Prince Georges County, Maryland
  • HBCU: Morgan State University
  • Firm: Motley Fool Ventures

Tobi Plumpter. (Courtesy photo)

Why are you interested in VC?

I’m interested in VC due to the fact that it is such a people-oriented profession. I love to network with all types of entrepreneurs and engage in intellectual discussion.

What excites you most about working with startups?

Now more than ever, there is a need for diverse founders. I get excited to have the opportunity to talk to entrepreneurs that look and share similar experiences as myself. I’ve always looked for a way that I can help impact others, and working in VC allows me to help the type of people that I want to help the most: determined entrepreneurs.

What change to the startup and entrepreneurship landscape would you like to help impact?

I want to be able to help entrepreneurs of color and see a LOT more businesses arise. Less than 1% of VC money goes to founders of color and with recent media, companies are shifting this inequality gap. I want to have the skills to consult companie,s as well as have a strong enough network in order to help companies in ways that I cannot do myself.

Ime Essien

  • Hometown: Ellicott City, Maryland
  • HBCU: Morgan State University
  • Firm: Rarebreed Ventures

Ime Essien. (Courtesy photo)

Why are you interested in VC?

I’ve always been interested in technology. Growing up, I was a huge nerd. I was on the robotics team in high school! VC lets me combine my passion for technology and getting to engage with some of the most highly driven and intelligent people on the planet which are founders!

What excites you most about working with startups?

While I’ve been part of HBCUvc, I’ve been able to help founders with hiring decisions, market analysis, and financial planning, something I wouldn’t  have to do since I’m getting a degree in electrical engineering. It’s great to be able to expand my skill sets and horizons. What’s great about this is I also get to help with technical problems, too, so I can apply my degree. One time I was able to help with the product launch for our portfolio.

What change to the startup and entrepreneurship landscape would you like to help impact?

More HBCU students graduating and then joining high-growth companies, where they’re able to have equity that could possibly change their life in the possibility of an exit. These jobs are fast paced, highly engaging, and you’ll learn way more if you went to your typical F500. Also, typically black founders don’t have the network or the capital to get through the “friends and family round,” and Rarebreed Ventures is able to help there. It’s so cool to open new avenues for success!

Saleah McFadden

  • Hometown: Kingstree, South Carolina
  • HBCU: Howard University
  • Firm: Squadra Ventures

Saleah McFadden. (Courtesy photo)

Why are you interested in VC?

I am interested in VC because of its untraditional and promising path to diverse founders, strong network, and path to financial freedom. Venture capital is such a useful tool and a great teacher. In this industry, you are able to learn so much professionally and personally.  I also love learning about entrepreneurship and how VC plays such a big role. Being a STEM major, it has always been my goal to find a space that diversifies my skill set , while fulfilling me and pushing me towards higher heights. VC is that space.

What excites you most about working with startups? 

Working with startups has many benefits and perks, however, the coolest thing that excites me is seeing the groundwork the firm does with startup and the growth each startup makes. Most of the startups I have followed since being interested in VC have been early stage, very high-growth startups, and it has been amazing to watch them go from having investments of $10,000 to $100,000 to $1,000,000. HBCUvc gave me the knowledge and sparked interest to look at the bigger picture and enjoy the journey. Working with Squadra has allowed me to do competitive landscapes on startups, research startups in Tier B cities, and have an inside look at their current portfolio. Working with the firm to do the groundwork has been very eye opening and I am excited to keep working with them. Squadra has provided me such a unique experience to actually jump in the world of VC with a space to make mistakes, ask questions, learn and grow.

What change to the startup and entrepreneurship landscape would you like to help impact?

My goal in the startup/entrepreneurship landscape is to shift the narrative that successful Black/brown faces can be from HBCU’s and institutions that don’t have the most resources in VC and entrepreneurship to offer. I want people to understand hard work and dedication is the key to being successful in this space and I plan to prove that and lead by example.

LaKendra Harden

LaKendra Harden. (Courtesy photo)

Why are you interested in VC? 

I’ve always had an affinity for helping entrepreneurs with their ideas and wanted to find a way to really support them through their challenges. I realized funding, access, and knowledge were barriers for the entrepreneurs I knew, and that’s why when I was introduced to VC, I felt that it was the perfect route in helping them.  Also, I’m interested in VC because it allows me to be a part of the process and directly impact society by bringing to fruition innovation that improves our quality of life.

What excites you most about working with startups? 

What excites me the most about working with startups is connecting with founders from diverse backgrounds and learning where their inspiration comes from. It’s also exciting to build something from the ground up. Usually, we’re on the other side of innovation and only experience the outcome but to be on the other side of it is also very rewarding.

What change to the startup and entrepreneurship landscape would you like to help impact?

I would like to help more women founders receive proper funding and support. Because when they go overlooked, problems we face as a community go overlooked.

David Hulett

David Hulett. (Courtesy photo)

Why are you interested in VC?

I am interested in working in VC because I see entrepreneurship as a means to bridging the wealth gap in America. By having Black and brown people in the VC ecosystem, we can guarantee that more underrepresented founders are provided with the investments needed to launch their businesses, since so much of success in this space depends on who you know.

What excites you most about working with startups?

I am excited to see how creative people are in their problem solving. Black people have always had great, innovative ideas, but we often lack the means to bring them into fruition. We can use VC not only to make money but to help solve the problems of disenfranchised communities. For example, WeSolar is helping Black neighborhoods get access to solar energy and thus reduce the cost of their energy bills.

What change to the startup and entrepreneurship landscape would you like to help impact?

I would like to make the startup landscape more accessible by providing aspiring entrepreneurs the skills necessary to start their own business. This can include access to affordable legal counsel, established mentors in the startup ecosystem, and opportunities for funding. Right now, finding access to capital is what hinders many people of color from breaking free of their nine to five job and venturing into entrepreneurship. I hope to make the access to capital more equitable.

Kiley Williams

  • Hometown: Randallstown, Maryland
  • HBCU: Morgan State University
  • Firm: Squadra Ventures

Kiley Williams. (Courtesy photo)

Why are you interested in VC?

I am interested in VC because it is one of the places where I believe I can make a deep impact and help people in my community gain early access to capital and change the world.

What excites you most about working with startups?

One of the most fun parts about working with founders is soaking in their energy and ingenuity. I look forward to not only engaging with startups on this level, but to creating value and working on tangible initiatives contributing to their success.

What change to the startup and entrepreneurship landscape would you like to help impact?

One of the most critical aspects of the startup landscape that I would like to help impact is for people in my campus community to know the possibilities of tech entrepreneurship. It is so important for us to know that building a startup is possible and to be able to get the tools and access to make it happen.

Deveraux Mackey

Deveraux Mackey. (Courtesy photo)

Why are you interested in VC?

In my junior year at Horace Mann School, I was fortunate to receive funding to launch a mentoring program, which sparked my interest in a career in venture capital with a focus on underrepresented startups. Fortunately, the generous support of external donors was instrumental in the success of this initiative. It afforded me the platform to create an impactful program, which ultimately became a long-term institutional program.  This experience fueled my interest in this field, and I have subsequently looked for opportunities, which would allow me to expound upon my understanding of venture capital. With the guidance of professors and older classmates, I continually research different resources to develop my understanding of venture capital.

What excites you most about working with startups? 

This field is exciting to me because it combines a plethora of experiences, which I have had as an analyst with the Howard University Investment Group and my work with a mentorship program that I created. I plan to combine my passion for philanthropy, service and business to build a fruitful and meaningful life for myself and women who look like me. As a college sophomore, my future career interest is primarily focused on being a venture capitalist with a specialization in financing underrepresented startups. I am interested in this path because it is an impactful field that creates opportunities for several startups across the country. Currently, Black women account for only 3% of this industry and are oftentimes ignored by venture capital firms. As I continue to educate and empower myself, I want to provide resources, so that other Black women can do the same.

What change to the startup and entrepreneurship landscape would you like to help impact?

I would like to bring an added level of diversity and inclusion to the VC landscape. Diversity brings people of different backgrounds together; however, it is purposeless without true inclusion. Inclusion celebrates the diversity amongst people, while encouraging individuals to be authentic. This differentiation between the two is imperative when understanding business because although it is great to have people of different backgrounds, each person should be seen and heard.  Diversity does not only include ethnic or racial backgrounds; it encompasses diversity of thought and experiences. Not all experiences are the same and this is demonstrated through the innovations and creativity of my peers.

Chrystal M. Cantrelle

Chrystal M. Cantrelle. (Courtesy photo)

Why are you interested in VC?

I am primarily interested in VC because I want to invest in Black people. I want to have the power and capital to support ideas and people who have been historically overlooked and underfunded by the venture community. Additionally, I see venture as a career that allows me to marry my interest in startups, my business and legal education, and my joy for working with people.

What excites you most about working with startups? 

I’m most excited about the innovation that drives the startup community, especially when this innovation results in social good. I am inspired by the idea of supporting passionate founders and operators as they address some of society’s toughest problems like bridging the gaps in education.

What change to the startup and entrepreneurship landscape would you like to help impact?

I hope to help create strong, sustainable pipelines of talent and deal flow from HBCUs. HBCUvc is evidence that we are here. We have ideas, passion, and potential. We just need more opportunities. I plan to remain involved in the work HBCUvc is doing to grow our community and create those opportunities.

Martin Adu-Boahene

  • Hometown: Kumasi, Ghana
  • HBCU: Morgan State University
  • Firm: TEDCO

Martin Adu-Boahene. (Courtesy photo)

Why are you interested in VC?

I am very passionate about investing, entrepreneurship, technology, and the opportunity to learn from innovators and understand the fundamentals of building successful businesses. Moreover, I want to help connect start-up founders with the knowledge, advisors, investors, and the support they need to thrive.

What excites you most about working with startups?

The ability to turn innovative ideas into great solutions/products in an evolving environment. Additionally, working at a startup is an incredible way to gain invaluable experience and learn the dynamics of the business.

What change to the startup and entrepreneurship landscape would you like to help impact?

As a natural problem solver, I want to play a major role in the ongoing industrial revolution by helping bridge the funding gap through mobilization of capital, and expert advice to undeserved companies with the potential to reshape markets and drive up economic growth on a global landscape.

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