This group of Black women from Howard University won big at AT&T’s innovation challenge

Team 4twenty1 won $50,000 for their idea to create the AT&T 5G Academy, which would be an app-based platform for high school students to learn and earn points to credit toward AT&T products.

A team from Howard University took home the top prize at AT&T’s inaugural HBCU Innovation Challenge.

AT&T created this new competition to ask recent HBCU graduates to pitch ideas for how they can use the tech service provider’s 5G infrastructure to build up their communities. Participating teams developed projects for the telecommunications giant to put its 5G infrastructure capacity to good use. Solutions could span any sector, like healthcare, public safety and education.

There were 25 semifinalist student teams from various HBCUs, including Virginia State University, Hampton University, Morgan State University and Morehouse College. Three finalists teams were invited to pitch their projects during AfroTech World last month, the multicultural tech conference that was hosted virtually this year. Each team was given 15 minutes to present their projects virtually to a panel of judges, which was followed by five minutes of Q&A.

These were the finalists, with descriptions of their ventures:

  • 4twenty1 (Howard University) — 4twenty1 wants the 5G infrastructure to go toward the creation of the AT&T 5G Academy, which would be an app-based platform for high school students to learn about topics like engineering, computer science and finance to earn points. Points could be redeemed for credit to purchase an AT&T 5G phone or AT&T 5G hotspot service.
  • bEar Buds (Morgan State University) — This team proposed that AT&T should use its 5G infrastructure to implement machine learning and other technology to translate American Sign Language and Black American Sign Language into plain text or audio.
  • The Spell (Spelman College) — The Spell wants to put the 5G infrastructure toward low-income and rural community hospitals to help with tasks like powering remote healthcare calls and monitoring patients’ heart rates.

4twenty1 won first place and $50,000 for their Figma-developed prototype, while bEar Buds took home $20,000 and The Spell won $10,000. The 4twenty1 team was comprised of four Black women: mechanical engineering student Saleah McFadden and School of Business students Ashlynn Donelson, Keoniah Phillips and Zakiyah Walker.

AT&T CTO Jeremy Legg said he was happy to see this diversity represented in the program.

“Our workforce consists of 45% people of color and 34% women, making us one of the best when compared to other technology, media and telecommunications companies. With that said, there are still issues observable across corporate America,” Legg said during a fireside chat at AfroTech World. “We need to be deliberate about putting mechanisms in place that don’t perpetuate or create biases, and that level the playing field, which is what I believe people really want.”

McFadden offered this advice via Howard’s announcement of the win:

“I always say ‘get comfortable with being uncomfortable,’ and I know it is a very common saying, but I live by it,” McFadden said. “Always try. Always give it a shot. Be intentional. We saw ourselves as four black girls, in business, in tech, and in engineering, just trying to make a difference. This is what I call ‘black girl magic.'”

Companies: Howard University / AT&T

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