Silicon Valley Investors Visit Claflin University to Discuss Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurism at HBCUs

SC Congressman James Clyburn makes a point during panel discussion about entrepreneurship at Claflin University

A delegation of elected officials and venture capitalists traveled by bus to Claflin University’s Ministers’ Hall recently to learn how historically black colleges (HBCUs) are preparing students to become the next generation of entrepreneurs and technology professionals.

South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn (D-6th District); Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan (D- 13th District); and California Congressman Ro Khanna (D-17th District) were the chief organizers of the “Comeback Cities Tour South,” which visited cities throughout the region and HBCU campuses in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

According to Michael Morley, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, and a senior advisor to Congressman Ryan, the idea of the tour evolved from a previous project when Morley coordinated a similar trip to cities in the Midwest.

“The venture capitalists were so excited about what they saw and experienced, they wanted to do it again in another region of the country,” Morley said. “Congressman Clyburn suggested they visit cities in his district in South Carolina. He also encouraged Ryan to visit HBCUs to find out more about these institutions and meet some of the talented students on their campuses.”

“We greatly appreciate Congressman Clyburn and Congressman Ryan spearheading the delegation’s visit to Claflin,” said Dr. Karl S. Wright, the University’s provost. “It is very significant that these investors and elected officials now realize the entrepreneurial capacity of Claflin and other HBCUs. The combined efforts of our administrators, faculty, students, and alumni could be the catalyst this region needs for sustainable economic growth.”

Morley pointed out that most of the venture capitalists in the group were from California’s Silicon Valley and others were from New York and Chicago, IL. He said one of the primary purposes of the trip was to bring potential investors from the West Coast to meet with HBCU administrators and students, elected officials, and representatives of local businesses to discuss investment opportunities and the possible strategies for creating jobs in this region.

“Our focus is on meeting with entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs who have a relationship with HBCUs,” said Roy Bahat, head of Bloomberg Beta, an early-stage venture firm backed by Bloomberg L.P., based in San Francisco, Calif. “We met some incredibly promising recent graduates who might be good candidates for some of the companies we work with. Technology has become a global profession and our conversations with Claflin students are the same we hear on an elevator in San Francisco. Literally it’s the same language and the same way of thinking. We are learning that people have different life experiences and we need to take that into account when creating connections with Silicon Valley and schools like Claflin,” Bahat said.

“HBCUs are extraordinary institutions with rich traditions and history. Our goal, as investors, is to look everywhere for viable investments. HBCUs have been overlooked for too long so we see this as a great opportunity.”
The tour organizers believe that HBCUs are valuable economic components in their communities which results in more jobs, stronger growth and more vibrant cities and towns. South Carolina’s eight HBCU’s have a combined economic impact of $463 million on the state’s economy and they have a direct or indirect impact on almost 5,000 jobs statewide.

A recent landmark study, HBCUs Make America Strong: The Positive Economic Impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, broadly quantifies the economic impact of HBCUs on the nation’s economy and their respective regions. The report, which was commissioned by UNCF’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, placed the economic impact of HBCUs at $14.8 billion annually, which is equivalent to a ranking in the top 200 on the Fortune 500 list of America’s largest corporations. The report also concluded that HBCUs generate 134,090 jobs in total for their local and regional economies. According to the report, Claflin, generates $79 million and provides 835 jobs to contribute to the total economic impact of the local and regional economies. This estimate includes direct spending by Claflin from faculty, staff, academic programs and operations, and by students attending the institution.

“Tim Ryan and I are very good friends and we spend a lot of evenings together,” said Congressman Clyburn. “Several years ago when the steel mills closed, Youngstown, Ohio went through a debilitating economic depression. Congressman Ryan addressed the problem by starting the ‘Comeback Cities Tour’ for the purpose of bringing venture capitalist from California, New York, and other places to take a look at rural communities. That’s why we brought this group to Orangeburg, and we’re taking the tour to Charlotte, Columbia, and Atlanta so they can see some of the HBCUs in those cities. I am convinced a lot is going to come out of this tour and the conversations they are having on these HBCU campuses.”

The success of Ryan’s “Comeback Cities Tour” through the Midwest resulted in the creation of the $2.25 million Comeback Capital Fund, which was created to bridge the divide between Silicon Valley investors and Midwestern startups.

“I believe these venture capitalists are sincere in wanting to hear our ideas and about investing in this community,” said Michael Devore, CEO of the Live Chair Barbershop App, a med-tech scheduling app for barbers which gives them a blood pressure cuff to perform blood pressure screenings. Live Chair barbers extend medical services into communities where health care access and health care utilization are lacking. Devore is a 2015 graduate of Claflin where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration. As a student, he was a member of the prestigious Alice Carson Tisdale Honors College. He and another Claflin alumnus, Andrew Suggs ’12, are the co-founders of Live Chair. Devore was the only participant from a HBCU when he won the 2015 International Ozy Genius Award for his Live Chair Barbershop App.

“The investors confirmed what I have already learned about being an entrepreneur,” Devore said. “Owning a business is like riding on a roller coaster. There are ups and downs but you have to be resourceful and networking is very important. You have to believe in yourself and never give up

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