The National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week Conference is an event where the HBCU community comes together to envision how to combat the barriers it faces while also being given its flowers for its persistent advancement through it all.

The annual conference is under the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity through Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

During its first in-person event since 2019, the HBCU conference kicked off in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 20 for three jam-packed days ahead of workshops, networking, a career fair, and more.

Among the back-to-back activities and discussions, the HBCU conference held a fireside chat with Robert F. Smith. Joining the Vista Equity Partners CEO for the sit-down conversation were Saidah Grayson Dill, Cisco, VP, Legal and Deputy General Counsel, and Tony Allen, Delaware State University, President.

Smith made headlines back in 2019 when he paid off Morehouse students’ debt. During the panel, he shared he found that 65 percent of African American families’ wealth goes to paying off student loans. Coming across the statistic pushed his drive even further to build partnerships that create a long-lasting impact and provide resources for HBCU students. 

“HBCUs have traditionally liberated more of our community with educational opportunities. HBCUs produce more Black doctors, judges, and engineers than any other set of institutions in the United States,” Smith shared in an exclusive interview with AfroTech. “And so enabling them to access more resources and capacity is a critical, critical part of how we’re going to advance not only as people but advance as a nation.”

Although there has been a 30 percent rise in the number of students applying to HBCUs, there are still challenging experiences at the institutions that remain, such as the majority of them being broadband deserts. Smith has emphasized that HBCUs need to not ask but demand broadband.

“The institutions cultivate and curate an environment that enables our people to be successful as leaders, business people, engineers, doctors, critical thinkers, poets,” he said about what HBCUs produce. “All that’s important. So HBCUs provide that function.”

He continued: “What we need to do is enable those HBCUs more effectively through bringing more resources, most important of which today is broadband. Still where 82 percent of HBCUs live are in broadband deserts. That cannot stand. That is something that we need to make sure that our HBCUs and our community demand of not only the federal government but other companies that can enable all of our students to have access to broadband immediately, not five years from now.”

In an effort to address the digital divide, Smith’s Student Freedom Initiative partnered with Cisco in 2021. As previously reported by AfroTech, the networking giant donated $150 million to advance HBCUs’ technology infrastructure and cybersecurity systems.

This year, the SFI is taking more steps to ensure more HBCU students have access to broadband. Smith shared with us that the organization has joined Connect Humanity, Claflin University, South Carolina State University, and the Orangeburg Department of Public Utilities for a public-private partnership toward digital equity.

While phase one is complete, they are “seeking an additional $30 million to achieve a 10-times economic return in 70 communities anchored by HBCUs.”

The partnership is only one of many that the SFI is involved in. Smith aims to keep kicking down the door for change through the initiative alongside its partners.

“We’re bringing solar panel systems to one of the HBCUs, which will actually power 20,000 homes,” he told us. “Our plan is that as we offset our greenhouse gases across our portfolio companies, we actually enable the building and construction of solar arrays in underrepresented minority neighborhoods we use for our HBCU students to learn, train and develop their capacity to participate in that part of the industry as well. We’ve got a number of partnerships. Many of them are announced and many we’re going to continue to make more extensible. But I think there’s no more important partnership than our partnership with the HBCUs and the communities in which they serve.”