April 28, 2022
By: Lavonya Jones, GSIC Director
During the 2021-2022 academic year, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University because the first Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) to join the Blackstone Launchpad network. Founded in 2008, Blackstone Launchpad is a program of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation to help students navigate the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem by complementing existing on-campus offerings with experiential learning, skill-building, and connections to mentors.
As a fellow interested in tackling housing in Black communities, Jamir Withers stated that the Blackstone Launchpad program has helped him to “acquire a lot of excellent new contacts, learn how to utilize LinkedIn effectively for networking purposes, and gain a lot of fresh insights and ideas on how to grow my business.” And tech-focused fellow, Quincy Box of QTech Innovations, shared that the fellowship allowed him to be “exposed to ideas and processes that I never knew existed.”
As a part of this program, Morehouse and Spelman fellows were able to attend the Startup Grind and TechCrunch Early Stage conferences hosted in Silicon Valley in April of 2022. A delegation of five students and two staff members from Morehouse attended. During the first day of this event, Blackstone Launchpad directors and students from the U.S. and Ireland participated in sessions that focused on building capacity around our innovation and entrepreneurship programs, balancing being a student and a founder, and opportunities to network between campuses. In these sessions, students met with other student founders “tackling huge problems that plague society today.” Morehouse Fellow Zaire Gary of social enterprise The Black Certification Agency and Company, was able to network, learn, and experience real entrepreneurship and startup culture, including assisting John Hill of Techstars with his presentation. Zaire stated, “One gem John dropped was for us to focus on building quality connections rather than quantity. That is really important to me because often we focus on gaining as many connections as possible, however; quality connections are more important because of the effectiveness of the relationship.”
At Startup Grind, students heard from innovation leaders from Y Combinator, Oracle for Startups, OpenSea, Andreessen Horowitz, Dell Technologies, Dropbox, and InstaCart, among others. Students were also able to meet and have a one-on-one conversation with Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital and HireRunner. At TechCrunch Early Stage, students heard from innovation leaders from Sequoia Capital, Microsoft for Startups, Google Ventures, Google for Startups, SoftBank Opportunity Fund, Amazon Web Services, and Samsung Next, among others. Highlighting Obi Akpuda of Microsoft for Startups roundtable on building a minimum viable product (MVP), fellows stated that this session was inspirational and informative, expanding their understanding that “your MVP must answer your customers’ needs or their problem with a solution that solves your customers major pain points.”
Overall students enjoyed seeing “other student entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas and ambition doing business, networking, and then just having fun” at the two conferences. Speaking on his experience as a Blackstone Launchpad Fellow, social entrepreneur Jamir Withers shared that his time as a fellow “was an unforgettable experience that I will always cherish.” Fellow Thomas Bitting of Goldilocks Shower System, whose business idea started as a science project, proclaimed that “having the privilege to be a member of the Blackstone Launchpad program was an amazing experience that has genuinely changed the course of my life….This program has opened my eyes to the many possibilities of what my life could really be!”
Morehouse Blackstone Launchpad Fellows: Student Testimonials
ZAIRE GARY: Last week I spent 4 days in Silicon Valley networking, learning, and experiencing real entrepreneurship and startup culture. My experience was in one word: amazing. I am going to discuss a couple of gems I learned over the week from practical and applicable advice to personal development and industry secrets. I must mention the impact a Morehouse education and matriculation had on my ability to move into a space so unknown to me as I had never been to California. Morehouse gave me the confidence get out of my seat on the very first day, go on stage in front of all of the Blackstone Launchpad Fellows and assist John Hill from Techstars with his presentation. That eagerness and confidence gave me the opportunity to have a 30 minute private meeting with John on Thursday of this week. John is a self-proclaimed evangelist at Techstars, which means he focuses on utilizing his network in an exponential way to connect whoever to whoever they need to grow and succeed. One gem John dropped was for us was to focus on building quality connections rather than quantity. That is really important to me because often we focus on gaining as many connections as possible; however, quality connections are more important because of the effectiveness of the relationship.
The next special moment for me was connecting with Obi from Microsoft for Startups. The connection I made with him was special for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I was able to see a man who looked like me, working out of Microsoft’s office in Atlanta, who led a round table discussion about MVPs or your minimum viable product. Obi was an inspiration and extremely informative. The most important thing I got from his round table at the TechCrunch Early Stage 2022 conference was that your MVP must answer your customers’ needs or their problem with a solution that solves your customers major pain points. From my own experiences and failures in business, I realized that you must validate, validate and then re-validate your problem and your customer’s pain point. This is extremely important because the problem is the foundation of your entire business. If your problem isn’t a serious pain point, then it invalidates the entire company you build on top of it and around it.
My experience overall was so uplifting an inspiring, especially seeing other student entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas and ambition doing business, networking, and then just having fun! I am extremely thankful for Morehouse, Blackstone Charitable Foundation, Kylan Kester, Professor Lavonya Jones, and all the amazing entrepreneurs I connected with and listened to.
JAMIR WITHERS: My time at Blackstone was an unforgettable experience that I will always cherish. As one of the more senior members, I was expected to take on a greater leadership role. This was a new experience for me, but I am glad that I was able to help the younger guys. I felt as though I was able to assist others in becoming more comfortable by encouraging them in whatever manner I could. It meant a lot to me that my presence enabled the guys to represent Morehouse with the intellect, politeness, and professionalism that we did. Everyone there was blown away by us, and I hope we paved the way for more HBCUs to be invited to similar events in the future. Overall, I was pleased with how well we looked after ourselves.
The environment was filled with so many imaginative and creative people; it was amazing. The genuine definition of entrepreneurship is everyone getting together to network, teach, and learn from one another. I’ve acquired a lot of excellent new contacts, learned how to utilize LinkedIn effectively for networking purposes, and gained a lot of fresh insights and ideas on how to grow my business.
The most important thing that I learned was how to be at ease while meeting new people and, more significantly, how to be at ease with myself. Everyone is a little awkward, but most people respect those that are prepared to put themselves out there and are nice. I’ve also discovered that many of the finest public speakers at the conference, both now and in the past, have struggled with public speaking fear. It makes me feel better about addressing my issues with public speaking. Maybe it’s acceptable for me to experience anxiety if these renowned individuals do.
QUINCY BOX: The Blackstone Launchpad Fellowship has been very beneficial for me and my entrepreneurial path. I have been exposed to ideas and processes that I never knew existed. The conference is an example of something that I have not been exposed to before, so I experienced many things for the first time. I am an introverted person, but the conference pushed me to meet and talk to people from all around the world. When I spoke to them, lots of their business ideas were tackling huge problems that plague society today, such as access to affordable goods. I met so many great people at the conference and am very grateful to Blackstone for putting this together for us and allowing me to meet other entrepreneurs from all walks of life.
THOMAS BITTING: Having the privilege to be a member of the Blackstone Launchpad program was an amazing experience that has genuinely changed the course of my life. My business began as just a science experiment, but now it has the potential to become my career. The connections I have made and the things that I have experienced are things that will benefit me no matter what I choose to do during and after college. This program has opened my eyes to the many possibilities of what my life could really be!