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Empowering 150 HBCU Students at SXSW

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As our plane departed Atlanta for Austin, a single question nagged me: “How are we going to make the most of this for the students?” Our objective was to play a part in the HBCU@SXSW program, which aims to “diversify the innovation, entrepreneurship and investment ecosystem for all…by bringing the smartest and brightest minority college students to SXSW.” And to be completely honest with you, that felt like a daunting, crazy, ambitious thing—one I was excited about, for sure, but also anxious about as well.

Bringing 150 HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) students to one of the world’s largest conferences is a huge effort that requires precision, dedication, and vision. Thankfully, Atlanta’s Opportunity Hub, whose mission is to build inclusive innovation, entrepreneurship, and investment ecosystems for all, exhibited those characteristics and more to make a weekend that so many people will remember for a lifetime.

More than 1,000 students applied to be flown to Austin and immersed in a weekend of intense programming designed to prepare them for the transition from college life to full-time employment and/or entrepreneurship. The weekend offered networking opportunities for the students with some of the world’s most innovative tech companies, discussions with professionals and career coaches, and a surprise visit from Spike Lee. Mailchimp was one of several companies who, through Opportunity Hub, sponsored students to attend this life-changing weekend.

My colleagues and I started off our conference at Maggie Mae’s (the Opportunity Hub house for SXSW) where, in a room packed to its edges with students, we introduced Mailchimp as an Atlanta-founded marketing platform with a mission to empower the underdog.

We ditched the sales pitch altogether, instead sitting with the students and giving them insight into our personal struggles, ambitions, and successes. We shared stories that highlighted why small businesses were so important to Mailchimp. And we drew parallels between the struggles of those businesses and the students’ struggles as undervalued, underrepresented, and marginalized people.

All told, we’d spent 3 days at SXSW with the students. During this time, we shared with them our perspective on intentionality in career choice, persistence in ambitious pursuits, and hard work rooted in self, not competition. We shared stories of failure and insecurity, stories of triumph and wins. They, in turn, reinforced our hope for a much brighter future full of innovation and hope.

A couple of weeks after HBCU@SXSW, back in “the A,” my colleagues and I would visit the legendary HBCU, Morehouse College, at the invitation of some of the students. As we walked the campus, looked in awe at the amazing hall of portraits, avoided walking on their sacred lawn, and celebrated the advancements in their robotics lab, the story seemingly came full circle. I was once again wondering, “How are we going to make the most of this for the students?” More specifically, how do we continue to serve these folks in their journey? How do we continue to support them and their underdog stories?

For now, Mailchimp’s growing internship program will continue to give college students real world experience. And our partnership with HBCU@SXSW ensures that we’ll have further opportunities to leave a mark on HBCU students at SXSW. Finally, our continued support of local schools will help to make a distinct mark in our community.

If you’re a student looking for a career-shaping internship opportunity, or looking to work at a company that supports the community and invests in the next generation, head over to our jobs page! We’re always hiring, and we’d love to hear from you.

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